Thursday 23 May 2019

Irish radio needs more rebels like Ivan Yates to say what we think

The success of Ivan Yates at Newstalk proves there's an appetite out there for challenging the consensus, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Provocative: Ivan Yates has overtaken Pat Kenny as the most popular broadcaster on Newstalk. Photo: Mark Condren
Provocative: Ivan Yates has overtaken Pat Kenny as the most popular broadcaster on Newstalk. Photo: Mark Condren

Eilis O'Hanlon

Every single thing we do on the internet is logged, recorded, remembered for all time. That's why Facebook is able to amass such a mountain of data on its users and use it to make an obscene profit, last week's plunge in share prices notwithstanding.

Traditional media is different. It's impossible to know for certain how many people are listening to the radio at any given time, for example, or what programmes they might be tuning in to when they do. In order for that to happen, the signals from every wireless set in the country would need to be captured and measured. Government ministers would surely love to have that much power, but it probably wouldn't be a practical use of resources even if they did.

The only way to tell what people are listening to on the radio is to ask them, and to trust the answers that they give as a reliable source of data. That's why name recognition matters so much.

Someone might remember catching snatches of Joe Duffy and Marian Finucane on a particular day, and forget entirely that they listened to a less familiar broadcaster, even if they actually spent more time tuned in to the latter than the former.

For that reason alone, the Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) published every few months must be taken with a pinch of salt. It deals in ballpark approximations, not authoritative proof.

Another reason for caution is that the numbers are based on population estimates, with each person who claims to have heard a particular show being multiplied many times over in order to arrive at an overall figure. Estimates for the number of people living in Ireland have gone up of late, so it's no surprise that the latest survey of radio listenership for the 12-month period up to the end of June shows sharp increases in audiences for almost every show and almost every station being counted.

It doesn't mean that 21,000 more people really are listening to RTE's News At One since the last survey, or that an extra 30,000 listeners are tuning in to Sunday Miscellany, merely that the aggregates have been adjusted to more closely match the new statistics.

Nonetheless, while it's true that establishing audience figures is an inexact science at best, it is possible to get a broad sense of how different programmes and broadcasters are performing in relation to one another, making the news that Ivan Yates has overtaken Pat Kenny as the most popular broadcaster on Newstalk for the first time ever a significant milestone in the Dublin-based station's development.

The onetime Late Late Show host was lured from RTE with a large pay cheque and the promise of a high- profile advertising campaign urging listeners to "move the dial" from RTE Radio One, but the hoped-for mass audience never quite materialised. Breaking down the resistance to change of the national broadcaster's conservative older audience proved harder than anticipated.

Pat Kenny quickly established himself in the morning slot, and even now he's clocking up his largest ever audience, but he never looked like challenging his replacement, Sean O'Rourke, and, in retrospect, it was probably fanciful to expect that he would.

He's remained top dog at Newstalk ever since his arrival. Even the larger-than-life George Hook didn't manage to knock Pat Kenny off that perch. It's taken the arrival of Ivan Yates in the drivetime slot to snatch the daytime king's crown. His Hard Shoulder show now has 153,000 listeners each day, up 8,000 since the last JNLR report, and up 23,000 since this time last year, before the new show started.

That's 1,000 ahead of The Pat Kenny Show, which might only represent a single listener in the survey's mathematical model; but as Ivan would no doubt tell anyone minded to quibble, it all counts.

More interesting is analysing why Ivan Yates has now earned those bragging rights of being Newstalk's foremost broadcaster. The simplest reason has to be that he just sounds different from everybody else on prime time radio. Pat Kenny is a solid, reliable broadcaster, but he hasn't surprised anyone in quite a while.

The former Fine Gael minister cannot afford any such complacency. He's not a particularly controversial broadcaster; he's certainly not some "shock jock" who courts dissension for its own sake. Since George Hook was suspended for some ill-judged comments about rape, Yates has also not escaped the understandable tendency to play it safer than he might like.

No broadcaster, no matter how high profile, can be protected these days from a self-righteous mob in full throttle, so it's best not to push the boundaries too far.

He can even be drearily politically correct when it suits him, as when he said of the one constituency in the entire country to vote No to the Eighth Amendment referendum: "Not impressed am I with the people of Donegal."

Is it really so terrible that not every single part of the country feels and think exactly the same way?

Referring to Conor McGregor live on air last Thursday as a "tw*t" was also needlessly vulgar.

But Yates is a unique voice, and as such is able to say things that others cannot or won't. He has been critical of the "slavishly europhile" Irish government's determination to be "the best Germans in the class" when it comes to Europe, insisting instead that the Irish and British should strike a "special deal" over Brexit based on mutual interest rather than relying on the EU to do right by us.

He's equally scathing about the "new politics" of Ireland, as embodied in the confidence and supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

And while some of his interventions on Northern Ireland can be crass, such as when he put on a dreadful Ulster accent recently to mock a Protestant woman on Belfast's Shankill Road who declared that she wanted nothing to do with the Republic, while proudly trumpeting his own dislike of "Nordies", at least he can't be accused of echoing the dull, box-ticking consensus. Ivan's willingness to acknowledge and laugh at his own limitations, as when he admitted on air that "I'm a blagger and a bluffer and a chancer", also minimises any risk of pomposity creeping in.

It's a performance, of course. Ivan never loses sight of the fact that there are listeners out there, and that they have a right to expect to be entertained as well as challenged and informed.

There's calculation behind his mischief, but there's no sin in that. It's not done merely for effect. He means what he says.

He once described himself as the "rebel in the room". In truth, that epithet flatters him a little. He's grown skilled at appearing to be more bluff and plain-speaking than perhaps he really is, but in a competitive marketplace he shouldn't be faulted for courting a certain no nonsense image while carefully keeping himself on the right side of provocation. He has a living to make. All that can be demanded of him is that he is unique within the parameters of the current, somewhat timid media climate, and he definitely is that.

Yates shrewdly summed up his own appeal as he prepared to start on TV3's Tonight Show last autumn alongside fellow drive-time presenter, Today FM's Matt Cooper. "Matt is what it says on the tin," he explained. "He brings professionalism, journalism, his experience as a national editor; he will say 'these are the angles'. Whereas, for me, my role is a lot more disruptive, provocative, it's full of punditry, it is to attribute motives, and it just allows me to be more terrorist about it all." He went on: "I am also very comfortable having opinions that swim against the tsunami of groupthink."

That allows him to say what the viewers and listeners are secretly thinking, rather than what the chattering classes in political, media and academic circles would rather they thought. His opinions may irritate a vocal minority, but the silent majority respects someone who's willing to challenge unanimity rather than hide behind it.

That's what Eamon Dunphy instinctively understands as well. Last week, he quit RTE after 40 years as a football pundit, dismayed at the growing reluctance of the station to say anything risky or slay any sacred cows.

In the short term, that may avoid trouble. In the long term, it makes for exceedingly dull programmes. That Ivan Yates has now overtaken Pat Kenny as Newstalk's top dog proves that there's still an appetite out there for thought-provoking conversation. There's hope yet.

Sunday Independent

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