Radio: Talk Radio: lots of hot air - and hyperventilation

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The Independent Culture
One of life's minor pleasures these days lies in watching Kelvin MacKenzie struggle to match his sense of self-importance with his current position in the media. At the moment he is Chief Executive of Talk Radio. When you consider his post-Sun career, particularly his stint at L!ve TV, it is tempting to conclude that whatever MacKenzie touches seems to turn to dross, although we do concede that in the case of L!ve TV this hardly constitutes a miracle of transubstantiation.

Right now he is wearing his defender-against-injustice hat, and complaining to the Office of Fair Trading that Radio Times does not carry listings for Talk Radio. Whenever someone in a position of power starts banging on about unfairness, we should all start looking under our seats for a hidden agenda, and in MacKenzie's case we can file this one under "Knee- jerk hatred and distrust of the BBC", presumably a hangover from the days when he was a Murdoch editor. MacKenzie, if he comes to have any future influence on radio or TV production, will probably be seen as a kind of anti-Reith, an alleged concern for the ordinary person manifesting itself as the ruthless practice of enforced cretinism.

Although it pains me horribly to say so, MacKenzie does have a point. Talk Radio manages about two million listeners nationwide - fewer than Radio 3 (ooh, how that must gall him) but respectable nevertheless. These are, though, figures from before he had a chance to muck about with the schedules, in the way that newly appointed controllers love doing.

Not that he has mucked about with them that much. And putting them in would hardly trouble RT's subs. I could list some here. Quotations are from the press release. From 6 - 9 am, weekdays, "David Banks and Nick Ferrari ... flag up the major issues of the day and invite listeners to air their views. From 9 till 1, "the major issues of the day are up for discussion" with Scott Chisholm and Sally James. You get the idea.

We still have Anna Raeburn on every weekday, an extra hour of her in fact, although she does more issue-driven stuff (callers on Thursday were specifically urged to give their views on state education or heart disease) and less live agony-aunting. Listening to her talk to a despairing caller almost puts one in the morally dubious position of the member of a crowd waiting beneath a potential suicide on a tall building, were it not for her talent for both empathy and sympathy. Her voice, a great radio voice, equal parts urgency and calm, makes you hyperventilate with both anguish and hope at the same time; yes, says her tone, this is a serious problem, but if we tackle it right now you might be able to do something about it. I used to wish that I had a bad problem so that I could call Anna and have her sort it out. Loath as I am to persuade anyone to do anything that would stop them from listening to Mark and Lard on Radio 1 in the afternoons, you could do worse when stuck in a traffic jam than listen to her comfort the afflicted and bestow her good sense to the nation.

Afterwards, though, it's awful. MacKenzie's big idea has been to stuff Talk Radio with sport, mostly football, with a bit of rugby, athletics and motor racing. Not the sport itself, mind, but talk about it. "Four HOURS of sport" promises a shouty man at 4 o'clock. And that is what you get, except on Saturdays, when it's nine hours, and Sunday, when it's six.

"Who's gonna go through?", asked one presenter, referring to the then forthcoming Manchester United-International match. "Manchester United," replied a pundit, who I shall do the favour of not naming. "Why?" "Cos I think they're gonna win." No, really? This was presented as a valid answer, entire and sufficient in itself, and wasn't greeted by the snort of laughter you might have thought it demanded. And this is a paid pundit, not some berk off the street.

Incidentally, the berk off the street is going to have to pay a lot more for the privilege of addressing the nation on Talk Radio; just the other week they ditched the 0500 (free) number and replaced it with an 08700 (national rate) number. Talk may be cheap, but not for you it isn't. If MacKenzie really wants to make a splash at Talk Radio, I suggest he orders his announcers to wear News Bunny-style rabbit costumes when reading the news. We will not be able to see them, but then neither did we see the BBC Home Service's newsreaders' dinner jackets. The influence will be sensed rather than directly experienced. By the way, Radio 5 Live's audience is over 5 million.

Meanwhile, in Borsetshire, the sound-effects team has been hard at work. Normally called on to do no more than go "baa", "tweet" and open and close the BBC SFX door, on Wednesday night they were asked to make the sound of a huge iron feed-bucket falling from its moorings. Then they had to engineer the effect of David Archer giving Bert Fry, whose stupid fault it was, an almighty bollocking. They did it quite well actually, and it was nice to hear this daft, jumped-up yokel finally getting the talking- to he deserves. "We have been a bit jinxed lately," said Phil Archer. Will it dawn on him that this is all down to Daniel's flexing of his demonic muscles - and that next time, it could all be much nastier?