It's a Wednesday afternoon in Marconi House on Digges Lane, Dublin 2, from where Today FM, Newstalk and now Phantom 105.2 broadcast. In a meeting room with a glass front facing out on to the Newstalk office floor, the team from Off The Ball are discussing ideas for that evening's show. Someone shoots down a surfing story based on a documentary someone else saw recently. They talk about that night's football. Gradually, the show takes shape; interviews, guests, topics. And the boys in their nice selection of trainers, jeans and (in the case of Ciaran Murphy) wolf-themed sweaters leave the room an hour later and get to work. At a later date, Murphy will inform me that the meeting was weird because I was there and they're usually shouting and insulting each other instead of "being on our best behaviour".
Off The Ball is a unique entity in Irish broadcasting. Started by Ger Gilroy, Newstalk's first sports editor, in 2002, it was a show that immediately stood out, in spite of a fairly shaky start. In 2004, Gilroy won Sports Broadcaster of the Year at the PPI Radio Awards, the first of many awards for the show. The team has changed over time, but the style is the same: conversational, irreverent, smart, informative and sharp.
It's a show made for sports nerds, yet even if you aren't particularly up on the details of what's being discussed, it's still an eminently enjoyable listen. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It can be light and funny without being too frivolous or cheesy. And – radically, for a non-current-affairs-based Irish radio programme – it doesn't treat its listeners like idiots. Eoin McDevitt's presenting style is friendly and disarming. Ken Early is curmudgeonly, endlessly knowledgeable about soccer, with a default setting of indignant. Ciaran Murphy is the GAA guy, sharp and always ready for a surreal one liner.
"It's all quite deliberate in terms of the style we're trying to do," Early says over coffee on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks later. "It's all based around conversations. In between pieces, there's always five or six minutes of bullshit."
Murphy and McDevitt, sitting opposite him, laugh. "What?" Early asks.
"It's the word 'bullshit' I'm not too happy about," McDevitt retorts.
Murphy elaborates on the style of the show. "If Eoin talks to Mattie Forde [the Wexford footballer], that's not just a conversation between Eoin and Mattie Forde, it's a conversation between Eoin and Mattie Forde that everyone's listening to and will take one thing or another out of it. I wouldn't go in and say, 'Text us your favourite memories of Mattie Forde', because that's just stupid, it's really contrived. But if I talk about one aspect of Mattie Forde's career, people listen to that and think, 'Oh yeah, I've a similar experience to that when he tore my county apart.' That's a conversation."
So basically it's sharing, not telling? "Ken does exactly the same with the pieces on the football show," Murphy continues. "If we're talking to a contributor and he covers 80% of the ground we want him to cover, Ken can just as easily say, 'That was interesting what he said, here's what I think about that.'"
Eoin interjects: "And then Ken bullshits for six minutes."
Early smiles. "People like the feeling that they're eavesdropping on a conversation, rather than listening to a lecture. If people aren't quite sure what they'll hear next, they'll keep listening."
"Yeah, and the best way to recreate that is to not actually know what you're going to say next," says Murphy, laughing.
Three hours is a hell of a long time in radio. In the control booth on a Wednesday night, Simon Hick, the programme's resident rugby expert [Murphy later makes a point of saying his knowledge of the game is unrivalled by any other broadcaster] and the guy who got his surfing idea shot down in the meeting, is furiously typing, sending text messages flowing in through to the presenters in studio. In the hot seat, McDevitt is cueing interviews over the phone, and occasionally throwing an eye on the Arsenal-Man City match that's coming to life on the television in the left-hand corner. As with most live programmes, pre-recorded interviews are slotted in to ease the pressure and keep the content tight.
Things do go wrong though. Like the time McDevitt had just watched the documentary Pumping Iron and they had three work-experience people trying to get in contact with the director George Butler. Eventually they got him, but Murphy only had a chance to talk to him about 20 minutes before the interview.
"I thought he sounded a bit feeble but I though, ah, it'll be grand. We got him on live and the interview lasted about two minutes until the full extent of the man's age and weariness became clear to the nation," says Murphy.
Eoin concurs. "We're not slagging off an old man here, but someone did text in saying, 'Was that a séance with Michael Jackson's ghost?'"
There was also the time McDevitt said something loud and embarrassing about the size of a banana he was carrying outside the lift in their office, just as the doors opened to reveal a confused-looking James Franco.
Or the time when McDevitt and Early got the time of Derval O'Rourke's world championship race wrong, only to look up at the television and realise it was on, and were forced to commentate on it despite not even knowing the names of the other athletes.
Murphy re-enacts it. "'Derval's seventh, she's lost it, no she's fifth, oh she's first, she's third, she's seventh, I think she's finished fourth.' That was basically it." They laugh heartily at the memory, and at a text that came in saying it was the worst piece of commentating a listener had ever heard. Later, showing once again how they don't take themselves too seriously, they played their own commentary next to the BBC's expert commentary as an exercise in self-flagellating atonement.
Early's own personal story of grief makes him shiver with the memory. "I was doing one of those Friday nights with Gilroy, and we did a road show in Galway. It was an outside broadcast, because Newstalk had this truck – do we still have that truck?" They discuss whether the truck still exists. "Anyway, it was set up in Eyre Square and, f***ing hell, me and Gilroy were in this truck with the side of it opened up. Bobby Robson had just died and we had Johnny Giles and Brian Glanville talking about him on the phone. It was me and Gilroy sitting at this table, on this cold rainy day, looking out, and not a single soul in f***ing Eyre Square. Our sound blasting out into this f***ing nothingness."
Murphy sympathises. "It sounds like a scene from Father Ted."
