One of the funniest regular features in the British satirical magazine Private Eye is Dumb Britain, in which readers send in examples of hilariously stupid answers given by contestants on TV and radio quiz shows.
Here are a couple of typical Dumb Britain entries from a recent edition:
From TV's The Weakest Link: "Which pop group, who once collaborated on a record with the footballer Paul Gascoigne, took their name from an island off the coast of Northumberland?"
Contestant: "Gerry and the Pacemakers."
From an LBR (London) radio quiz: "What was the title of the Beatles’ fifth album?"
Caller: "I don’t know."
Host: "It’s a four-letter word beginning with 'H'".
Caller: "A Hard Day’s Night."
If I kept a pen and paper handy, I could easily compile a list of equally idiotic answers to questions I hear occasionally on quiz shows here – especially those on Radio Live. Here’s one I heard the other night on veteran talkback host Ewing Stevens’ programme:
Stevens: "What’s the largest living reptile?"
Caller: "Um, would that be a blue whale? Or is the blue whale a fish?"
Even Stevens, who by no stretch of the imagination could be considered an intellectual powerhouse, sometimes seems taken aback by the depth of his listeners’ ignorance.
The IQ of the typical Radio Live caller is scarily low. You sometimes wonder how these people manage to dress themselves in the morning.
It’s not hard to see why purveyors of dubious alternative health remedies are among the station’s biggest advertisers. There could be no radio audience more likely to swallow exaggerated claims or fall for simplistic solutions to complex health issues (a tendency encouraged by the octogenarian Stevens, who energetically promotes the products of an “alternative” health products company based on Waiheke Island, where Stevens also lives). If the Commerce Commission or Ministry of Health monitored these programmes regularly, I reckon they’d hear enough unsubstantiated claims to keep them in litigation for a decade.
The gullibility of Radio Live’s listeners must have made them an attractive target for the promoters of the bogus weight loss product Body Enhancer, who copped a $600,000-plus fine in 2005 (later reduced on appeal to a mere $394,500) for breaches of the Fair Trading Act. Body Enhancer was heavily promoted on Radio Live, or Radio Pacific as it was then known.
Interestingly enough, one of the station’s heaviest advertisers these days is Tim Bickerstaff, once a notoriously combative talkback host himself, who sells a herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction which he claims fixed his own impotence.
You have to admire Bickerstaff’s chutzpah when he promotes a “buy two bottles, get two free” deal for $199. Get two free? Admittedly I was never great at arithmetic, but by my reckoning those bottles come at a price of $49.75 each. But the ads must work, or Bickerstaff wouldn’t be blitzing the airwaves with them day after day. Who was it that said there was a sucker born every minute?
And if you’re wondering how I know all this, fair question. Like many poor sleepers, I tune in nightly to the alternative universe of midnight-to-dawn radio. This isn’t as tragic as it sounds, because you hear some surprisingly informed discussion on all-night talkback – certainly just as intelligent as much of the comment you read in the blogosphere, and generally a lot more civilised. (As with all talkback shows, the quality of the callers is largely determined by the quality of the host.) You can also catch up with interesting Nat Rad programmes that you missed during the day (like Kim Hill’s Saturday interview with Wellington blues musician Dave Murphy, which was replayed in the early hours this morning).
But while I occasionally tune into Radio Live, it’s not something I would recommend for edification, or at least not during the small hours. It’s more a curiosity thing: an opportunity to marvel at – how can I put this politely? – the unfathomable ignorance of a section of the community that is otherwise mercifully hidden from view.