It's a long way from old pro Gay to cliched Ray
There's not much point poaching a man from your rival if you don't know what to do with him
Having Gay Byrne as the first major guest was an intriguing statement of intent as Ray D'Arcy returned to the airwaves last week after unexpectedly dumping Today FM and getting back with his ex.
Anton Savage's first big interview, when he took over two weeks ago from D'Arcy, was actor Kevin Spacey. How do you like them apples, RTE? Donnybrook sniffed disdainfully and put in a call to the godfather of Irish broadcasting instead. Who needs the cream of Hollywood when you have the king of Howth?
This must be what it's like for a young mafioso when he finds out he's become a made man. Last Thursday, Larry Gogan turned up too, another legend. It was as if D'Arcy was being welcomed back into the fold after his flirtation with the enemy. All sins forgiven.
Possibly even a sense that he was being pushed as RTE's new emperor in waiting. Or is that reading too much into it?
It would be weird if that was what was going on, because things haven't turned out so well for RTE's last Next Big Thing. Tubridy, where are you now? Ryan has the Late Late, sure, but on radio he's down the pecking order these days. It remains to be seen if Ray D'Arcy can avoid the same fate.
His first week back on air was a true curate's egg, and he was oddly apprehensive at times, like a novice keen not to make a mistake. Pat Kenny switched to Newstalk and instantly eased into his familiar role. The Ray D'Arcy Show sounds as if the producers are trying out a number of different shows, to see which one fits, which one works.
Monday was Gaybo time. Anyone who shares a microphone with the master knows that he's going to be upstaged. Ray didn't fight the inevitable. You just let the man talk. Paul Howard, likewise. There was a less thrilling item about giving up smoking, which felt like filler, and resorting to filler on your first day isn't a great sign, but we'll let it pass.
Tuesday's show had a strong line-up too. Emma Donoghue was on the line from Canada to talk about the film of her book Room; and investigative journalist John Sweeney came in to discuss Scientology. There was also Michael Harding, who mused in his characteristically idiosyncratic way about the arrival of spring and his upcoming performance as Bull McCabe in John B Keane's The Field.
Wednesday saw a much bittier show, featuring an interview with 24-year-old Tara from Cork who was filmed going to England for a termination for a new BBC documentary Abortion: An Irish Story; juxtaposed surreally with a chat with one-time Irish Eurovision hopeful Donna McCaul about her audition for The Voice US.
Thursday was the most fragmented of all. As well as Larry Gogan, there were items on "poop banks", which collect human faeces for use in the treatment of digestive tract illnesses, as well as the decision by a cinema in Co Donegal not to show Fifty Shades Of Grey. On Friday, Richard Boyd Barrett described his own experience as a parent dealing with fatal foetal abnormality, and then there was an ominous "Funny Friday" feel to proceedings as Ray eased into the weekend with some comedy-related chat.
There was nothing wrong with any of these pieces as such, but, taken together, it felt like a show with an identity crisis, and no wonder. Before Ray came along, this was a slot that was filled by Derek Mooney and Marty Morrissey, both amenable fellows, but hardly heavy hitters.
These are traditionally Radio 1's nice hours. The safe space between Liveline and the evening news. There's no room here for conflict, controversy or complexity. The talk has to be like the music: bland, comforting. D'Arcy would surely hate to see himself in that mould, but that's where he is.
It could be that RTE wants to shake up the pattern, but it's ultimately up to listeners whether they want to accept the change or not, and RTE's afternoon audience has never given the impression of wanting to get stuck in to discussions about abortion and Scientology. Furthermore, if that is indeed RTE's intention, then there's no point going about it in a half-hearted way.
Tara was grounded and practical as she spoke about her decision to have an abortion, and notably generous towards those who oppose the procedure on moral grounds; but the interview itself was a lacklustre affair, considering the enormity of the topic. Ray had nothing to offer but cliches: "There's a huge number of women in this country, some of them listening now, who have done what you did."
He was equally eager to establish his own liberal credentials, rather than exploring the issue in depth, when asking Emma Donoghue about same-sex marriage in light of her own life bringing up children with her female partner.
Ray put it to her that "some people" would say it's wrong to bring up a child without a father, but he said it almost apologetically, as if the whole argument was inherently ridiculous. Again, she answered well, but if you're going to ask a question, just ask it, don't tiptoe around it as if it's an unexploded grenade. Either tackle the hard stuff or don't.
The odd thing about D'Arcy is that, for a man who makes his living by talking, he doesn't really seem to have that much to say. Having him up against Michael Harding exposed the difference. Harding brings experience, wit, wisdom, and some great stories, like the one about his mother not speaking to him for six months because "she thought I shrunk the TV on her". The producers should have him on regularly, because a show can be defined by its guests as much as by its presenter - think how much right-wing US pundit Michael Graham's contributions to The Right Hook help set it apart from the competition - and D'Arcy needs people with a hinterland to counterbalance his more tabloid weaknesses. He has a tendency to opt for laddishness as his default setting. He kept giggling throughout the item on the medical use of what he called, with schoolboy pleasure, "human shite". He also referred to micro-organisms that live in the gut as "these little feckers inside us". Not very Radio 1.
RTE may be looking for something new, but what is it getting from Ray, apart from, it must hope, a loyal audience to follow him from Today FM? Gaybo has a unique world view that informs every word he utters. Pat Kenny, to a degree which is often parodied, is fiercely well-researched and determined to show it.
D'Arcy has… what? Great likeability, certainly. That aside, it's hard to define what exactly he does as a broadcaster that couldn't be done, or isn't already being done, by others far less well-paid.
RTE just feels like a less interesting place than it once did. Back in the day, Radio 1 listeners were spoiled by the line-up. Gay Byrne followed Morning Ireland. Then it was Pat Kenny. In the afternoon, Marian Finucane was on Liveline. Now they're all gone from the daytime schedule. Instead there's John Murray, Sean O'Rourke, Joe Duffy and, the latest, Ray D'Arcy.
The balance of talent, if not yet power, has shifted to Newstalk. It's hard to deny that Ivan Yates, Chris Donoghue, Pat Kenny and Jonathan Healy make a much more formidable line-up. Listeners could stay tuned to them all morning and not feel they were missing anything on the other side. They don't pay a cent for it either, whereas RTE is still entitled to pocket €160 a year from every household in the country. It needs to justify its decisions to a much higher degree than a private station.
If public service broadcasting means anything, it must lie in providing a space that the commercial sector cannot fill, rather than merely replicating its products and passing them off as your own.
RTE needs to decide what it wants its returning hero to be. Poaching him back from the rivals, just because you can, isn't enough if you don't know what to do with him afterwards. Ray D'Arcy should beware that he doesn't become another square peg in a broadcasting round hole.