By Rónán Lynch
If you’re one of the lucky top ten per cent of earners in Ireland, you probably feel well represented on talk radio. For the other ninety percent, an exasperated tweet or text message, or a few minutes giving out on Liveline is the most you can expect. Libel laws constrain radio researchers and producers and make them nervous about giving airtime to random contributors. Don’t feel totally put out though: You have options and this article will arm you with the necessary information and tips for getting through and becoming part of the public dialogue.
Broadcasters are obliged to represent a diversity of voices from different geographical regions and backgrounds, so there are avenues for Irish citizens to have their views directly represented on national radio. All too often, radio hosts reflexively turn to authoritative-sounding experts and commentators drawn from Ireland’s elite, effectively narrowing public discourse and closing down debate.
A 2014 research paper on Irish radio news showed that a stunning 95% of sources appearing on morning radio during late 2008 to talk about the banking crisis were elite official sources. Suspecting that mid-morning radio might suffer the same lopsided overrepresentation, Village turned its attention to the Marian Finucane show and found that more than 80% of the sources on the Sunday news review hour fitted into the category of elite official sources. If you listen to public or private radio and have a sense that programmes don’t reflect a wide array of opinions, you won’t be surprised to find that radio news and talk shows overwhelmingly reflect the opinions of the elite. Anyone lucky enough to spend a bit of time in radio studios will know that outside of venting opportunities such as ‘Liveline’, the ‘ordinary citizen’ is regarded with fear, liable to provoke a libel case or fire off an opinion that cuts sharply across the radio consensus. Elite sources, on the other hand, will rarely go off-message.
Earlier this year, Kevin Rafter of DCU published research titled ‘Voices in the crisis: The role of media elites in interpreting the banking collapse’, investigating what he called ‘official sources’ on Irish radio. The preponderance of elite voices on news radio is already established by studies including a number from American sociologist William Hoynes, though it’s worth noting that Hoynes and Rafter acknowledge that the dominance of elite voices doesn’t necessarily mean a convergence of elite opinion, for some journalists, politicians and academics may take positions highly critical of the status quo or strive to represent minority voices or broaden political discourse.
Public media in Ireland has a charter to represent regional, cultural and political diversity and Rafter set about investigating elite voices in the Irish context, focusing on the coverage of the financial crisis on the morning news shows on Newstalk and RTÉ during the period from 30 September 2008 to 24 December 2008, the three months following the announcement of the banking guarantee. Rafter’s work confirmed the dominance of official sources, which is interesting given the dominant view in Irish media that ‘nobody saw the crash coming”’ and also in light of Julian Mercille’s study showing that the media have largely taken pro-austerity positions. It’s also clear that deference to official sources limited the debate on alternative responses to the crisis.
The research concluded that the coverage was “overwhelmingly reflected through the views of official sources” and was overwhelmingly male. About 95% of the coverage came from official sources such as journalists (36%), business and city sources (24%), politicians (23%) and academics (12%). Consumer groups (1%) and union representatives (3%) made up most of the remainder. Rafter refers to the voices of journalists in this context as “interpretive journalism”, as the journalists were invited not only to provide up-to-date coverage but also to provide ‘interpretation and context’. There’s a second circle of limitation at work here, as journalists tend to draw on official sources for most of their news, and then are interviewed by other journalists who rely on a mix of journalists and other official sources.
There was some difference in representation on the two stations as business voices were more prominent on Newstalk (32%) than on RTÉ (12%), while RTÉ gave more time to politicians (28%) as against Newstalk’s 19 per cent. Where politicians featured in the debate, almost three out of four were drawn from parties that supported the introduction of the banking guarantee.
So, at a critical juncture in Irish history, news sources leaned heavily on official sources to frame and interpret the debate, but it’s worth investigating whether this was a once-off phenomenon: How do the numbers add up in a broader context?
Not wanting to pick on the public service, in this issue Village looks at the Pat Kenny Show.
Kenny, a veteran broadcaster with four decades at RTÉ as a radio and television host, moved to Newstalk last year to begin ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ in direct competition with his former morning show ‘Today’ on RTÉ, with a new presenter and sped-up jingle. Newstalk’s mandate is to provide an alternative to RTÉ, but the move to bag Kenny arguably resulted in a duplication of Kenny’s previous RTÉ show. He replaced Tom Dunne’s more entertainment-focused offering. The arrival of Kenny was accompanied by a huge ‘Move the Dial’ advertising campaign. RTE perceived the threat as serious and chose to address this by replacing Kenny with a journalist regarded as a political heavyweight, Seán O’Rourke.
Newstalk may have persuaded thousands of listeners to move the dial further to the right after poaching Kenny from RTÉ but if it hopes to re-invent the morning talk show, it is not going the right way about it.
