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Feeling unwanted by RTÉ, Joe Duffy shows his value with a heartbreaking programme

Radio: When on form he is unparalleled at drawing out personal stories that illuminate wider truth

Given the ongoing fallout over generous redundancy packages awarded to senior RTÉ executives, you might think the prospect of one of network’s biggest earners exiting without seeking further compensation is a positive development. But far from being good news, reports that Joe Duffy has yet to seek an extension to his contract as host of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) have callers quailing at the notion of him leaving. “I certainly hope you’re going bloody nowhere,” one outraged guest, Vivienne, says, joining other callers in urging Duffy to stay.

They don’t have to urge him too hard. “So do I,” Duffy murmurs in agreement with Vivienne, stressing that it’s 18 months before his contract is up for renewal: “I haven’t made a decision.”

But he also appears to suggest the decision isn’t entirely his to make. When another listener, Noel, tells of being “shown the door” after trying to pay cash in a Dublin cinema, Duffy takes his cue: “There’s a story in about five papers saying I’m going to be shown the door,” he says, “but that’s the first I’ve heard about it. And RTÉ say ‘He doesn’t want a new contract’: that’s the first I heard about that as well.” Later, when another caller says she could listen to him all day, Duffy pointedly replies, “Not if some people have their way.”

That a broadcaster as established as Duffy should apparently feel so unwanted is yet another sign, if more were needed, of the dysfunction and despondency gripping RTÉ.


So, with apologies to The Clash, should he stay or should he Joe? It’s hard to imagine anyone pining for fare such as Tuesday’s interminable discussion about whether Dublin Airport passengers need to pay immediately for bottles of water available from stands in the terminals or can do so later. (Immediately, apparently.) This, in fairness, is a sidebar to a wider conversation on the impact of the cashless economy on older people in particular.

But while anecdotes of being unable to tender cash for cinema tickets raise the topic of social exclusion, the issue gets somewhat lost as Duffy starts probing callers about their favourite films. Similarly, the host’s schoolboy tittering at the double-entendre possibilities of the word “tap” hardly advances the debate.

For all Duffy’s on-air foibles, when he’s on form he remains unparalleled at drawing out deeply personal stories that illuminate wider truth

But if you’d be hard-pressed to pay anyone (aside from Duffy) to listen to such waffle, the presenter shows his value on Wednesday, when he talks to Lynn, whose 10-year-old daughter, Daisy, died late last month. Lynn recounts, in heartbreaking detail, the difficulties Daisy faced as she spent her last days at home. “Why does an adult one day over 18 get far superior end-of-life care than a 10-year-old?” she asks.

The lack of full palliative support meant, among other things, that Lynn had to wait 13 hours for her daughter to be certified as dead, during which time she held Daisy in her arms. “It’s the worst possible thing you can imagine in life, made worse,” says Lynn.

Even Duffy, who has heard some harrowing stories in his time, sounds shaken. As always when dealing with bereaved or traumatised guests, the host walks a fine line, lending a sympathetic ear and letting his speakers share their experiences while keeping his audience engaged without tipping into voyeurism. If the account of Daisy’s final days is difficult to hear, it’s impossible not share Lynn’s fervent desire that terminally ill children have “the right to die at home with all services”.

For all Duffy’s on-air foibles – his exaggerated humour, his theatrical incredulity, his occasional indulging of petty complaints – when he’s on form he remains unparalleled at drawing out deeply personal stories that illuminate wider truths. If RTÉ’s senior management has any sense (and, admittedly, there’s much evidence to the contrary) Duffy won’t be shown the door just yet.

There’s little sense of discontent on The Anton Savage Show (Newstalk, Saturday and Sunday), where the host sounds immensely comfortable. Though Savage’s broadcasting career has had its ups and downs, he always projects an easy confidence behind the mic, well-briefed yet breezily droll, (usually) without sounding too pleased with himself. It’s a persona well suited to weekend mornings, as he switches gears between softball celebrity chinwags, current-affairs encounters and the de rigueur Sabbath newspaper panel.

Savage’s self-possessed demeanour is on display when interviewing the Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty on Saturday; the following day he gamely chuckles his way through his natter with the good-natured (if only sporadically funny) comedian Jason Byrne, who shares fond shaggy-dog tales about his late father. But it’s his overview of the Sunday papers that’s most arresting. Savage’s show might not have the heavyweight pull of his Radio 1 counterpart Brendan O’Connor, but he wrests good copy from his guests.

It helps that Conor Lenihan is among his panellists. The former Fianna Fáil minister is rarely short of showboating opinions, and so it proves here. He defends the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald for ruffling unionist feathers by raising Irish unity, saying nationalists should stop “being so politically correct that we have to apologise” for such views.

Diplomatic tact thus established, Lenihan dissects the issue of immigration. “We’re far too quick to label people racist when they raise immigration as a substantial issue,” he says, also grumbling about the label “far right”: “We never seem to talk about the far left.” (Maybe we will if its followers start torching accommodation centres.)

Savage knows that such strong views are grist to the mill of listeners, not to mention guests: he jauntily remarks on the “furrowed brow” of the Fine Gael MEP Frances Fitzgerald while Lenihan is speaking. The host likewise flashes his mordant humour when optimism is expressed about the resumption of powersharing in Northern Ireland: “Let me attach a cloud to that silver lining.” Not that Savage gives into despair: unlike some others, he seems pretty happy with his lot.

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