The British can't make radio waves

Most callers wanted pornographers strung up while objecting to government infringing their right to receive hard-core satellite porn
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The Independent Culture
CARELESS TALK is a profitable business. Achieving an audience of 2.3 million listeners, in just two years, makes Talk Radio an exciting enough prospect to have attracted the restless attention of the people's populist, Kelvin MacKenzie. Everywhere on the dial, audiences are filling up airtime. But not very well, unfortunately; for when it comes to public discourse, the British are still learning to talk.

No wonder Americans invented the talk-show; they are playing to their strength as epic monologuists. If you listen to an ordinary American giving an eye-witness report of an event, you gain a far clearer idea of what happened than from the circumlocutory mumbles of the average British man or woman.

On radio phone-ins in the US, even those in the bulging intersection of radio's Venn diagram labelled "nutter" can express their views clearly and forcibily. The British equivalent features hesitation, repetition and contradiction galore, with the contributor more often then not having to be steadied on the tightrope of syntax by the host.

Verbal ineptitude cuts across classes and educations. Elite British graduates rarely match their American counterparts for spoken fluency. I suspect this goes back to so rarely being asked for an opinion when we are growing up. For all the fuss about child-centered education, most of us pass through the education system without anyone asking us what should have been done better or not done at all. When they want our opinion, they told us crisply, they'd ask for it. But they never did.

Media literacy has to be learned and practised, so it may be that the proliferation in interactive radio and television will in time produce a more articulate population. When Radio 4's Any Answers changed its format from letter to phone-in, the decline in the quality of counterblasts was striking. The British write a fierce letter - brimstone is our natural mode. But we remain far too craven towards talk-show hosts to make the shows truly interesting.

The nerveless Chris Evans evokes a kind of ritualised awe on his Virgin radio phone-in - not a devlopment he has been at all anxious to stall. Typical caller: "I'm just calling to say I think you're reeeeeeelly great, Chris. And all my mates here in the widget factory in Walsall think so too. The show's brilliant." Mr Evans: "Thanks Bob from Walsall. What do you think about Gazza bring left out of the squad?" Caller: "I think what you said about it before was absolutely right Chris. Brilliant." The desire to receive the biscuit of approbation from the Man on the Radio remains tiresomely intact, even on those stations that pride themselves on their lack of condescension.

This constant desire to be nice and to earn niceness in return undermines the potential of chat radio to be a truly invigorating and listenable medium. In an unscientific study of talk shows throughout Europe, I found the the Russians score highest for death-threats on air. I recommend St Petersburg radio, where there is none of that "I'm sorry, I have to cut you off there". The nightime phone-in host responds to declarations of murderous intent with a weary, "yeah, yeah. Next please."

The British are by far the most difficult listeners to move to anger. Talk Radio's thankfully short-lived experiment with shock-jocks failed not only because Caesar the Geezer was less sharp and anarchic than his American counterparts, but because his excesses failed to make people pick up the phone in response.

Coming from the non-shocking end of Talk Radio's guest list, I am intrigued and encouraged by the fact that what does get people phoning and talking are the big themes. True, no producer would dream of announcing that tomorrow's subjects will be constitutional reform and libertarianism versus collective responsibility. But I have had lively discussion with listeners on other worthy subjects.

One topic was what sort of body should replace the House of Lords - an Athenian-style lottery was hotly favoured above a Blairised quangocracy. And then there was a session in which most of the callers wanted pornographers strung up, while objecting violently to the prospect of government infringing their right to receive hard-core Continental satellite porn in the living room.

I held out against porn on satellites despite a switchboard of red angry lights marked "disagree strongly". The isolation was terrible. Only Harold from Pinner agreed with me. Thank you Harold. I think you're reeeally great. Even if you did think I was Ann Widdicombe.

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