It’s been an interesting few weeks for yours truly in RTÉ Radio 1.
As a freelancer you get to work on a whole variety of different gigs. Occasionally you’re lucky enough to be part of something significant. Rarely do a bunch of such notable happenings occur together.
These past three weeks I’ve had more than my fair share of them.
And while it wasn’t exactly an emotional rollercoaster but there certainly were more lump-in-throat moments than normal.
Last Friday morning I was one of the team that produced the final weekday 9.00-10.00am John Murray Show. After five years in the morning chair, John is on a break and will be back on Radio 1 in the autumn somewhere; we just don’t know where yet.
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) July 3, 2015
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) July 3, 2015
The programme itself was an hour-long look back at his last half decade on air, with the help of a bunch of guests in studio 10 and on phones and studio ISDN lines from around the country. It rattled along apace, culminating in Colm Flynn’s six-and-a-half-minute best-of montage and John’s short, thanks-filled, farewell statement.
And then it was over, Today with Sean O’Rourke filling the airwaves as everyone involved – and a whole bunch who weren’t – piled into studio to wish John the best for the future. Gifts were presented, speeches made, photos were taken and, unsurprisingly, a few tears were shed.
It was a poignant end to an odd week. While John and those in the know in RTÉ had been in discussions about his future for quite a while already, the first I found out about it was seven days beforehand when a brief phone call alerted me to a press release that was about to go out to beat a suspected leak to one of the papers.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. We’d all been aware that John’s JNLR figures hadn’t been great for a while and that he was due to go on holidays on Friday for four weeks during which Brendan O’Connor was filling in for him but we had no idea July 3rd was D Day.
Well, I hadn’t.
And no, I’ve no idea who’ll be taking over the 9.00-10.00am hot seat permanently in the autumn either. I have my suspicions, but for the moment, purely speculative as they are, I’d best keep them to myself.
So all during the last week we were acutely aware we were working towards the end of John’s tenure and the beginning of Brendan’s – which for a jumped-up freelancer like myself more used to taking whatever short-term gigs are thrown at him was no big deal.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my most recent two month stint on the show but for those who’d been working with John for longer periods – some of the current crew have been there since it began in 2010 – it was obviously a tougher jolt.
So while by 10.30am Friday morning we’d cleared out studio 10 and the rest of the team had abandoned upstairs to bid adieu to John and his wife Miriam who were heading straight to the airport for their break, I was still downstairs prepping a booth for Brendan to record an interview at 11.00am with an author in London for Monday’s show.
The king was dead; long live the king, so to speak.
But I said it had been an interesting *few* weeks.
As a magazine chat show that regularly tackled serious items, there was much discussion about how best to deal with a tragedy that many commentators were suggesting had touched the entire nation.
Three items from the next week – two musical – seemed to particularly judge the mood perfectly.
The morning after the accident The Willis Clan, an American-Irish Nashville-based country music family act, were due in to play an upbeat guitar and fiddle-infused version of the Sound of Music’s A Few of My Favourite Things which we’d seen them perform a few weeks earlier on RTÉ One television’s The Saturday Night Show.
When they arrived at 8.00am for their soundcheck we wondered if they had an apt piece of music that we might open the programme with given the prevailing downbeat mood. They had, immediately suggesting The Road to Watertown, a melancholic instrumental Jenny Willis had written as a tribute to their father whose five brothers and sisters were killed in a road accident back home in 1994.
It caught the mood perfectly, so much so that TV news were onto us almost immediately wanting to use it on television that evening. When they played it out over a montage of images from Berkeley at the end of both the six and nine o’clock bulletins, it was heart-breaking.
The next week one of the balcony collapse survivors, Clodagh Cogley, published her first Facebook post since the accident, acknowledging that she would probably never walk again. Anyone who read it couldn’t have failed to have been moved.
John then wondered out loud if there was anyone who would be able to tell us about what Clodagh might be going through physically and mentally right now and immediately suggested we get Radio 1 producer Olan McGowan who broke his back in a diving accident 20 years ago (I made the 2005 documentary One Evening In July about it all) into studio.
