BROADCASTING / Just shut up and listen: Talk radio is coming to Britain and it's not going to be nice. Martin Kelner reports

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The Independent Culture
It is not an entirely unexpected experience, listening to radio phone-in shows, to come across - how shall we put it - a nutcase or two. But on WABC New York, which claims to be the most popular and profitable talk radio station in the world, the quota of crazies seems extraordinarily high.

In three hours listening to WABC, I hear Hillary Clinton described as a lesbian, anyone receiving welfare as a feckless beggar, and the man arrested (but not yet tried) for the World Trade Centre bombing as a skunk who should be strung up forthwith - the kind of irrational prejudice, you might think, best dealt with by a withering put down, or simply by cutting off the caller. Except these are not the callers; these are the hosts.

If your previous encounters with talk radio have been in the company of cuddly Nick Ross or even Brian Hayes, with their quaint old fashioned notions of balance and reasoned argument, it can come as something of a shock to hear Rush Limbaugh, WABC's exotically named star turn, open his show: 'Welcome to day 36 of the crisis in America known as the Clinton presidency.' Or to hear Rob Grant, whose show runs from 3 - 7 pm on WABC, continually call the President Slick Willie, and announce that if Slick Willie does not let Hillary Roddam Clinton have her way, she will leave him and set up home with Martina Navratilova.

All this, of course, would be no more than a spot of New York exotica, unworthy of mention outside one of those Stone-Me-It's-A-Funny-Old- World-In-America columns, were the WABC model not now being closely studied by British radio executives and would-be executives bidding for the latest round of commercial radio franchises here.

The former chairman of Granada TV David Plowright, who is heading a bid for the regional Independent Radio contract in the North West, has developed his format together with a leading US programmer and consultant, and has already said it will be speech-based 'With a large degree of listener participation through 'phone-ins and discussions. Similar to US talk radio.'

'I hope to do to Radio Four what Classic FM has done to Radio Three,' says Plowright, who would seem to be planning something a little racier than Gardeners' Question Time.

The Radio Authority is also seeking bids for a new national station on Radio One's old medium wave frequency, 'the greater part of whose content will be speech.' No-one has openly expressed an interest in the licence yet but American-style talk radio would clearly be cheaper and thus more attractive than other speech content like sport or drama. Wise heads in the industry say the question is no longer: Could it happen here? The question is, when?

When it does, expect something radically different from talk shows you may have heard on British commercial radio in the past. Even our most famously abrasive 'phone-in hosts like Brian Hayes and James Whale allowed the callers a look-in. Disagreement was permitted, even encouraged, as reputations were built on the clever put-down, or, in Whale's case, the put-down. But you will not hear many arguments on Rush and Bob's shows. They are not in the business of making stars of the callers. The talent - they never tire of pointing out - is at their end of the telephone.

The closest we have come to this style of broadcasting here was Danny Baker's sports phone-in on Radio Five, where from the relatively safe world of flannelled fools and muddled oafs, Danny was able to give free rein to his opinions on how the sports should be played and run. Imagine Baker, then, crossed with Auberon Waugh or Paul Johnson, talking about John Major or Michael Heseltine in the manner normally reserved for the manager of Millwall or the England cricket captain and you start to understand the style of Bob Grant or Rush Limbaugh.

Each opens his show with a monologue, which can turn into a 15 or 20 minute rant against all the ills in American society today - liberals, democrats, foreigners (Muslims were high on the hit list in the wake of the Trade Centre bombing), feminists (femiNazis Limbaugh calls them), and other top hits from the cab drivers' Bumper Book of Betes Noires. Then the callers have their say. Or not, as it turns out. Either Grant and Limbaugh have an unprecedentedly adoring audience or calls are specially selected so as not to interrupt the monologue. Bob and Rush sit there and have their egos massaged, coping manfully with a level of sycophancy that would embarass the Royal Family, before continuing to articulate their political philiosophy.

The odd thing about Limbaugh is that you can guess what he looks like from listening to him. It sometimes comes as a surprise to discover that Noel Edmonds or Alan Freeman is short or that Brian Redhead has a beard, but you know instinctively listening to Limbaugh that he is a big man. There is an aura of bigness about his programme. He booms rather than talks. He is syndicated on more than 400 stations across America, he tells you, with an audience of 15 million. It is no surprise when you see him and he turns out to be 18 stones. The 'cuddly master-blaster of conservative diatribe', the New Yorker calls him.

What is a surprise is that Limbaugh is now a TV star as well. The syndicated 'Rush Limbaugh Show', which began last Autumn, has recorded a series of ratings rises, and now rivals David Letterman as the biggest talk show on American TV. For a radio man and a big one at that, he looks surprisingly good on screen, particularly as the show consists primarily of a monologue to camera. The Limbaugh phenomenon also takes in a book, 'The Way Things Ought To Be', which has sold more than two million, lecture tours, a number one cassette tape, and Rush Limbaugh t-shirts.

It is difficult to imagine who might be the British Limbaugh when this kind of radio starts here. However much you might dislike his conservatism or xenophobia, there is no denying the man's talent. When he announces, 'I am presenting this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair', you know what he means. He is populist and fiercely intelligent - more often than not mutually exclusive in Britain - as well as having the quick ready wit of a Jonathan Ross or Clive Anderson.

John Mainelli, WABC's programme director, says it is the wit and intelligence that won Limbaugh, Grant, and most of their white, male colleagues their jobs, rather than their innate conservatism. 'We don't look for Republicans when we are appointing talk show hosts. I'd be quite happy to have more liberal hosts on air, but they tend not to have a sense of humour. In any case, the formula we have appears to be working. We are the most popular 24-hour talk station in America.' Mainelli drifts off into talk of 'prime demographics in morning drive', the kind of talk that no doubt has his potential British imitators drooling, but cuts no ice with listener Jeff Cohen, who has writted to WABC asking for more dissenting voices to be heard on air.

'I don't object to these ultra-conservative hosts,' says Cohen. 'Some of these guys are funny. I would just like to hear more opposition to them. The targets are always the same - welfare mothers, feminists, gays, blacks. It is just manipulation of political discontent, phoney enemies being named by phoney populists. If Limbaugh or Grant were true populists they would be naming the big, greedy corporations. But if they did that, neither the owners nor the advertisers would stand for it. They'd be off the air.'

Veteran consumer activist Ralph Nader, though, is a defender of talk radio whilst not approving of its politics: ''Most media are one-way,' says Nader. 'At least talk radio is two-way and unfettered. Something can happen in congress and in two hours talk radio can be discussing it with millions listening and thousands calling-in.'

This may be so, but when Limbaugh says he has 'talent on loan from God', and describes himself as 'Rush Limbaugh - the man, the legend, the way of life', you feel somewhat inhibited from disagreeing with his point of view.

It is worth remembering though, when the howls of protest begin over our British Limbaughs when they inevitably emerge, that, for all the money WABC makes, it still attracts only five per cent of the audience, and for all the power these talk show hosts allegedly wield, Slick Willie and his wife still made it to the White House.

(Photograph omitted)