Early disagrees. "No, it was like Extras. Ricky Gervais in a chicken suit in a nightclub, that was how I felt. Occasionally one person would come over and stand in front and watch for a minute and then walk away."
A couple of weeks beforehand, we're talking about the importance of listener involvement. It's a Friday morning – Friday being their quietest day thanks to a part of the broadcast being made up of a 'best of' from the rest of the week. (Although Murphy clarifies later, "It's not that we go in there on a Friday, light cigars, have a few brandies and go home again.")
"Eamon Dunphy looks like a sheep," McDevitt announces, which, according to him, is the best text message they've ever got.
Their listeners latch on to things and expand on them, occasionally directing the tone of the show. Early's Eyre Square nightmare notwithstanding, some of the most fun experiences they've had on the programme have been the road shows – they cite ones in Monaghan, Birr and, yes, Galway – that bring them face to face with their audience, although the change from being in a studio and having conversations with each other and being in front of hundreds of people and trying to be funny creates added pressure.
From their Facebook page and the faces that make up their road-show audiences, they figure the gender balance of their listenership is 90% male, 10% female. Do they get many texts from female listeners? McDevitt mock-reflects: "Well, we got one in 2006. We're just waiting for another."
Murphy laughs. "I think she's left the country actually."
They discuss the gender breakdown before Murphy concludes: "I think since Eoin started on television the female listenership has gone up. Shot through the roof, in fact. I think that's one of the key factors."
McDevitt concurs. "Yes, that's right. They love unshaven beasts on TV."
Murphy adds: "Yes, unshaven gorillas."
There's an inclusive gang mentality about the lads. They're all great company, intelligent, polite and resolutely interested in what they do. When the Sunday Tribune photographer is taking a group shot of all of the team, a car drives by and a woman in the passenger seat stares out at them as they pose against a wall. "I bet she's thinking, 'God, boybands have really gone to shit,'" Murphy says, to no one in particular.
Looking back, one of McDevitt's favourite Off The Ball experiences was the night Bernard Dunne won his world title. He had been talking to him for years and the programme had established a good relationship with him. The night he won, McDevitt was doing a ringside reporting job. "I managed to get into the ring and talk to him after and all that. Actually, I managed to get into the ring and I wasn't sure whether I was going to be able to talk to him or not, so when Marty Morrissey was doing his interview live on RTé I basically stuck my microphone in."
"You can see it on television," Murphy says, mimicking a hand being stuck in front of someone in slow motion. "Just this hairy hand coming in."
Early says: "He had clearly jammed his mic in, but he had also averted his eyes to the side."
Murphy laughs. "Yeah, as if it was a mistake! 'Oh, you know, I was just waving my mic around.'"
Marty Morrissey was not impressed. "I got daggers!" McDevitt says. "Marty is doing his interview and he's kind of like..." He pauses, and does an evil glare. "But we ended up getting an interview with Bernard afterwards anyway."
Away from sport (and it's quite difficult to get away from the subject with these guys) there does seem to be a camaraderie among the team. Do they hang out a lot outside of the studio?
Murphy shouts: "NO."
"NO WAY," McDevitt adds.
"I just have a longstanding hatred of these two people, I must say," Murphy continues, pointing at McDevitt and Early.
"Believe it or not I was actually in Ciaran Murphy's house yesterday watching a movie at half 10 in the morning," Early says. The movie was Hoop Dreams, for the record.
"Yes, we do hang out," McDevitt says, "but we don't usually hang out in each others' houses at half 10 in the morning eating our toast and jam watching top-quality American sports documentaries."
Murphy believes that their friendships are the key to how the show works. "We are quite close. Most weeks we would end up going for a few pints together. We're friends."
In spite of all of their collective intelligence, the only phrase or slogan they can come up with for Off The Ball is 'Listen to the show, it's good', which Newstalk probably won't be putting on the side of a bus anytime soon.
When pushed to try and sell their show to potential listeners, they fall back into joke mode.
"When anyone surveys you to ask what radio show you listen to, don't forget us," McDevitt says. "Those surveys, I mean, they're not the most scientific things in the world, so one or two could skew it."
"Exactly," Murphy says. "If you've ever listened to us, ever, just throw it down. I mean, who cares?!"
Come on guys, think of a slogan for your show.
"Thinking of something like this is kind of like in your French oral exam when you have a stock answer for something and can't say anything else," McDevitt says.
"Yeah!" Murphy says, before lapsing into French oral exam mode. "Aha, that's a great question, and I'll answer it in a minute, but in the meantime I'd like to talk to you about skateboarding."
And they're off again.
"I absolutely love it. It's not just about sport, there's humour to it and they talk about sport like proper fans, they don't just report on it."
"It's the best show of its kind on radio. There are always interesting items on it that you weren't expecting, like a really fascinating piece recently on Arthur Ashe. Sometimes I want to drive into town and ask them can I just hang around the studio and watch them do their magic."
"It's a breath of fresh air. The quality of the presenters is at the highest level, and their depth of experience across all sport is excellent. It's quality information and I like the fact that they're always in touch with the best performers of sport around the world. They're really good professionals."
"Off the Ball on Newstalk is the best show on the radio."
"Like a lot of people, I'm a big fan. I think the fact that they give so much time and space to let the programme breathe. They have so many hours to fill that they actually get a chance to become creative. You end up overhearing a conversation that sports fans might have in a pub, a semi-blokey, intelligent conversation that isn't set in the same way normal radio is set. They're so comfortable with each other and it sounds as if they're having a lot of fun with it as well. Like all good radio, you don't have to be a fan of sport to listen, because you can just enjoy the broadcasting."
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