It was an inspired idea, if, as it turned out, a nerve-wracking one. Olan wasn’t due in til much later that morning so after agreeing by phone to join John at the top of the show out of the nine o’clock news, suddenly had to change his and his personal assistant’s plans and get his proverbial skates on.
He made it by the skin of his teeth.
At about 8.50am I told John in studio that Olan wasn’t here yet and so we might have to start with our planned second item on people who’d successfully monetised YouTube. Neither of us were especially happy with this but if Olan didn’t get here pretty damn soon, it was either that or silence and so I moved our two guests for that item, Clare Cullen and Darragh Doyle, into studio, explaining why and how it would all change if Olan arrived in the next few minutes.
He did, at which point I told John, much to our relief, that we were back to plan A.
But there was one final obstacle. The studio 10 wheelchair lift was bust so even as Olan arrived in the control room just as the news headlines finished we still had to get him down the three steps into the studio. And John was just about to begin his introduction to the piece.
There was nothing for it but for three of us to carry him down the few steps even as the red light went on, and we wheeled him into position at the table just as John finished his opening question to him.
Olan answered as if he’d been waiting there all morning.
We were the metaphorical swan, calm on top, paddling like mofos below the surface as we quietly ushered Clare and Darragh back out to the control room again.
Olan’s interview – honest, informed, self-deprecating and heartfelt – was more than worth the effort.
I was on John Murray today, RTE Radio1, about the extraordinary words of Clodagh Cogley, Berkely tragedy survivor. http://t.co/lXRkgXo2hp
— Olan McGowan (@OlanMcGowan) June 25, 2015
My own personal highlight from this horrible accident, however, was the previous Friday.
Inspired by The Willis Clan effect, at Wednesday morning’s post-programme meeting we all agreed a musically-led tribute to the Berkeley victims would be the perfect way to end a week of sorrow and sadness.
Top of our list of potential contributors was Cork singer/songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy whose songs we knew would be particularly appropriate and who would have the nous to discuss the tragedy and its surrounding questions of death and loss both sympathetically and sensitively.
Once again, it was a spot-on choice, if one that almost didn’t happen.
First of all we had an out-of-date number for Jimmy so by Thursday morning had almost given up on even getting to ask him. When we eventually spotted the error of our ways and actually got to speak to him it didn’t exactly give him a lot of notice.
So when we asked him if he was free the next morning he unsurprisingly said no, because in fairness, he wasn’t.
It was only when we told him why we wanted him that without hesitating he said yes, explaining that it would be his privilege to change his plans.
The following morning he was in RTÉ before most of the team, going to enormous trouble to make sure his set-up and sound were impeccable. Kudos here too to Radio 1 soundman, Gar Duffy.
Loose as it was, the plan was to open the show with Jimmy chatting with John and playing a couple of his songs until about 9.20am and for him then to re-join us just before 10.00am to play us out with another.
It quickly became clear this wasn’t going to happen. From the moment he, along with keyboard player Gavin Murphy, played the opening chords of Ride On we knew this was something special. I’ve never seen so many texts, emails and tweets react to an item before and it was all I could do to keep up with them as I sent John in studio a representative sample.
At 9.25am after three songs and a serious chat we figured we needed to move on to our next item and so John thanked Jimmy and Gavin and said we’d hear from them again towards the end of the programme.
During the ad break, however, John and I quickly realised that there was much more to this if Jimmy was up for continuing. He was, so we made a call to keep going, possibly for the full 60’.
It was the right decision. Even our two guests who were supposed to be on afterwards, Louis Copeland and John Meagher, agreed there was no way they could follow Jimmy and that we were right to gazump them. Both generously said they were happy to come back in Monday.
Jimmy eventually played three or four more songs, each eliciting a fresh tsunami of texts, emails and tweets.
I was – as were the rest of the crew – emotionally drained by the end.
We had a long late lunch in town last Thursday for John to mark the end of his run on the current John Murray Show.
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) July 2, 2015
As I said then, if I ever get to produce a show half as good as that Jimmy MacCarthy Berkeley special, I’ll be a lucky man.
One final thought.
Later on the evening I found out John’s show was coming to an end, it occurred to me that this was the second time in just over six months that I’d been working on an RTÉ Radio 1 programme that was taken off the air.
I subsequently noticed Mooney and Murray both start with M.