Talk about a terrible crisis in masculinity

SUDDENLY THERE are signs that the crisis in masculinity is more serious than we had thought. It was reported last week that Talk Radio's attempt to appeal to young men has resulted in an unprecedented slump in its ratings. In America, meanwhile, a grim epidemic of voluntary castration has been causing concern. While no sane person would argue that there is any kind of connection between these two stories, it is surely undeniable that, as reflections of male decline, they offer a grim sense of symmetry.

The new vogue among American men for what is called "cutting" is particularly alarming. According to a report in this week's Independent on Sunday, an increasing number of men have taken to advertising their needs in Ball Club Quarterly, the castraters' own magazine, and hundreds are now volunteering for the operation every year. Those who have had the cut apparently call themselves "nullos", while the more adventurous souls who have had their nipples removed are known in the business as "smoothies". Nullos, according to the experts, tend to be flaccid, exhausted, afflicted by a low sense of self-esteem and a problem with gender-identity.

All of which may seem at first glance to be some way from what has been happening at Talk Radio, where the new proprietor Kelvin MacKenzie has been putting on programmes that appeal to men in their twenties and thirties - football phone-ins, that is. As a result, the station's ratings fell by an astonishing 17.5 per cent in the three months to September.

I report this news with a sense of personal sadness. For a few months, about five years ago, I was Talk's "resident bookworm", appearing once a week on Sean Bolger's breakfast show to review a new title or to discuss some book-related topic with listeners. Now and then, we would put aside a full 30 minutes for a phone-in about how to get published or the best way of encouraging children to read.

It was not the sort of radio that wins awards, but there was a sense of listener engagement that was not to be found elsewhere. Generally, Talk seemed to be providing an ease and openness of debate which was in refreshing contrast to the cosy exclusiveness of the BBC.

At the time, Talk producers would argue that it was not simply ratings that mattered: a sure sign of the station's health lay in the quality of calls from listeners. The nutters, bores and insomniacs of the early days made way for people with genuinely interesting, if eccentric, views. Occasionally the mix was strange - I once reviewed Richard Ford's novel Independence Day between a discussion about Eric Cantona's future and a phone-in with Psychic Sue - but it almost always offered a provocative sense of the unpredictable.

By the time MacKenzie took over, I was no longer resident bookworm and watched from a distance as its brilliant presenters - Bolger, Tommy Boyd, David Starkey and others - were replaced by a series of football pundits, leaving only the great advice columnist Anna Raeburn as an oasis of wit and sanity in a desert of saloon-bar banality.

Now, as hour after hour of airtime is spent discussing Kevin's midfield crisis or whether Bobby's turning things round at St James's Park, the great adventure is over, and hundreds of thousands, myself included, have returned sadly to the restrained intelligence of Radio 4 and the rather impressive Radio 2. Defending the slump in ratings, a Talk spokesman desperately pointed out that at least more young men were now listening.

Tune in for a few moments to one of the station's new school of presenters - Degsy, Banksy, Watto, Alan Brazillo - and you will realise the terrible depressive effect of male values. Nullo listeners communicate drearily with smoothie presenters - with not a cutter in sight.

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