It’s rumoured to be a top-class station but is anyone listening? We’re told NewsTalk 106 is the voice of the new young Ireland, bouncier and fresher than Radio One, with more content than the music stations. But can you find it on the dial and what are its frontmen – David, Daire and Damien – like? Declan McCormack finds out
I suspect the majority of people like radio to be a mass experience. If you want a solitary experience, you can read a book.
Or listen to NewsTalk 106. 106 has a minuscule audience. Something like 2 per cent share of Dublin listeners. Good shows, small audience. But now the staion has launched a campaign to get people to break the habit of a lifetime, to touch that dial and steer it away from RTE through the garrulous nonsense of early morning 2FM, the forced jollity of 98 and 104 FM to talk shows and rolling news on 106FM. But when I perform the delicate operation through a crowded spectrum of foreign, Dublin, Wicklow, Louth, and pirate stations, I find myself listening to new country on Dublin’s Country on 106.8. Oops, too far.
Wednesday, 6.40am. As I dress, I hear promos on Newstalk 106 for the boy wonder. David McWilliams. The young Michael Fox lookalike, the whiz economist who coined the ‘Celtic Tiger’ thingy, McWilliams is featuring on most bus shelters in the capital under the caption, “It’s a wake-up call for Dublin.” As the bus scoots into town, McWilliams is querying a woman from Dublin Bus. His style is teasing, good-humoured. The item follows a very chummy interview with Michael O’Leary about Aer Rianta monopolies. Is 106 into monopoly-bashing?
On Mount Street, I ask a young lady where Warrington House is. Never heard of it. It’s where Newstalk 106 is. Never heard of it, she says. It doesn’t augur well. Warrington House is a fine red-brick building. Pleasant open-plan rooms. Friendly receptionists. Cup of tea instantly offered. Only 10 minutes more of the McWilliams show, so I bring the mug into the control room where I meet the producer, Nina Hepojoki, Joe Walsh, the editor, and Jane, the researcher. In studio, David is ganseyless, tieless and guestless. A few papers, the Financial Times among them, lie scattered on his table. The news is being read. More accidents arising from joyriding. And the impending traffic chaos. Foreign news too.
Daire O’Brien, presenter of The Flip Side, is not to be seen. An unfamiliar face in studio with David discusses the items that will be on The Flip Side. More of the frightfully young and telegenic staff of 60-plus appear, all in good humour. The new marketing campaign may account for it.
David McWilliams enters the busy kitchenette carrying mug and papers. One of the staff teases him about wearing a NewsTalk tieon his Agenda programme on TV3. I’m invited to join the team in the Coffee Club for breakfast. Sounds good. They’ll be planning tomorrow’s programme. He’s also having an Agenda meeting in the Coffee Club and I can sit in on that too. Then I get to interview him before he goes home to crash out for a few hours, spend some time with his children and then write his ‘op-ed’ article for The Sunday Business Post. Tri-media man.
I compliment him on the quality of the guests on the show. “Yes, we get quality contributors.” He rattles off the names of ministers who have been on, and mentions former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak too. He is well connected in Israel, where he worked for a Swiss bank, and found himself defending the bank after revelations about Jewish gold salted away in Swiss banks by the Nazis.
10.10am, The Coffee Club, Haddington Road. Joe Walsh is smoking “He is our living mausoleum,” says David. Nina, the 28-year-old Finnish beauty and producer, seems very well clued-into Irish life. David seems to have his own network of high-powered academic, political and economic acquaintances scattered around the world. He is on the phone to a Norwegian academic for a planned debate on Ireland’s neutrality. But he gets through to the academic’s son, who is walking on a beach in Tel Aviv. Eventually, he traces the academic to Italy. This show gets around for a local station. Small station, big phone bills.
Another possible guest is the Danish academic who has published a book, The Sceptical Environmentalist, which questions many Green orthodoxies. David likes people who challenge orthodoxies. He “hates spoofers”. The programme’s agenda is very cosmopolitan. David is unapologetic. Young Dubliners travel a lot and live in a global age.
But Dublin isn’t being neglected. Dun Laoghaire bin charges is a hot topic on NewsTalk today. Property is another hot issue. Nina suggests something on buying property abroad or else a newsy item on commercial property. It is particularly important to the ABC1 (marketese for middle-class) listeners that NewsTalk are targeting.
David is enthusiastic about the property item. He was brought up in Dalkey, lives in Killiney. Sexy property.
The cafe is buzzing, full of the ABC1s which the station is targeting. I am struck by how young the team is: all bar Joe and David in their twenties. David is 36 “I’m the ancient one.” The target age for the station is 25-44. The target audience for the breakfast show is “professional, aspiring people on the move”. No wonder I haven’t been listening.
10.30am. Daire O’Brien, Flip Side host, breezes into the cafe, Marlboro fag in mouth. Missed his show. “Traffic.” It is ironic that on a day when the station is going big on traffic hell, one of its key presenters is late. American journalist Richard Delevan has stepped into the breach. Daire suggests we amble down to the Waterloo Bar on Baggot Street. Not my usual mid-morning style, but hell, this is the Flip Side man. Or as the ad campaign has it, “A new man in the morning”.
Daire, who once edited a men’s magazine called Himself, is certainly New Mannish in the way children play a large part in his life. As we order coffee, he tells me about his four children. He also speaks fondly about a child of his former partner, with whom he had two other children. He is now married to Cliona, with whom he has two children. Pretty productive for a thirtysomething guy who “boozed and leched” at Trinity. It is a busy private life. No wonder he was late.
His spiel is wide-ranging and witty. He dismisses country bumpkin local radio stations as “cats up trees, news and funeral notices”. This despite the fact that some of the very successful local stations are investors in 106.
He waxes eloquent about the new station and its appeal to freethinking Generation Text who are fed up with stodgy RTE’s “senior citizens’ station” (Radio One, for which he once worked) and who want a radio show that reflects their lifestyle and questioning sensibility “not drunken taxi drivers ringing in at midnight”.
Texting is the new Liveline. “Texting is emblematic of the generation.” The power of the text message was first demonstrated on Dunphy’s Last Word on Today FM. Some claim that 106 is modelled on The Last Word. Hamlet without the lip-puckering Prince. Indeed his producer, Amanda Brown, worked for two years on The Last Word.
12.10pm. We mooch back up Baggot Street. He is knackered; one of the children was sick last night, he hasn’t had a break since the station went on air in April last year.
12.15pm, The Coffee Club. The Agenda meeting still in progress. Eventually David plops down beside me, tells me he’s knackered and orders a taxi. I cut to the chase. How did he get into radio and TV? “I was asked.”
Being one of The Great Unasked I’d like to pursue this, but don’t. He has a wife, a northerner called Sian, who is a lawyer, and two children. He is an economist by training. Daire O’Brien and Damien Kiberd studied economics too. The business of modern Ireland is business. “One-and-a-half million Irish people work in the private sector; business is everything to them.” David played rugby. As did Daire. And presumably Hookey did too. Rugby is very aspirational and now professional. So very 106.
Was he too cosy with Michael O’Leary, and is he ideologically anti-public-service? He bristles. “I’m a pragmatist. Someone said, you fix it and then you can argue about ideologies in the pub.” He is not anti-public-enterprise. France has the best rail transport system in Europe.
The taxi arrives. A final question. Is the station pro-Shannon protests? More barely concealed annoyance. “Anti-Americanism is the new socialism.” He has little time for those who pontificate who haven’t seen the world. Spoofers. “You learn that Ireland is not unique.” He really must go.
1.30pm, NewsTalk offices. Damien Kiberd looks very at home in his studio. Making all the right hand signals to his young producer Anna Murphy. Anna and researcher Patricia Monahan (from Cavan) have loads of text messages lined up. For a station with such a small audience they get a lot of texts. The show moves along pacily. Kiberd has a hoot about an RTE newsroom gaffe over the age of a joyrider. Described in early news bulletins as a 12-year-old who cried for his mammy, he is magically grown to a 27-year-old.
3pm. Kiberd was the founding father of The Sunday Business Post, which he sold last year very lucratively and knows a thing or two about the problems of start-up media companies.
He had no experience at radio presenting, but lots at being a radio guest being a regular on Today FM, where he once had a famous blow-up with Pat Rabbitte. He has proved a very quick learner, according to his producer, and has had Rabbitte on as guest.
He loves radio and isn’t a bit disheartened that his two young children (10 and 13) don’t listen. His wife Teri, a former journalist, does, and is a good sounding-board. He believes in “pacey, spikey and provocative” radio which combines info with entertainment. “I’m a populist. My style is ‘broadloid’ [broadsheet/tabloid]”. He is 47. His own radio heroes are Pat Kenny (“on radio”) and Ciaran Mac Mathuna. “Oh, and Maxi she’s positive and upbeat.” That’s what he wants his show to be, and the station as well. He’s upbeat about its potential. “You get a critical mass and then you turn the corner.” And then you sell out. He laughs. He isn’t a shareholder in 106.
The old adage that broadcasting is a licence to print money needs to be amended to ” . . . provided you can stay the long haul”. Pete Lunn (out of Oxford via the BBC), the 32-year-old station editor, is sure the investors are in for the long haul. He is confident they have created a “quality product” but need to let people know. He says that research shows that the “conversion rate” to 106 is high.
As I leave, I hear for the hundredth time the station’s chief sting-cum-slogan: “You can watch it tonight, you can read it tomorrow, but you can hear it now on NewsTalk 106.”
Postscript. Next morning’s David McWilliams show had a discussion on neutrality featuring Eamon Dunphy, Tom McGurk and Norwegian Professor Galto, who lectured Ireland on selling our soul for a mess of oil. The sexy property item was about buying abroad. Damien Kiberd has recently replaced Vincent Browne on the Midnight Court TV show on RTE1, so he won’t be laughing as much at RTE’s newsroom blunders.
January 20. I meet a tired-looking Aidan Dunne, the station’s second CEO. He reluctantly confesses to being 50, and thus over the target age. “We don’t exclude anyone.” They wouldn’t want to, with an audience share of two per cent. He is confident that by August next year they’ll be up to eight per cent.
I have certainly listened in quite a lot since. It is a good, polished, bouncy station: perky, lively and informative. It sounds as if the presenters believe someone is listening to it.
Best of all, David McWilliams gives Michael O’Leary a good grilling over Ryanair’s retention of passenger service charges for no-show customers. And when the Columbia shuttle tragedy occurred, NewsTalk went into rolling news mode.
But just before I wrote this I went for a last sweep across the dial and at 106 I heard a lovely tune and I said, wow they play some good music too! It was The Judds’ Love Can Build a Bridge, but actually the station that played it turned out to be 106.8 Dublin’s Country. It is crowded on the dials. You can check that tonight, you can check it again tomorrow, but you read it here first.