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Radio must think outside box

THE headline on Thursday's News-talk was that David Norris was canvassing support for a resumption of his presidential campaign but would only formally announce his candidacy on "a television show tomorrow night".

There was something magisterial about that dismissive epithet "a television show", considering what was being referred to is one of Ireland's most famous and longest running programmes -- albeit one that most viewers seem perfectly able to manage without in its current lacklustre incarnation.

Why should Newstalk give free publicity to its rivals? In a few short years, the Dublin-based station has easily established itself as more than an equal to the establishment forerunner, despite a massive divergence in budgets. It has done it by nurturing unexpected talent. Who'd have thought that George Hook would become the scion of drivetime radio? Yet it's hard to imagine early evenings now without the gruff granddaddy of Irish broadcasting finding something new to grumble about.

Similarly the days when the only thing to listen to in the car on the school run or on the way to work was Morning Ireland are long gone. Sometimes a remnant of dutifulness draws me in, but I invariably regret it afterwards. Otherwise I generally check out Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue over on Newstalk's Breakfast, another of the surprise packages which the station, by luck or judgement, unearthed on our behalf.

I'm pretty sure that most of the consultants and experts beloved of RTE would never have zoned in on a former Fine Gael agriculture minister turned bookmaking entrepreneur as a potential star of daytime radio, because that would have involved thinking outside the proverbial box marked "The Way Things Are Done In The Irish Media".

What's refreshing about Yates is that he's himself. Listeners can tell that here's a man who's followed his own path and lived a real life outside the political and media bubble. He had a promising career in the Dail, might have been leader of his party, even Taoiseach if he'd hung around, but he chose to walk away and go into business, only to see Celtic Bookmakers subsequently go belly up (a fact omitted from his bio on the Newstalk website, but we'll forgive it that little oversight). He then got up, took responsibility, dusted himself down, and got on with the job of starting over. That gives him a certain authority to speak out when it comes to the marked difference between the challenges facing private business in Ireland and the bloated and protected public sector, a subject which RTE still shies away from in fear.

It's a life experience to which ordinary people can relate much more than that of the army of civil service-style presenters over on RTE who, decade after decade, sound as

if they've vaguely heard of a world outside the studio but can't quite bring themselves to believe that it's true. These people never take risks. They're institutionally inoculated against innovation. They always sound as if they're glancing furtively over their shoulders at colleagues for approval, hoping they've hit the right buttons with each other rather than with the listening public. By finding people from outside the politically correct goldfish bowl, Newstalk has bypassed that stultifying culture altogether. Ivan Yates isn't sitting there, pretending that he doesn't have a point of view, like some tedious "on the one hand, on the other hand" merchant, not least because he knows that kind of act fools no one.

Mr Magoo could see right through some of the smug liberal conformists on RTE, for all the show they make of impartiality. Take the recent discussion on demands for positive discrimination in politics, which ranged much more widely than would have been possible on RTE, where the sound of boxes being ticked would have been deafening.

Yates is confident enough in his own skin to appreciate the value of humour too, which makes getting out of bed in the morning a less onerous business for everyone. Earnestness is bad enough at the best of times. Over breakfast, it's unbearable.

Yates isn't afraid either to open the airwaves to voices otherwise excluded from the Irish airwaves, such as former senator Eoghan Harris, who was invited on to Tuesday's show after objecting to Ivan's stated belief the day before that David Norris would be unable to get the requisite signatures to make another run for the Aras.

Harris's view was that this kind of Dailcentric number-crunching is for losers, and that the real meat of politics is in the ideas being advanced.

Norris, he declared, was "being kept off the ballot by the political class", which was "nice and snugly set up", and whose only interest was in "keeping out the most dangerous candidate". Harris's message to them was equally simple: "Stop being such cowards."

Now, I have some qualms about David Norris as President, for all his undoubted qualities; but Yates was right to let Harris make his case because, well, it just made for great, lively, watercooler radio; it was like an aural kick up the backside to start the day, or a bucket of cold water on the head of complacency; it gave voice to an important disquiet about what democracy means if the candidate who has consistently attracted the greatest support from the Irish people can be excluded by some procedural flim flam.

That's what radio is supposed to do. Its strength is that it's open and fast and interactive. But you just know that if Harris had tried to say on RTE half of what he said on Newstalk, there would have been consternation and panic in the studio. Which is why RTE never takes the risk, and prefers the safe option of number-crunching instead. Silence and consensus are preferable to noise and diversity. It will be the ultimate casualty, as the core RTE audience gets older and those in search of energetic discourse increasingly head elsewhere for intellectual stimulus. Radio's role is nothing if not to generate debate. Ivan Yates knows it. So does George Hook. RTE is still a station which thinks Ryan Tubridy is the voice of youth.

Enough said.

Sunday Independent