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"Just damn the consequences and see what happens": Rick O'Shea on his new poetry show

The radio presenter is due to present the Poetry Programme for 30 weeks from tomorrow.

#Sockies Alert! Bord Gais Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

My instinct when I’m asked to do something I’ve never done before is to immediately say yes. And just damn the consequences and see what happens. Certainly professionally, that’s always the way I’ve done things.

THE NAME RICK O’Shea is synonymous with daytime radio – bright, a bit fluffy, fun, and game for anything.

So why is the 2FM presenter now at the helm of another new show on Radio 1, the Poetry Programme? We sat down with him to find out more about his new project, and learned that he believes it doesn’t really matter that he’s not a poetry expert.

“I would like to think that after this has happened, [people will] go ‘oh, he can do that other thing as well. Fair enough’,” he tells us.

How it all began

First things first. The promotional material for this show is keen to put across that it’s not just for poetry buffs. Is the programme essentially saying “come on board with me because I’m not an expert on poetry, and I feel you’re like me”?

“Absolutely, that’s very much what I want to say,” says O’Shea.

“I think in the case of most people it’s always about how good your production team are behind you, and how well-prepared you are for doing something like this.”

He describes himself as “only a cog in a machine”, saluting his team – Clare Cunningham (series producer), Julien Clancy (reporter/co-producer), Dave Lordan (research) and Niall MacMonagle (consultant) - for their work.

O’Shea, who has been in radio since the age of 19 and at RTÉ since the age of 28 (he’s 41 this year), has presented his own show for almost five years on 2FM.

Last year, he began blogging about his quest to read 100 books in 12 months, which led to appearances on Radio 1 Arts show Arena, which in part led to the Poetry Programme.

“If I’d been asked to do a gardening programme, I would have been the first person to put my hands up and say ‘sorry, that one’s not for me’,” he says.

Part of the allure for him was “in trying to bring in people who might not necessarily think that a 30-minute poetry programme was for them”.

He describes poetry as being seen as “incredibly inaccessible”, but argues that “conversely, if you look at it, it’s one of the most accessible things you can do in terms of reading”.

What can we expect from the show?

The show’s brief is to focus on contemporary poets, both Irish and international, and also on live events, such as performance poetry and slam poetry nights.

O’Shea’s own afternoon show is a different prospect to a more sober literary show. It is formatted “to be an antidote to a very serious world”, having been conceived in the middle of a recession.

Where some might like to stick with tried-and-tested radio approaches, O’Shea says his instinct “is always to go in the opposite direction to where everybody else is going”.

There have been times I’ve been in 2FM over the years when stuff wasn’t going so well, but right now, this show, this schedule, these people: this is a joy to come into every single day.

He started out as a young pup when the 2FM schedule was full of established names, like Gerry Ryan and Gareth O’Callaghan. Things have changed radically since then, but his show is now the longest-running one on the current schedule.

And that’s strange, because I’m by nature a pessimist. My presumption is I’m always one step away from being fired and that the next paycheck is being my last. I don’t think that will ever change, and I think it’s a healthy instinct as a radio presenter, because it doesn’t make you complacent.

What’s the key to his show’s success?

“Something I’ve always tried to do, and something we are really conscious to do in the daytime show, is never to treat people listening to you like they’re thick,” he says.

As part of its efforts to improve listenership figures, 2FM has hired ‘celebrity’ presenters, better known for their work outside of radio, like Westlife singer Nicky Byrne and comedians/television presenters Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O’Shea.

Yet radio itself has traditionally been an area where DJs have had to spend years behind the mic to build a reputation. “I think both of those are equally valid approaches, because both of those have been proven to work,” says O’Shea. “I think the only people who will survive in this business is those who are good at doing radio.”

Keeping his private life private

Three years after he and his first wife separated, an Irish tabloid got wind of the change in O’Shea’s personal life. He says he didn’t respond to their requests for an interview, but the story still made headlines.

These days, he’s extremely careful about what elements of his life the public get access to, and only uses social media during his work hours, and for work purposes. If asked to talk about his private life, he just says no.

However, he’s not a technophobe, and argues that “you are tying one hand behind your back if you don’t use social media in the context of your radio show these days”. Indeed, this conversation with his audience adds a certain spark to the show.

It’s a long way from his early days, when the only way listeners could contact DJ Rick O’Shea was by telephone. And not the mobile kind.

O’Shea says he gets an ”impossibly rare amount of negative pieces of feedback” online. “Maybe it’s just because I’m not the sort of person people get angry about,” he shrugs.

The future for 2FM

The Poetry Programme has been commissioned for 30 episodes this year, and O’Shea knows that after that, “that might be the end of it”. But things are looking up at 2FM.

“I’ve been in places in 2FM over the last 14 years where things looked dark… very dark,” admits the presenter. “Once we hit the recession and a lot of things went on the skids, it’s been hard since then.”

But he says this has turned around. “It’s really, really gratifying to look around and see the amount of positive feedback we’re getting off people from what’s happening now at the moment,” he enthuses.

So, I’m always really cautious about saying stuff like ‘we’ve been through the worst of it’, but I think we have, I’m pretty 100% sure we’ve been through the worst of it and are heading back in the right direction again, and it’s lovely to say it out loud and mean it.

The Poetry Programme, a Rockfinch production, will air on RTÉ Radio 1 on Saturday at 7.30pm.

Read: Rick O’Shea: I’m fronting RTE’s new poetry show but I’m no expert>

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