Letting Ordinary Joe loose on the nation

Radio producers think phone-in shows are democratic. In truth they’re stuffed with whiny, clichéd invective.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Earlier this week, I was asked by an Irish radio station to feature on one of their programmes, to voice my opinion on the notion that men are funnier than women. I told them I couldn’t do Monday, but was available for the rest of the week. As I write this on Wednesday evening I haven’t heard back from them, which means either they’ve figured the story has gone a bit stale, or else they’ve done their research and concluded that I’m a bit of a charlatan, and in not the remotest sense an authority on gender theory.

It’s a bit of a relief, really, as I detest doing radio. I get very nervous and tend either to stutter and ramble or descend into a state of catatonic stupor. Of course, I don’t tell people this. It is far preferable to excuse one’s shambolic performance with some carefully chosen words to the effect that ‘anyhow, I think the written word is a far nobler and cerebral avenue for discourse than the spoken word, which is the preserve of show-offs and poseurs, who are far more interested in hyperbole and rhetorical flourishes than the pursuit of truth’. But, in my experience, there is an element of me that does genuinely mistrust radio discussions, particularly when this part of the media tries to engage non-experts and members of the public in serious debate.

When I had my 15 minutes of fame back in February 2004 with the release of my small book Conspicuous Compassion (1), I was inundated with requests for radio interviews. On nearly every occasion the host referred to the book as a ‘report’, and I was even at times more preposterously introduced as an ‘expert’. It was ludicrous: the aforementioned pamphlet merely consisted of some opinions drawn from observations, which is what comment journalists, who have to write about a wide variety of subjects, largely do for a living. Conspicuous Compassion, though excellent and insightful and still available on Amazon for £6.75 or $20, was not an austere treatise or an exhaustive sociological investigation underpinned by reams of statistical analysis.

But the media prefers opinion to reportage these days, as the growth of the blogosphere testifies. Everyone can now have their say on matters, which makes me wonder if the days of talk radio are numbered. If they are, this is probably a good thing.

As Duleep Allirajah has pointed out, radio phone-ins are at their most trite and moronic when it comes to the football phone-in (2). I used to listen to 6-0-6 on BBC Radio Five Live before it finally dawned on me what an awful and predictable show it was. Every week it spewed up the same dreadful parade of partisan and disgruntled fans, forever moaning that their team should have been given a penalty, or that the penalty awarded against them was never a penalty in the first place. The same rule applies for offside decisions. Then someone pipes up to make the desperately repetitious point that football ‘is all about money’ these days, or that ‘there are too many foreigners in the game’, and does so in the irritating manner of someone who thinks he has stumbled upon an astonishing discovery. The stream of inanities proffered by callers to 6-0-6 make dialogues between Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson sound like something you’d hear on The Moral Maze.

If you don’t like or understand football, and don’t know what I’m talking about, then you will be familiar with comparable and likewise predictable gripes frequently aired in political discussions. Someone will come up with the similarly gnostic revelations that he or she thinks ‘George Bush is the real terrorist’, that ‘Labour is actually more right-wing than the Conservatives’, or that ‘Polish immigrants are actually harder workers than the British’. Then there are the timeless favourites: ‘we should stop immigration cos our tiny island is full up’ (Britain is actually the ninth biggest island in the world), ‘I don’t see why the taxpayer should fund single mothers’, or ‘[insert subject] is just political correctness gone mad’.

It’s not that such points aren’t necessarily true, it’s just that repeating them over and over again doesn’t make them any truer. Neither does raising one’s voice do anything to authenticate the veracity of a proposition. There is rarely any context, and seldom the appreciation that subjects are usually complicated and nuanced. Invariably, with the possible exception of BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers, people who call in to radio stations offer prejudice, cliché and simplistic solutions to the world’s woes.

So why have they endured since they first appeared on wireless sets in the 1920s? Ostensibly, they can be regarded as democratic, like the letters page of a newspaper, in that they give the Ordinary Joe a voice. But unlike letters, they are not edited and carefully selected – instead a caller who makes some vaguely interesting noises towards a switchboard operator is unleashed on to the airwaves to issue a torrent of whiny, meandering, ill-thought-out invective. But like letters to newspapers, the phone-in format is popular with producers because it is cheap. Unlike a documentary, or a panel show, this form of factual radio demands no scriptwriters or guest fees. Being opinion-orientated, the radio phone-in also provides for more theatrical confrontation and argument, which is why its tendency to veer into the arena of drama detracts from its credibility.

The blogosphere suffers from talk radio’s shortcomings: while it promises to provide the considered voice of all to all it invariably ends up being the equivalent of toilet-wall graffiti. This is of course an ‘undemocratic’ point of view, but to be fair to the blog, at least its medium – the written word – is more conducive to constructive thought and to the capacity to flesh out ideas. There is also room for footnotes and cross-references. But what really gets my goat about many bloggers is their snooty contempt for the mainstream media and the printed press, which they are entirely parasitic on – a point satirised recently in The Onion (3).

So, forced to choose, I would prefer to read a blog than subject myself to a radio talk show. But just don’t believe that everything you read in the blogosphere is necessarily penned by ‘experts’. For report and opinion that I trust, my first port of call each morning is a copy of The Times.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist. He will be taking off his weekly television review duties to investigate the mysterious world of radio at the end of every month.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV and radio

(1) See Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, by Patrick West, Civitas, 2004

(2) See From the phone-in to the moan-in, by Duleep Allirajah.

(3) Mainstream Media At It Again, Bloggers Report, the Onion, 8 May 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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