Tuesday 28 March 2017

Radio review: Taking time out to talk about the arts

Eilis O'Hanlon

Everyone is replaceable. That's what they say. It's not really true, though, is it? Take Andy O'Mahony, who presided over RTE's books coverage on shows such as Dialogue and Off The Shelf. He finally stepped down in 2013, but there's still a gap in Irish radio for the longer profiles and interviews in which he specialised.

Nowadays, with the exception of Arts Tonight, sadly missed after ending its run before Christmas, cultural subjects tend to be handled in more middlebrow, magazine-style formats such as Arena and The Books Show, itself now coming up to its first anniversary off air, with no indication of when it might come back. They're agreeable, but offer snippets rather than extended critiques.

Talking History and Talking Books on Newstalk at least make an effort to fill the gap. The first, presented by Dr Patrick Geoghegan of Trinity College, echoes BBC's Radio Four In Our Time in assembling a panel of academics to talk about their specialised fields of study.

Last Sunday, the subject was 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Unlike the BBC's Melvyn Bragg, Geoghegan is not a natural broadcaster, and he's certainly much less combative than his British counterpart, who really puts his esteemed guests through their paces; but he covered a lot of ground in his hour-long evaluation of the Leviathan author's ideas about social contract and the need for strong leadership.

Susan Cahill has less time to hang about on Talking Books, but devoting half an hour to one author talking about his or her book still feels pleasingly extravagant in an age when the alternative is a perfunctory 10-minute chat on daytime radio. Her latest guest was Paul Roberts, author of alarmist polemics such as The End Of Oil, whose new book basically argues that we're all going to hell in a handcart because we spend too much time on our own, immersed in our smartphones, pursuing short-term gratification, rather than "engaging meaningfully with the broader community". A society, Roberts claims, "cannot last long" like that.

It was a stimulating discussion, but Cahill probably does need to challenge her authors more forcefully to back up some of their tendentious statements.

The internet is not the inevitable enemy of community, after all; it can also create a wider community than ever previously imaginable. On RTE's always engaging Countrywide, Brenda Donohue visited a couple farming 12 acres of fairly poor land near Bantry in Co Cork, who supplement their income by uploading videos of their life on YouTube, under such titles as "How To Make A Homemade Forge From An Old Gas Bottle" and "How To Make A Fox Trap From A Shopping Trolley".

The English-Welsh-Irishman (it's complicated) and his German wife were friendly, funny people, who happily describe themselves as "blow-ins" because, as they put it cheerfully, aren't we all?

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