‘Talk to Joe’: The light, the shade and the dafter side of Liveline

Joe Duffy’s show is a transformative influence on Irish life. But every now and then, it dives ­­head-first into triviality and is all the better for it

Liveline's Joe Duffy. Photo by Mark Condren

Darragh McManus

The two faces of Liveline (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 1.45pm) were on display this week: two stories that demonstrated, with perfect clarity, what makes the show so powerful in some ways, so transformative in Irish life — and simultaneously so ridiculous.

On the one hand, Joe Duffy replayed interviews from, respectively, 2016 and 2018 with Jonathan Dowdall and Alex Hurley. The former you’ll recognise as the convicted criminal whose testimony was a central plank in the State’s case against Gerry Hutch, which ended in failure this week. The latter is the accountant whom Dowdall, and Dowdall’s father, tortured in 2015.

Hurley’s interview was genuinely disturbing in parts, even difficult to listen to, but of course worth playing. Dowdall’s, for me, came across as quite self-serving and slippery, the kind of interview where you’re not sure what to believe.

This is what we might call Serious Liveline: where the long-running talk-shop shines a clear, sometimes harsh light on the less savoury realities of modern Ireland. These aren’t always horrific, but it’ll be some class of Bad Thing (real or perceived) in general: recent episodes have debated, for example, job shortages, a ‘Dublin allowance’ for teachers, sexually explicit books aimed at kids, disability services, dangerous driving and — that deathless staple of the genre — Rip-off Ireland.

In this way, Liveline shapes the public discourse to a fair degree. We in media probably overstate our effect on the nation, but this programme, undeniably, can and does change things.

It’s become a kind of jokey shorthand, whenever one is being stonewalled by a company or arm of government: “Go on Liveline, they’ll have to listen then.” A marketing catchphrase, “Talk to Joe”, is now synonymous with “the failsafe route to take”: a guarantee of, if not necessarily success then at least attention for your cause.

So influential has Liveline become, indeed, that, as Duffy pointed out in his introduction to the Dowdall/Hurley diptych, the Dowdall tape was actually used during the Hutch trial.

Serious Liveline is, at a rough estimate, about 80pc of the show. The rest we’ll call Lighter Liveline: more lifestyle or magazine-type radio. This week, say, we heard a nice chat with Father Frank O’Grady, the Sligo priest who gave Joe Biden’s son the last rites some years ago and met Biden père on his visit. Other recent episodes included bits on the late Mary Quant, and even a tribute to Vincent van Gogh.

Then, every now and again, Liveline strays into the realms of... madness is probably too strong. Certainly daftness, though, absurdity, nonsense, silliness. Duffy sounded positively giddy as he declared: “Listeners are already piling in on this.”

What great affair of state was getting people riled up? A new director general at RTÉ, of course, challenges he faces, the demise of long-wave… and, as Joe said with a chuckle, the new Late Late presenter.

Tom suggested Imelda May as host. John called for the Late Late to be “jazzed up” with an X-Factor style contest to find Ryan Tubridy’s replacement. Noreen reckoned the show has never replaced Gaybo and should be retired. Someone referred to “your previous caller”.

Classic Liveline: daft, absurd…and great fun.