Saturday 17 March 2018

Radio - Imagine that: civilised debate on radio is possible

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

I sort of stumbled upon Imagining Home (Radio 1, Sat-Sun 8pm), but was very glad I had. There I was, the first of those nights, doing something else entirely - pretending to understand Ulysses, I think - with the radio on low in the background.

Gradually, my ears picked up on the sounds emanating from the hi-fi. Said ears began to ferry said sounds to my Joyce-addled brain. Said brain belatedly realised it was coming in contact with something quite special. Eventually I gave Leopold Bloom the bum's rush to fully concentrate on the show.

Imagining Home is organised by, and broadcast live from, the National Concert Hall - a series of seven concerts (these were the final two) inspired by the Rising and Proclamation, which "speak of Ireland's cultural journey over the last 100 years, its place in the world today and its shared future".

I know - it sounds boring, worthy, self-important. All those aspirational, wishy-washy buzzwords: speak of, cultural journey, place in the world, shared future, as though someone had set one of those indescribably dull Irish Times columns (not Donald Clarke, he's good craic) to music. Not to mention the warning sirens of "Oh God, not more 1916!"

Thankfully I consumed the product before reading the bumpf, and it wasn't like that at all. It was great: a group of really talented people, performing for our pleasure and theirs. Everyone sounded like they were enjoying themselves.

A mixture of music and spoken word - and sometimes radical reinterpretations of material - the show featured brilliant artists (some unknown to me) like Judith Mok, Lisa O'Neill and Colm Mac Con Iomaire. I made sure to tune in the following night too: Olwen Fouéré, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Iarla Ó Lionaird and more.

I didn't love every minute or each act, but this was super: by turns moving, dreamy, inspirational, playful and thrilling. I even enjoyed the "half-time analysis" by Jim(s) Lockhart and Carroll.

Bobby Kerr, filling in on The Right Hook (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 4.30pm), hosted a very good, lengthy discussion on rural Ireland. Is it being left to wither on the vine by a Dublin-centric economic and political system? Most interesting was a debate between Dan O'Brien, chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs (and of this paper), and Independent Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice.

Dan opened by clarifying that he wasn't anti-rural Ireland, but "challenging the notion that rural Ireland is dying". He didn't like "emotive expressions" that the recovery isn't going past the M50.

"In all available statistics," he said, "income, house sales, car sales: there's not much difference between rural and urban (and) no strong data evidence to suggest rural Ireland is not recovering as well."

Also, a new poll showed no urban/rural difference in whether people feel they're better or worse off now. He concluded that, while in favour of the welfare state, social solidarity and the redistribution of wealth from urban to rural: "We need to make a strong case for it, based on the facts."

Michael spoke more in generalities (which is fair enough - I don't mean that as a negative). In his experience, farmer incomes are way down, there's little public transport in rural Ireland, broadband is poor, people must undergo long and potentially life-threatening drives to hospital. The two men agreed, meanwhile, that some parts of both rural and urban Ireland are very neglected.

A civilised discussion, overall, two opposing viewpoints presented with strong commitment but also respect for the other side and an acknowledgment that these things are complicated. If only all radio debate could be so.

To end, a bow of the head to mark the imminent passing of TXFM. The Dublin-based alternative rock station has been struggling financially for a few years; restructuring and rebranding (from its original Phantom FM incarnation) haven't worked; now its owners will not reapply for the broadcasting license once it expires this autumn.

Sad news, really. Music radio is more homogenised than ever (though this has always been the way to some extent, certainly as long as I remember), and TXFM at least offered something different. That still can be found on individual shows, but no longer station-wide.

I've always had a soft spot for them, possibly because they were kind enough (as Phantom) to interview me when my first book came out in 2007. When you're as far down the literary ladder as I am - fallen off it, essentially - you appreciate these things. But not enough people had that soft spot, I guess; listenership figures don't lie, and are inescapable.

It's funny, really: whenever a business goes bust, social media is flooded with fond regrets and "oh what a shame" and so on. Forgetting, of course, that after-the-fact expressions of solidarity or regret are useless; people have to support a business for it to survive, in this case by tuning in. TX should have marked the spot on their dial.

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