Friday, October 1, 2010

In defence of talkback radio

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 29.)

I AM a talkback listener. There, I’ve said it.

One hesitates to admit this because the world of talkback radio is said to be populated entirely by ranters, rednecks and bigots. The phrase “talkback radio mob” is common shorthand for bores and blowhards who are long on opinions and short on intellect.

The truth is that talkback radio, much like any other form of media, is a mixed bag.

The one consistent rule I’ve observed over many years is that the quality of talkback is largely determined by the quality of the host. If the host is intelligent, well-informed and concerned with matters of substance rather than banality and trivia, he or she is likely to attract callers of a similar calibre.

Not only does like attract like, but good hosts have little patience for rank stupidity, ignorance or bigotry, and are likely to dump moronic or abusive callers without much ado. Eventually the morons get the message and stop calling, or find a less discriminating host on another station (there’s usually one somewhere).

Most of my own talkback listening is done in the small hours. People often express surprise when I tell them I regularly listen to the midnight-to-dawn talkback shows, but when you’re not a good sleeper the sound of human voices can be a useful distraction from the pre-occupations that might otherwise clutter the mind. Music might be more soothing, but it leaves mental space that can be invaded by vexatious thoughts.

Talkback radio gives you something to engage with, yet you don’t want it to be too stimulating. After all, the purpose of going to bed (well, most of the time, anyway) is to sleep. The ideal all-night host, to my mind, strikes a delicate balance, promoting interesting conversation while trying to keep the mood reasonably relaxed.

I sometimes wish Pat Brittenden, an all-night host on NewstalkZB, would grasp this. He gives the impression of being on steroids, treating every caller as a challenge to his intellectual supremacy; someone who must be won over by the sheer force of his arguments.

To be fair to Brittenden, he’s smart; I just think his Socratic version of talkback would be better suited to a daytime slot. Bruce Russell, with whom he normally alternates, strikes a completely different tone. Certainly Russell has firm views which he sometimes expresses caustically, but they are leavened by a whimsical and engaging wit.

Over on the other all-night talkback programme, on Radio Live, you get either the former church minister Ewing Stevens – an octogenarian who uses his show to promote quack health remedies to the anxious and gullible (though it’s possible Stevens sincerely believes in their efficacy) – or Dudley Stace, who is given to talking about his motorcycle trips or encouraging viewers to call in with their views on such banal subjects as the best pie they’ve ever eaten.

As I said, the host largely determines the quality of the caller, and these two Radio Live hosts tend to bring out the type of insomniac who gives talkback a bad name.

Many people find night-time radio chatter comforting. This was never better demonstrated than in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, when countless people, unnerved by the constant aftershocks, turned to early-hours talkback programmes not just for information, but also for the reassuring knowledge that others were sharing the same ordeal.

You quickly learn that there’s an alternative universe of insomniacs and other nocturnal creatures – security patrol men, long-haul truck drivers, all-night service station attendants, bakers making 2am starts – who keep the talkback studio buttons lit up while normal people slumber. I hesitate to call it a community, but it sometimes has that feeling.

Some callers are simply lonely or bored and have nothing to say. They give the impression of being infatuated with the sound of their own voices, and sensitive hosts often humour them more than they should.

Many callers, however, are articulate, witty, insightful and well-informed. I often think it’s a shame that their voices are not more widely heard – their sweetness wasted on the night-time air, to paraphrase the poet Gray.

At its best, talkback radio can be a reassuring confirmation that we live in an informed and robust democracy. New Zealanders are generally pretty savvy on matters of politics and many don’t hesitate to assert their right to free speech on talkback radio, just as they do in letters to the editor and (increasingly) in the online domain known as the blogosphere.

Ironically, blogosphere dwellers tend to look down on talkback as an inferior forum, the preserve of the unsophisticated dinosaur. I say this is ironic because debate in the blogosphere, being generally unmoderated, often degenerates into petty, toxic abuse of the most unedifying kind. Talkback radio at least has a host who can hit the dump button when discussions get unpleasant or defamatory.

One other thing you can’t help noticing when you become a habitual talkback listener is the disproportionate number of non-New Zealand accents. Notwithstanding my comments about New Zealanders not hesitating to assert their right to free speech, the number of callers with British accents is striking.

My brother Justin, a Wellington morning talkback host on NewstalkZB, referred to this recently in a Dominion Post interview following his announcement that he’s retiring at the end of the year (to be replaced by Sean Plunket, formerly of Radio New Zealand).

Justin said one thing that irked him, after 23 years on the programme, was people’s reluctance to phone in. He used the word “passionless” – the same word writer Gordon McLauchlan used to describe New Zealanders in his famous 1970s book The Passionless People.

According to Justin, only 5-10 percent of his listeners ever call in. He reckons English and Dutch listeners are far more likely to phone because they come from cultures where people are not afraid to speak out.

I’m not going to argue with him – he’s my big brother, after all – but I reckon the ratio of callers to listeners must be higher on night-time talkback. Either that, or there are far more insomniacs out there than we ever imagined.

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