Saturday, June 16, 2007

Radio Nation

A remark today from a friend about having to do an essay on broadcasting prompted me to some recollection about the evolution of Radio Eireann to Radio One from the time I was a young listener.

She is too young to remember, for instance, that Radio Eireann until 1968 used to close down in the morning after the nine o'clock news and there was dead air until five to one when the weather forecast presaged the news and then a lunchtime of sponsored programmes. The station then closed again at two-thirty until five o'clock.

There was no Gay Byrne Hour, no Liveline. No Derek Mooney Show. And nothing like them. Just nothing, like the universe before the Big Bang.

liamnolan.jpgIndeed, it wasn't until the Liam Nolan Hour arrived on the airwaves that there was something to listen to in the mid-mornings. That programme -- which actually became an hour and a half long -- was the first which was titled by the name of its presenter. A change which eventually allowed people like Gay Byrne and many others to become celebrity presenters.

Names we still listen to today came from that mid-morning slot, including Rodney Rice and John Bowman. Marian Finucane also began her radio career in that era with a programme called Women Today, a first in Irish broadcasting to have a programme devoted to women and women's issues. It subsequently morphed into Liveline, which Marian developed and maintained as her own until jumping ship back to morning radio in 1999. Now, of course, she is a weekend mainstay and, along with Rodney Rice, is possibly the longest serving current affairs broadcaster still working on RTE.

It is worth considering a particular aspect of radio which developed alongside these changes. Public access to the airwaves.

Until named radio presenters began pushing issues which were related to listeners' lives, the only direct interaction with the public was in the form of written requests for some music programmes, such as Hospitals Requests. There was also a programme based on readers' letters, Dear Sir or Madam. It was relatively harmless, consisting mainly of listeners' impressions about particular programmes.

But the Liam Nolan Hour and its successors discussed subjects which prompted responses from listeners of much more thoughtful content. True, the writers had to wait until the following day to hear their views broadcast, but their efforts did add a reactive dimension beyond the Letters to the Editor in the national papers.

Subsequently it became possible to get a telephone message directly to the presenter while on air, which added a whole new element of immediacy to the thing. When the Gay Byrne Hour arrived and a brash new presenter with an innovative production team got into their act, they made the most of this.

And when Women Today became Liveline, where callers became the real presenters, Ireland truly had arrived at being a radio nation talking to itself.

Of course, it was only a partial nation, and predominantly a middle class one, as taking part required access to a telephone, and that was still not a given in a large proportion of homes. It also required having the time to make the calls, and this was not a period when employers would feel positive about their people making calls to a radio station from the workplace.

Gradually both the technology and the attitudes shifted. Phones effectively arrived in almost every home. And even employers were often happy to allow their workers to call Liveline from their desks once they got the free plug of their business name on the airways.

Live phone calls on air have caused their problems to the broadcasters. The legal remedies to defamation have been eagerly employed following slanderous words written on the wind, whether inadvertantly or otherwise. The recent absence for a few days of Joe Duffy was because he had to appear in the High Court due to a case taken by somebody mentioned by a caller. As it happened, it was also an expensive few days for the station.

Today the mobile communications revolution means that even young children have personal phones, and direct audience response to anything said on air can be instant and often explosive.

It is a time when nobody speaking on radio can expect to be able to leave the studio before knowing just what the people listening feel about their views.

For a presenter, who has a screen on which the comments are coming in real time, it makes it really easy to ask the questions which the country is asking.

And the person who has elicited those comments must find it increasingly difficult to waffle his or her way out of their preferred position, if it is so shown to be tenuous.

More than any other medium, radio today has become the forum for true democracy. And though there are challengers for the title in new media areas such as the blogosphere of the internet, it will likely long remain the main battleground for the common people trying to have their say.

It is also in my view, the better medium against television. Because, as a little listener is said to have once replied when asked to express her preference, 'it has better pictures'.

meandthepapers.jpgIn a tiny way, I made my own difference to Irish radio when I joined RTE for a decade at the beginning of the eighties.

As a young listener hearing It Says in the Papers being an exact recorded copy after the eight o'clock and nine o'clock news, I'd be annoyed for some odd reason.

At the time I never dreamed that twenty years later I'd actually be a writer/presenter of that small but very popular slot. When I did, though, I insisted that I would broadcast both slots live, and I made it a habit to change the script in a number of ways between the two broadcasts.

Listeners liked that, and said it, and for many years after I stopped doing it in 1991, it was suggested to the other presenters that at least the ending should be different each time.

Small victories are often the sweetest.


john said...

fascinating story-whatever happened to Liam Nolan?

john said...

fascinating story-whatever happened to Liam Nolan. I remeber him when I was young lad in Hong Kong and he was a young Army officer

Mariseo said...

Liam is alive and well and living in the west, where he is still writing books.