- 15 Jan 21
In the midst of confusion, fear and isolation this year, people across Ireland tuned into local radio more than ever before. Recognising the power of local radio, and the important work that radio stations have been carrying out over the past year, we spoke to a selection of presenters from across the country – who told us how they rose to the multiple challenges of Covid-19.
Neil Prendeville has been igniting passions and soliciting opinions in the Rebel County for the past 25 years. Stirring debate and keeping Cork informed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the host of Red FM’s weekday show says he’s tried to steer clear of negativity.
“We have these calendars on the desks at Red FM and a lot of them are stuck on March 9, the date when many of our employees left the building,” says Neil says of the station’s dramatically altered atmosphere. “They haven’t been back. A radio station that would ordinarily have about 40 people milling around now has a max of five or six, so it’s eerie.
“You can sense people’s frustration and anger the longer this ordeal goes on,” he adds. “Their emotions are becoming much more stretched and frayed. Firstly, we thought the Coronavirus would never arrive. When it did, we thought it would be a short, sharp shock. None of us expected to still be at this stage by December.
“When we got into March,” Neil says, “the big thing that I remember is fear. There were all sorts of announcements made and even predictions of 70,000 deaths in the first wave alone. People thought that those kinds of figures, like Ebola and SARS, were possible.”
Prendeville had always felt that, in a situation like this, local stations would really come into their own.
“I thought that there was always going to be a role for what local radio stations did on air,” he reflects, “but this year more than ever. I hope that we all stepped up to it. The concerns around unemployment fuelled an awful lot of our conversations on air in the first few months. People were being left with no jobs or prospects. I certainly got an awful lot more personal stories at Red FM. People were much more free with their emotions.”
People seemed to need the radio more.
“My audience share went up by about 15,000 because of the public working from home,” Neil says. “By virtue of that, we got to hear a lot of stories. One of the tales that stuck with me was a young man who contracted Covid and ended up very sick in the Mercy Hospital in Cork. Unbeknownst to him, his elderly mother was in the ward next to him. When he came out of the ICU, the doctors had to inform him that his mother had died. He’s now living with the guilt as to whether or not he passed it on to her.”
Stories of that kind indicate the emotions that are at stake. Prendeville recently made a conscious choice to steer the show away from the often-depressing intensity of the Coronavirus bubble.
“It would be easy to fill 15 hours of speech time with just the virus, but I’m quite Covid-fatigued at this rate,” he says. “The next big debate in the New Year will be between those who will take the vaccine and those who won’t. The narrative from constant medics on air is repetitive. Everyone knows what we have to do and how to behave at this stage. Our show has been looking a lot at Cork characters and nostalgia themes instead, because listeners want to grasp onto that fuzzy, warm feeling of how life used to be.”
In spite of the often dark tenor to 2020, Neil feels that adversity did also engender a real community spirit.
“There was a huge coming together. It’s what I love about this city,” he enthuses. “When you can only go 2km from your home, and then you can suddenly explore more of your county, you realise that you just see it as second nature. I’ve seen Christmas lights all over the world, but none of them are as beautiful as Cork’s. The capital is barren, whereas there’s an incredible buzz here. We’re the Rebel County for a reason. We know what matters now. Precious freedoms have been taken away from us that we’ll never take for granted again.”
The past year has also shown the extraordinary generosity of Irish people towards those in need.
“If I put out an appeal on the air, I’ve never been let down,” says Neil. “It could be for somebody who’s short of money or homeless, but every single time, we’ll get a rush of offers to help. The people are always there. We’re an incredible country with regard to minding those around us. 2020 has shown people that there are dark days, but nobody should ever feel totally alone.”
• Listen to The Neil Prendeville Show, weekdays from 9am on Cork’s RedFM (104-106).
Read our full feature on the power of local radio during the Covid-19 pandemic in the Hot Press Annual, out now: