Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Exemplary Interviewing Skills of Newstalk's Eoin McDevitt

It’s not easy to interview someone. The really interesting stuff is often what the interviewee doesn’t want to talk about. This means that the trickiest job the interviewer faces is coaxing that bit of news out of the interviewee without the interviewee getting upset over the extraction, thus putting the interviewer’s career – and possibly life – in danger.

Newstalk’s Eoin McDevitt is the best sports interviewer on Irish radio today. He is astonishingly good and, a little like Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, his skill lies in the fact that you never see him coming.

An RTÉ commentator badgered Ollie Canning on the radio recently about whether or not Canning would ever hurl for Galway again. Bad. Ollie wasn’t on trial for his life, and was left in a no-win situation.

If Canning said no, he was never playing again, ever, it would close off forever whatever spark is left in him, that may kindle yet after the harsh and lonely winter, and if he said yes, he would play again, he would look like an idiot. Nothing gained there for anyone.

Of course, the commentator was a commentator, not an interviewer, and there is a difference. McDevitt’s own recent attempt at athletics commentary highlighted that difference further. But purely as an interviewer, McDevitt is outstanding.

The reason McDevitt is so good is the same reason Michael Parkinson was so good. McDevitt always knows that his role is second banana. That people want to know what Darragh Ó Sé’s opinion, and not Eoin McDevitt’s. Whatever ego fulfilment McDevitt gets, he does not attempt to get it by telling Brian O’Driscoll what it’s like to win a Grand Slam. He is aware that insight travels in a contrary direction.

McDevitt’s personality type is particularly suited to Irish sportspeople, combining as it does the best traits of two icons of Irish life – the undertaker, and the former Lieutenant Columbo of the Los Angeles Police Department.

We saw McDevitt’s undertaker schtick on Setanta over the weekend when McDevitt was chairing an hour’s cheap blather with Brian Kerr, Ken Early and Big Joe Kernan. It was up to McDevitt to ask Big Joe why he wasn’t manager of Galway any more, without ever being able to raise any unpleasantness over that green stuff that makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around.

And nor did he. Summoning the combined sorrows of Pippi Longstocking and our own Deirdre na mBrón, McDevitt heaved a heartfelt sigh and asked Joe if the deceased had been suffering long. Joe told his little scéal and McDevitt nodded mournfully in time with Joe’s pain. A double check to see if the departed would be buried in the blue suit or the brown, and McDevitt faded back into the wallpaper again. Genius.

An interview with Lovely Derval O’Rourke after Derval’s silver medal in Barcelona showed the Columbo side to McDevitt’s technique. Lovely Derval had a tiny crack at the AAI (as opposed to the big root in the bottom that they need so badly) when she got back from Barcelona, but by the time of Monday’s Off the Ball Derval didn’t want to get mixed up in a shouting match and was all for backing off.

Not enough for McDevitt though. He went back over what she said, gently but thoroughly, and Derval expanded a little more on what it’s like for Irish athletes trying to compete on a world stage. She did not have rant, but simply expressed what it’s like for her and what it’s like for others, with McDevitt leading her along without ever trying to trap her or be sensational in any way.

In the matter of bringing the truth to the light, it was like when Columbo would call around to the suspect's house, apologise for bothering the suspect, and just wonder – because he couldn’t sleep last night, wondering, and it just just this one other little thing – why was it that, if your secretary was in New York on business at the time of your wife’s murder, the ashtray in the summer house contains menthol cigarettes butts. Your wife only ever smoked Camels. And Columbo would stand there, in the raggedy coat and the cheap cigar like the biggest gom in the world, while the suspect paled beneath his tan.

McDevitt has the advantage of three hours of radio to kill, of course, and that gives him the time his particular technique needs, but still. It’s a pleasure to hear a master going about his work – not least if you are taking the iron around the chicanes and have another four shirts to do for the week. Long may he reign.

FOCAL SCOIR: Speaking of Parky, here's one of his finest hours, getting cosy with Miss Piggy in the 70s. Fantastic.