Now you see it..
Pity the poor John Kelly fans stranded in the fourth green field – some of the people who started the buzz about this extraordinary music broadcaster way back when he was spinning his stuff for the BBC in Northern Ireland.
It's more than 10 years now since the buzz carried Kelly south, first to Radio Ireland (later Today FM) and then to RTE. Northern listeners would have had to put up with the erratic reception that characterises the efforts of “national” broadcasters to reach that part of the island that enjoys a separate jurisdiction.
Ah, but the last couple of years, since Kelly – insufficiently populist, it seems, for Radio 1 – was bumped to Lyric FM, have seen something of a renaissance. His Lyric show, The JK Ensemble, not only proves that you can follow kd lang with Fauré, or Dick Gaughan with Bach, or Toumani Diabaté with… well, you get the idea. (In fairness, the idea is not, quite, unique to Kelly, but he executes better than anyone.) It has also delivered John Kelly and the rest of the Lyric line-up across the Border in reasonable FM clarity via a transmitter on the quiet end of the dial, 87.8.
All that changed in March, the consequence of an unfortunate series of events that saw Lyric's northeastern audience emerge as the strangest casualty of RTE's decision to stop broadcasting Radio 1 on Medium Wave. Since large numbers of people apparently listened to Radio 1 on that spectrum, especially in places like the North where its FM frequency played hard to get, and since Long Wave (where Radio 1 took over 252 a few years back) doesn't seem to be a real option for many of them, the suits decided to “swap” Radio 1 with Lyric.
“Swap” makes it sound so nice. But for Lyric it's more a case of “now you hear it, now you don't”. The 95.2 frequency where it now finds itself is often swamped in the North. Politically the switch makes sense: Radio 1 presumably has more Northern listeners than Lyric, and it would send the wrong message in these days of power-sharing and all-Ireland bodies to cut them off from RTE's diet of Irish news and current affairs, notwithstanding the distinct lack of Ulster fiber in that diet. (No one could possibly survive on the sickly sweet stuff regularly served up by RTE's Northern Editor Tommie Gorman, who always sounds like he's spooning it out to children who would resist anything with more substance and savour.)
Moreover, Northern listeners are arguably not stuck for “classical” music. But Lyric has plenty of unique elements – not just Kelly but the similarly eclectic likes of Carl Corcoran's Blue of the Night or Gerry Godley's Reels to Ragas. Lyric's press release describes the new Northern frequency as an interim one, but history suggests listeners shouldn't hold their breaths.
Listening online is always an option. Kelly's supporters made much of his big web listenership in his dying days on Radio 1. Nowadays, sensing that his afternoon slot doesn't suit most fans, he constantly promotes the online audio-archive. Trouble is, Lyric's live webcast is of poor audio quality, and its archive even worse.
Without getting too technical about it: RTE's web-player, which features Lyric, is set up for speech, not music, with a sampling rate that is low by international standards. Amusingly enough, however, RTE still plays host to archives of Kelly's old Mystery Train shows from two to three years ago, including a copy of the final programme that is literally 10 times the quality of what you would hear if you tried to listen back to the latest Lyric show.
Much of the music on Lyric is a hi-fi delight. FM does it justice. The web, if you're listening with anything better than the speakers on your laptop, does not.Gay Byrne's Lyric programme, Sunday Serenade – now blessedly finished a few months' run, but due back in the autumn – doesn't require anything hi-fi because of the antiquity of most of what he plays. And, hey, old isn't bad. But it is irritating to hear Gaybo effectively retiring on his reputation as a champion of jazz in the once-hostile Irish broadcasting environment – an old taste of his that is often highlighted as one of the marks of his crozier-resistant bravery.
Late afternoon and early evening on the weekends is on Lyric, as traditionally on BBC Radio 3, something of a jazz “slot”. And Gaybo plays, yes, jazz. But his vision of jazz is so constrained, so corny, and so white – not exclusively, of course, but certainly disproportionately – that the programme seems a throwback in the worst possible sense. No doubt Lyric believes Gaybo can deliver a certain conservative geriatric audience better than anyone else. But surely even that audience would as soon hear Count Basie as Tommy Dorsey?
Byrne boasts in an Indo column that he built up the show's audience from “zero” to 40,000. The latter number, it's true, is good going, by Lyric if not Gaybo standards. The former number is of course completely mythological, a typical mark of the man's lack of respect for his peers, who surely had a few listeners in place before he came along.