For the 65 years up to 1990, radio and television in Ireland were state monopolies run by Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ). Then independent local stations were licensed, along with a national independent station, the short-lived Century Radio. On Paddy's Day1 1997, the Century franchise was revived in the form of a new mainstream channel, originally called 'Radio Ireland' but now rebranded as Today FM.
Today (or at the time of writing), FM's marketing strategy is built on two central planks - the breakfast show hosted by Ian Dempsey (poached from RTÉ's Radio 2), and a peak time evening show mixing current affairs and sport with wicked satire, The Last Word. This show is presented by journalist and former Ireland international soccer player Eamon Dunphy2.
The Last Word runs from 5pm to 7pm, Monday to Friday, and usually addresses half a dozen major news stories of the day - but not in the neutral or editorial style of a typical news programme. Instead, one or more journalists or public figures with a special interest in the topic - and often an axe to grind - discuss the issues with Dunphy. The host will usually play Devil's Advocate for a more interesting discussion, but on those topics (and there are many) where he has strong personal opinions, and he's not afraid of airing those opinions, either.
The show is particularly fond of exposing corruption and incompetence in government. Daily coverage has been given to the McCracken, Moriarty and Flood investigations into illegal payments to politicians, and the 'DIRT inquiry' into the way hundreds of prominent and wealthy Irish citizens illegally evaded the tax on money earned from savings. Dunphy has had special sympathy for the victims of the scandal in which hundreds of Irish hemophiliacs were given blood products which resulted in HIV and Hepatitis infections.
Perhaps loudest and most persistent of all, though, has been his pursuit of former judge Hugh O'Flaherty, who resigned after it was revealed that he had intervened improperly in a judicial case, but was then nominated by the Finance Minister for a highly-paid job in the European Investment Bank. In the face of a wave of public indignation, and after an ill-tempered interview on The Last Word, O'Flaherty finally relented and withdrew his candidature.
But The Last Word isn't all politics. As a former professional footballer with Millwall FC3, 'Eamo' (as he is known) ensures that all sports, and English soccer in particular, are given in-depth coverage. This is most apparent in his Friday show when the last hour is dedicated purely to the coming weekend's fixtures, with expert contributors such as Mark Lawrenson, a European Cup winner with Liverpool, and Johnny Giles, the creative genius in the mighty Leeds United side of the early 1970s.
Eamon also gives regular tips for those who wish to bet on football matches - though his success rate ranges from poor to woeful.
Dunphy is that rare creature, a populist who doesn't mind being unpopular. He is ever ready to rouse the rabble, but seems to delight in nothing more than reading out comments phoned in by listeners - comments that are often vitriolic and profane in their personal criticism of him. The strangest thing of all is that these harsh critics keep listening in their droves.
Perhaps the best reason for listening to The Last Word, though, is the biting satirical comedy provided by Navan Man and the Drunken Politician.
Navan Man is an everyman from 'up country' - not very bright, but always with an eye for the main chance or (more disturbingly) unnatural relations with farmyard animals. In America he would be a redneck; in Britain, the caricatured 'Essex man', even down to the Ford Capri. Yet somehow he manages at the same time to be an appealingly naive, almost childlike figure - mostly thanks to his close proximity to the sleazy, vile, money-grabbing Drunken Politician. This distillation of all that is bad about Ireland's political system is a loathsome creature. He treats Navan man as his slave, and the voters as idiots. He has a finger in every pie and a hand in every till. His catchphrase, a slurred attempt at a seductive 'Hello girls!', could hardly be more off-putting. What is most alarming is just how like many members of the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) he really is.
The cast list is fleshed out by topical visitors and a host of repeating characters every bit as memorable as they are unpleasant, from the border-dwelling, IRA-supporting Frankie from Dundalk ('I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you'), to the utterly creepy Father Wishy-Washy, always reminiscing about performing unspeakable acts on the local boys in his days as a missionary in Ungo-Bungoland. It's never easy listening and not for the shockable, but it is probably the funniest thing on radio anywhere.