Research by Village shows that ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ falls into a well-established pattern on Irish talk and news radio: the guests are mostly well-paid professionals from a narrow range of occupations and although Kenny’s show employs mostly female researchers, female guests account for only one in four voices on the show. The fact that a highly-paid host is interviewing mostly highly-paid guests doesn’t mean anything in itself but at a guess the show’s sympathies are going to be with the upper classes. To pursue an agenda of equality of outcome in Irish society, we could start by examining equality of access to the media machinery that helps to set the agenda.
Our examination of Marian Finucane’s Sunday morning talk show focused on the hour of newspaper reviews, looking at fifty hours of radio and about 255 guests. With ‘The Pat Kenny Show’, Village looked at one month of shows, which each clock in at two and a half hours, with between six to ten guests per show. There is no reason to think this month unrepresenative, but it is important to allow that in this survey of Finucane and Kenny we are not comparing like with like. The show’s in-house researchers, who produce occasional reports, aren’t counted as guests for the purpose of this survey, and the survey focused on guests who spoke for more than a few minutes and so excluded a number of vox pops. In October 2014, the show was on 23 days and that’s about 57.5 hours of radio.
During the month of October, there were roughly 200 guest slots, with some guests appearing often such as UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter who gets a weekly slot and Trinity biochemistry professor Luke O’Neill who features seven times, principally in the weekly science slot. O’Neill is the most frequent guest on the show and Kenny – who studied chemical engineering – sounds as if he would happily spend an entire show chatting with O’Neill. Fionnán Sheahan of the Irish Independent and John Drennan of the Sunday Independent both appeared twice and the Independent group supplied almost one third of the journalists to appear on the show. This is revelatory since there is significant cross-ownership between the media groups as Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp owns Newstalk, and O’Brien owns 29% of INM, which runs the Independent group.
The survey proceeded by listening to the October output of ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ over several days on Newstalk’s website. After listening to back-to-back shows, which frequently covered the Ebola scare, this reporter was surprised to find people still walking the streets; the other immediate impression is that Kenny particularly loves talking to professors and doctors, a combination of reassuring voices that constitutes the radio equivalent of calming a nervous patient with doctorly authority. Only one of the 22 academic guest slots was filled by a female voice, that of former Irish Times editor and lecturer in journalism at the University of Limerick, Geraldine Kennedy. About one quarter of the guests are women, and the only category they dominate is that of non-professional guests. These voices, which represent about 12% of the guests, are mostly women; in October they included Anne Boyle, mother of disappeared girl Mary Boyle, and Kathleen Chada, whose husband killed their two children.
‘The Pat Kenny Show’, like RTE’s ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’, offers a mixture of news, culture and entertainment and as such both shows feature writers, artists and musicians, but otherwise we find a predominance of official sources. In order of frequency of appearance, ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ has journalists (20%), business and PR (16%), academics (11%), politicians (8%), singers/artists (8%), writers (7%), campaigners (6%) and doctors (5%). About 12 per cent of the guests are outside any professional category, and make the news because of their personal or family situations. The rest of the guests are sportspeople (2%) and priests (1%), while Brendan Ogle has his own one half per cent category as the sole trade union representative. (The data sheet is available on village.ie.) Figures have been rounded up or down to the nearest one per cent.
How does this compare with the Marian Finucane show? The breakdown of guests on her Sunday newspaper review hour over one year was journalists (29%), business and PR (18%), politicians (14%) and academics (10%). Legal professionals made up another 10 per cent, for an overall mix of official elite sources of 81 per cent. ‘The Marian Finucane Show’ is sui generis in its enthusiasm for legal sorts. By way of contrast, ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ is relatively barren ground for both legal eagles and economists, with Eddie Hobbs the only economist to feature, and politicians are generally relegated to the Friday show’s weekly news round-up. In an Irish context this constitutes progress of a sort.
Taking the same categories established by Rafter, the combined voices of journalists, business sources, politicians and academics (broadly classifiable as official elite sources) on the current-affairs sections of ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ make up about two-thirds of the parts of the show outside of culture and entertainment, a heavy majority in the context of a talk show. The remaining third is made up of campaigners and non-professional voices. The conclusion can be drawn that even in a light current-affairs context, official voices predominate, often filtered through the interpretation of journalists who themselves depend on official sources for their stories.
By providing a range of statistics on representation on radio shows, Village is providing citizens with the means to take their positions to radio researchers. The ordinary, non-profession citizen seems to be under-represented on ‘The Pat Kenny Show’, but the show’s researchers aren’t going to start calling random citizens to feature on the programme.
Citizens determined to engage in public discourse should take matters into their own hands, and Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’ or complaints to the Broadcasting Authority need not be the only outlet.
Researchers on radio shows will generally respond well to informed callers who can back up their ideas with facts and figures or references to laws or statutes. •