Méabh McMahon speaks to Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, current Editor & co-presenter of Cork’s leading daily talk show, the 96fm Opinion Line.
EXPRESS: What got you involved in radio? Is it an industry dominated by men?
DEIRDRE: I’ve always been interested in journalism. I was the editor of my student newspaper; I worked at the Galway Independent, and from that to national print and radio. I’ve always combined radio with my writing, and I had worked at the Cork Independent for seven years while being involved in national broadcasting, so when I got the opportunity to work at 96FM, at that point it was going to be either national news or working on radio, and I didn’t fancy moving to Dublin!
Radio was traditionally quite a masculine industry. The big names in Irish radio these days – Ian Dempsey, Neil Prendeville, PJ Coogan and the likes – all of those established names started out in the 70’s on pirate radio stations, just blokes tinkering in basements. It wasn’t exactly female friendly then, and I don’t think that culture has ever really disappeared. It’s funny really, the discord between the demographics and the people who are providing the service. There’s a few strong female voices but it’s mostly men still, whereas we find most of our listeners are women. You find that even on reporting on radio, whenever awards are announced, RTE and the news immediately gravitate to the male presenters, profile them. Women like to win too! It’s an anachronism, but I think the culture is changing.
EX: Do you find that talk radio is able to deal with serious issues, or is it just a forum for people to air their petty concerns?
DE: The beauty of talk radio is that you get a bit of everything. I was initially interested in current affairs more than phone-in radio, but it’s won a place in my heart. You just get such unexpected views. You hear an old lady phoning in on abortion and you make an assumption about what she’s going to say: and she tells you that she went to England to have one in back in the 1970’s, that she was ostracised then, and that it’s incredibly important that we repeal the 8th now.
You also find you can make a difference. We had a case back in the summer where the family of a young girl were phoning in. She was deeply mentally-ill and needed help and couldn’t get it – because we kept returning to the story and drawing attention to it, we eventually got her the place in a psychiatric unit that she needed. That’s something to be proud of. It doesn’t always work of course; I’ve heard stories of hospitals telling patients that if they bring the case to the radio that they’ll never get a bed; but I think if we can shame services into doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s terrible that we’re in that situation but it’s good that someone can cast a light on it.
EX: As someone currently on maternity leave, do you think there’s still an expectation in Ireland that women will ‘stay home and mind the kids’?
DE: It’s fundamentally the childcare issue. It’s quite rare these days that you have a family that can afford, on two salaries, to pay for the cost of childcare. The government funding programme for childcare was a step in the right direction at least. We were lucky enough that my husband got paternity leave – the scheme had just rolled in, if the baby had been born in August we would have had none. Still, I think the real issue is that we are forcing women out of the workforce because of financial restraint, and that is not good enough.
EX: Who are the primary listeners of radio these days? Do you think with the rise of Spotify and podcasts that radio has lost its connection with young people?
DE: We’re able to use demographics to see what types of people are more available to listen to radio, and who is less so. For everything that was said about the Recovery, we have seen a chunk of younger people are now less available to listen to morning radio; they were previously unemployed but now they’ve gone into training, into education, or work. The target demographic is still mothers, who do tend to be available to listen more than other sectors.
You’ll always be surprised with the people that engage though. Students are talking about what we’ve covered; they may not be ringing in but they are listening. Spotify is great and all, but you need to understand what’s going on locally, nationally, why the buses aren’t running, where traffic is bad in your area. In that sense, local radio is nearly more important than national radio: it is the only place that you can get that instant, on-the-ground information.
EX: What would you say to people who are considering a career in radio or the media? What’s the first step that someone can take?
DE: I remember when I was first considering getting into radio, and people told me that it was very very hard, and that you’d have to be really good. Ignore them. Someone has to do it! Radio, like most things, involves a little bit of talent and some hard work. You also have to learn to take every opportunity, to never say ‘no’. I was recently giving a talk to some university students who study Media, and I told them that if any of them wanted work experience to contact me. I never got a call from any of them. You won’t survive in this business if you’re afraid like that. You have to always willing to chance your arm, to get your foot in the door. That’s what I’d tell people: don’t be afraid to take an opportunity when one is offered.
You can follow Deirdre on Twitter, @deshocks, and you can listen to Deirdre on Opinion Line (when she returns from maternity leave) every weekday from 9am to 12pm on 96fm.