The Week In Radio: A voice of reason among all the sound and fury
Pity the poor radio presenters required to converse with the public on air. When they wrote "people person" on their job applications, they probably imagined themselves engaging in high-minded discussions with the likes of Niall Ferguson or Germaine Greer, not wrangling with the great unwashed about infinitesimal changes in the schedules.
When it comes to dealing with listeners' complaints, a special type of diplomacy is required, one that comes over as wholly sympathetic to callers while not appearing to agree with them too much. As presenter of Radio 4's Feedback, Roger Bolton negotiates this high wire act with aplomb, adopting a tone of such relentless perkiness that you can never decide whether he's being supportive or sarcastic.
This week's programme heralded thorny questions on what news is worth broadcasting, most notably on PM where it was felt that too much time had been spent on lightweight subject of the leap year, and on whether the World Service audience was, as a poll suggested, "bored rigid" with the network's exhaustive coverage of the American election. In both cases, Bolton gave due airtime to listeners and fearlessly chivvied the respective editors for explanations but, as ever, no clear conclusions were drawn and the presenter remained cheerily inscrutable throughout.
While the old retail mantra "The customer is always right" isn't necessarily held dear by those on high at the BBC, you could never accuse its radio networks of not giving their audience a voice. You might even argue that they has become a refuge for the terminally disgruntled.
On Any Answers?, Jonathan Dimbleby's main task is to pull the breaks on the runaway train that is the irate listener suddenly given an audience of millions ("Yes... Quite... Hold on... Can I...? OK... Right... YOU NEED TO STOP NOW.") This week, with the topic of the rising cost of fuel duty having been clearly outlined, the first caller announced "I want to talk about restaurants", and embarked on a diatribe about the struggling pubs and food outlets in his neighbourhood. Being a man of heroic patience and fortitude, Dimbleby gave the caller due warning and allowed him a full minute to get to the point before cutting him off. The next caller similarly lacked focus, bellowing at length about how car users are all fat and then singing the praises of electric cars. Five minutes into the debate and nobody had mentioned the price of fuel.
If engaging with the public is sometimes fraught on Radio 4, On 5 Live Breakfast it can be downright messy, with presenters falling somewhere between therapist, parent and referee.
Monday morning's discussion, hosted by Rachel Burden, on the proposed change of legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry was predictably explosive. "I'm absolutely speechless," cried one listener from Scotland, who then proved himself to be the opposite as he outlined his revulsion at the idea of gay marriage, to the ire of another caller who had lived with his male partner for 40 years and wanted the same marital rights as heterosexual couples. Voices were raised, insults were hurled and Burden was repeatedly required to intervene.
Then came a text from a listener: "I have a duck in my pond for four years," it said. "I realise that we love each other. Could you tell me where we can get married?" At this point, Burden emitted a tiny sigh that spoke volumes about where she stood on the issue. But if, by this point, she was waving a white flag at her producer and drafting a letter of resignation, we were none the wiser.
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