NO matter how often it happens, it still surprises me. I am listening to the third hour of Off the Ball on Newstalk, with Eoin McDevitt and Ken Early talking about football, when I hear the music.
It's been playing in the background all the time, but because I am concentrating deeply on the fine talk, it hasn't registered with me. Now I realise it's there, this strange rambling jazz-rock music playing in the background as Ken makes some urbane observation about the state of the game.
Apparently it is by Herbie Hancock, this magic mushroom music. And it mightn't work for a lot of the hearty lads who work in sports broadcasting, but it seems to work for the Off the Ball crew.
Perhaps it grew out of some insecurity, a sense that you couldn't just have a couple of men talking about football for an hour without something else going on to divert the listener, who had perhaps already listened to two hours of men talking about football and other sports. Or maybe they felt, with some justification, that no-one was listening anyway, so they might as well throw in a bit of the old Herbie Hancock for their own reasons.
Now, seven years later, there's a lot of listeners to Off the Ball, many of them fiercely committed to the show, and Ken's background music is one of those small things that makes a difference.
But mostly, the things that make a difference are not small things. They include things like high intelligence and sound instincts and that incessant urge to get things right, thus connecting with the best qualities of men.
And as we know, perhaps the best of the best of these qualities is that ability of men to express their feelings. Not just their passing whims or their mood changes, but their deepest feelings, their innate understanding of what really matters in this world -- a hard thing to define, for sure, but let us broadly call it The Truth.
For three hours every night from Monday to Friday, you can now hear men on the radio engaged in this ancient pursuit of theirs, their ceaseless quest for this most elusive of all prizes, The Truth.
They find it through their love of sport, which is often disparaged, but which, of course, is a thing to be celebrated. They find it there, because it tends to be at its purest there.
Be it the truth about who did what to whom in some hurling match or just the plain truth as reflected in the final placings of a golf tournament, we see here a large and thriving community of men who have access to their feelings, and who are able to articulate them in the most sophisticated way.
Not for them the simplistic expression of their feelings which are constantly being sought by media quacks and by the stop-relaxing brigade in general . . . I feel happy . . . I feel sad . . . I have needs and wants and desires . . . what's all that about?
Men are far too articulate about their feelings to be indulging in that sort of boring sentimentality. Instead they are able to make highly-nuanced connections between the reality of the situation in which they live, and a more abstract dimension, between the uniquely personal turbulence of their inner lives and the great events which affect us all -- most of which are obviously sporting events.
And in touching the hearts of men, Off the Ball has blasted away the notion that nobody deliberately listens to the radio in the evenings. As such it has become something of a phenomenon, a programme to which men are turning in large numbers to get what they can't get anywhere else in this increasingly brainless society; to feel part of something greater than themselves, and certainly greater than what RTE has been offering in this line.
Predictably, having failed for generations to persuade any sane person to listen to the radio in the evenings, RTE latest effort is . . . a sports show. A bit like Off the Ball, except not good. A bit irreverent and all that, but not really.
And equally predictably, its main achievement has been to emphasise the authenticity of Off the Ball.
The Newstalk show did not emerge from a need to copy something better than itself on another station. Like most things that are any good, for a while it must have seemed quite mad -- three hours of lads talking about sport into the void.
In fact, in these fearful times, when most programmes -- most stations indeed -- are just a copy of something that wasn't very original in the first place, perhaps it is only the mad ideas that stand a chance of being any good.
But Off the Ball isn't just a success on account of the institutionalised badness of all the others, there are more powerful forces at work here.
Ken Early is probably the best broadcaster in Ireland right now, exceptionally bright and effortlessly articulate. Ken, you can tell, has read books.
His partnership with Eoin McDevitt is like some flawless routine perfected over 20 years in vaudeville, except, of course, they're not some hardened double-act, most nights they're improvising.
Other contributors include Murph, a country lad who thinks he is funny, but that's OK, because he is actually funny. And Ger Gilroy is back in the right place after finding that compared to sport, "current affairs" is simply inadequate for any serious-minded person.
Every night now it is a celebration of powerful feelings tempered by reasoned argument, of a remarkable sense of commitment on the part of all concerned, and of emotional intelligence in general.
It makes you proud to belong to a gender that can make such a good thing.