The Story Behind the Story: Damien O’Reilly on His Star Prize Winning Broadcasts

This week’s latest IPCC report makes for stark reading. In Ireland, agriculture accounts for one third of green house gas emissions. Agriculture is our big industry. And so the challenge is growing to try and reduce emissions while at the same time continuing to support tens of thousands of small rurally based family farms. In other words, how do we continue to underpin farm incomes while reducing emissions, methane in particular. 

Dairying and beef are the two big farming enterprises in Ireland and the focus is very much on asking them what can they do to reduce emissions and the impact grazing cows have on soil, air and water quality. As this debate becomes more serious, it has the potential to divide. So on one side, farmers say that they are racing as fast as they can to farm in a more environmentally sustainable manner. Environmentalists say they are not going fast enough. While the core puzzle is keeping all the plates of economic, social and environmental sustainability spinning at the same time, public discourse on the matter has become divisive.

On our programme, we aim to bring often complex farming stories to our audience in a listener friendly manner. We shine a light on the issues of the day, the stories of the seasons on the land and bring them to urban kitchen tables each Saturday morning in an enlightening, entertaining and educational manner. It is a delicate balancing act as the vast majority of our listeners are not connected with farming, yet we are among the top 15 most listened-to programmes of any sort across all stations in Ireland with over 260,000 tuning in every Saturday morning.

With this in mind, we must adhere to broadcasting rules and guidelines, which at their core are to be fair and balanced and accurate. But we need bums on seats, too, and so we approach each broadcast with the listener in mind. More and more, the climate debate is dominating the main news agenda and with agriculture so prominent in Ireland, it means we are focussing on those issues in our broadcasts. From a time ten years ago when we would seldom have focussed on the inextricable link between farming and the environment, no broadcast passes now without some discussion.

In putting together our show which won the Star Prize for Broadcasting, it was one of those shows where we wanted to hold a mirror up to the problem of climate change and then where Irish farming fits into the mix. So we:

  1. Set the scene in an engaging way with archive clips, appropriate music and clear narration of the facts and figures.
  2. We spoke to farmers and consumers to get their thoughts on the future journey of travel in tackling climate change in Ireland so as to meet our national, European and international obligations.
  3. We chose four voices, two with an environmental viewpoint and two veering more towards having a sympathetic understanding from the farmers perspective. We broke that down also on gender.

My focus has always been to distill and present complex farming stories and jargon in an easy to understand manner. My producer ribs me that I am a “farmsplainer” always “farmsplaining.” It is an accurate description, but in order to consolidate listenership in a crowded field, it must be listenable, interesting, entertaining and relevant. We have a very big grid of boxes to tick and a lot of angles to run in order to present a programme which has niche margins inside which to play around with while winning ordinary listeners and not patronising farmers and food producers. I think we have nailed it and continue to set high standards for our contributors to follow that template with their pieces and packages. And this has been reflected in the various awards we have won over the years, including several Star Prizes for broadcasting.