Monday 23 October 2017

Radio bean-counters switched off to diamond in their midst

Eoin McDevitt, one of the 'Off the Ball' team who resigned
Eoin McDevitt, one of the 'Off the Ball' team who resigned

Dion Fanning

Just after 6.0pm last Monday, the George Hook show on Newstalk did a feature on teeth-whitening.

As pieces on teeth-whitening go, it was illuminating. There were many things I didn't know about the frankly shocking number of unregulated operators working in the teeth-whitening business who are breaching safety regulations.

Yet for those of us who had been shaken by the news earlier in the day that Off The Ball as we know it had ended suddenly, there was a reflex response: was it for this that Newstalk had sacrificed the best show ever produced by the station and the finest sports programme on the planet?

As the teeth-whitening item broadened out into a general discussion about various cosmetic procedures, I began to consider something else. A discussion about botox, fillers and threads might help "grow females", as those guided by numbers would put it, especially when they consider that the alternative in that time slot could be a debate on, say, the role of the target man in Irish football.

But then I remembered the recent Off The Ball where Richie Sadlier was in the studio to give his expertise in this precise field – target men, not botox – while also looking forward to Ireland's game against Poland.

Instead of dealing with these topics directly, Sadlier, Eoin McDevitt and Ken Early produced a spectacular 25 minutes of radio on the subject of Richie's dog, Frank Sadlier. As they talked about poor old Frank and moved on to a deeper meditation on ageing, loss and Frank's constipation, the listener entered a state of sublime serenity.

This was magical broadcasting, dealing with universal themes while also providing the perfect preview of a match nobody wanted to talk about by not talking about it. In some ways, this was how Danny Baker's 6-0-6 worked before it was hijacked by the reductive forces which thought the public wanted a show where they could complain about the amount of injury-time added at Upton Park that day.

In the Frank Sadlier item and many, many others on Off The Ball we might have only glimpsed the possibilities for Early, McDevitt, Simon Hick, Ciarán Murphy and Mark Horgan.

On Monday, as the teeth-whitening debate got real, I thought I would like to hear Ken Early talk about teeth-whitening and other cosmetic procedures. As the arguments raged, it became clear that Newstalk had made a monumental error by insisting the proposal put forward by the Off The Ball team couldn't work instead of saying: we must do everything to make this work.

The reductive forces are everywhere, fearfully demanding that when we talk about sport we talk only of sport and when we are in prime time we make sure we don't talk too much about sport. Off The Ball understood that you are never only talking about sport and on those rare occasions when you are, there's nothing trivial about it.

Some of the reports portrayed Off The Ball as wild and crazy men with no understanding of how the world worked, determined to destroy everything for the sake of their arrogant dreams. They were Fitzcarraldo trying to take their ship over the mountain that was the JNLR figures.

Soon they were being attacked by an army of hacks who performed their traditional role of comforting the comfortable.

"They weren't as good as they thought they were" went one bogus argument. In fact, I've always felt Off The Ball was driven by the deep neurosis that they weren't good enough which, naturally, propelled them towards brilliance. They were Burt Bacharach doing 32 takes of Alfie in search of that "little bit of magic".

They had ambition and they may have believed they were better than management thought they were.

An example of their supposed arrogance was the line slipped in to one report that they eventually wanted to start at 5.0pm not 6.0pm.

This line may have been designed to reveal their impossible demands but, in fact, it allowed us to glimpse the extraordinary potential Newstalk has lost, the pearl they threw away richer than all their tribe.

Maybe you couldn't have a sports show beginning at 5.0 on the radio but I don't think that's what it would have become. If you believed these five men were preternaturally gifted then it would have become something else, something capable of growing females and males simultaneously as they riffed about teeth-whitening, movies and Seanad reform, all areas I think they would make interesting or, at least, more interesting. Maybe you would have created a show that would have been like nothing else on Irish radio and which would have destroyed Newstalk's competition for a generation.

People highlighted Hook's 133,000 listeners and laughed at Off The Ball's temerity for thinking they could move into that slot with a mere 40,000, most of them young men who apparently don't count, no matter how devoted they are.

Their plan was not to take an hour from George Hook who has been harshly cast as the villain. Their proposal would have moved Hook's show an hour earlier. In other words, teeth-whitening with George Hook was ring-fenced, going forward.

What these reports didn't bother to look at were the figures Off The Ball had at, say, 7.15 compared to Hook at 6.30. They also failed to point out that there is an accepted truth in radio that at 7.0pm people stop listening. Off The Ball defied this truth.

In fact, Off The Ball was so good that I frequently turned off the TV to listen to them, something which went against everything I've considered normal since about the age of four.

I wasn't alone. Across Ireland, men and women performed this unnatural act, this violation of all known patterns in radio listenership, and chose to turn on their radios and switch off their televisions at 7.0pm. If the Off The Ball team could get people to do this, they are capable of anything.

Irish Independent

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