`You're through to Talk Radio ..why are you calling?'

John Walsh Tunes In
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The Independent Culture
It's 11.23am, and the producer's suite at Talk Radio is filling up. This segment of the Scott Chisholm show is called "Scambusters", in which members of the public ring in their stories of rip-off and sharp practice. At the microphone, Mr Chisholm is a burly New Zealander, whiskery, tough and weatherbeaten as a US marshal circa 1880. He is helping Eric from Wigan to get his money out of a Bradford window manufacturer which owes him pounds 41.67. Poised to assist are Chisholm's producer, Harry Bear, a lanky and bearded figure with an alarming scar, and Tom Petrie, the legendary former news editor of The Sun, who sports a sombrero, a beer gut and a pair of headphones.

They phone the company and are put on hold. Minutes tick by. For a cutting- edge zoo-radio show, silence is disastrous. Scott Chisholm feeds a commercial on to the airwaves and comes out to see us. "This is hopeless," he says. "Shall we try the guy with the fridge who was charged a pounds 15 removal fee for going 200 yards?"

But suddenly all is frantic activity. A company director has come on the line in Bradford, the commercial is on its last few bars and Scott is in the wrong room. "Quickly, Scott," says his producer. "You got seconds". With professional cool, Scott introduces Eric from Wigan to Andy from Bradford. "And will you pay him the pounds 41.67 you owe him, Andy?" he asks. "We certainly will," says Andy. "Yeah, but the trouble is, Andy," says Scott, "that Eric has heard all this before and..." "You're talking to a director of the company now," snaps Andy. "And if I say it will be done, then it will." Upon which the studio of nine people erupts into whoops, cries of "Yesss!" and "Result!". A jaunty "Yabbadabbadoo" hits the airwaves.

Talk Radio is all about interaction. It lives to chat to its listeners. It wants their views, their phone calls and their love. But although it celebrated its fourth birthday on St Valentine's day, it just hasn't made enough conquests to be a viable concern. When Kelvin MacKenzie, at the head of a consortium, bought it up in November for pounds 24.7m, it was losing money at the rate of a million quid a month.

It's a strange beast. For one thing, it doesn't play any music. Nor will you find any cultural debate, any drama or any home-makeover stuff among its schedules. You'll hardly find any features, apart from My Favourite Year, an hour-long conflation of Desert Island Discs and The Rock 'n' Roll Years that goes out on Sunday evenings and was the brainchild of MacKenzie's daughter, Kiershen. What you get all day long, from muesli to midnight, is current affairs chat. The whole Talk Radio agenda is set by what's in the papers and what the presenters think listeners will want to talk about. If they get it wrong, and discover that people are phoning in to steer the conversation away from Kosovo and towards Coronation Street, the schedules are flexible enough to let them adjust the talk accordingly.

The presenters are a combination of mildly famous media names (Derek Draper, Simon Heffer), disc jockeys (Nicky Horne, David Jacobs) newspapermen (David Banks, Peter Hitchens) and professional controversialists like James Whale. A hefty proportion of the personnel are ex-employees of The Sun, The Mirror and Rupert Murdoch's worldwide empire. It is not very surprising to learn that 20 per cent of the station is owned by News International. But the listeners at present constitute only 1.6 per cent of the total audience. Can MacKenzie double the figure? Quadruple it? "I'd like to double it. But what'll happen first is almost certainly that we'll lose audience. When you shake up a radio station - radio's the most personal of the mediums - you're bound to lose people."

MacKenzie reserves his finest premier cru venom for the BBC, about whose casual way with public money he is both furious and jealous. "They're all geniuses when the taxpayer is funding them. Let's see how smart they are when they have to create revenues of their own." He is now trying to emulate Rupert Murdoch's policy at Sky TV of buying up exclusive rights to major sporting events. Next month, Talk Radio has nailed the broadcasting rights to the Holyfield-Lewis boxing match, the Champions League match between Manchester United and Inter Milan, and the Australian Grand Prix. "Of course the BBC can always stick their hands in their pockets and find the money somewhere to defeat us. But we'll win some". And in the meantime, the ebullient MacKenzie presides over the most news-crunching station in the country.

It's 2.30pm and we're in Agony Hour. Emma from Harwich is on the line. Her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she feels guilty. "I can't handle going to see her," says the trembly voice on the speakers. "It's like she's just not my Mum any more."

Behind the glass wall, Anna Raeburn makes tiny murmuring noises, a kind of verbal grooming. She is dressed in a violet sweater and looks astonishingly like Elizabeth Taylor, especially round the eyes. "Emma, look," she says, "the mother you once had has gone. And that's the peace you have to make with yourself. What you have to say to yourself is, here's an elderly lady who needs help." Ms Raeburn's delivery is as sharp as cheese-wire; even when expressing tender solicitude, she sounds peremptory. But there's no question that you'd do whatever she says. Emma from Harwich sounds relieved to have had her guilt so swiftly, so forensically, diagnosed and assuaged.

"Hello, Talk Radio. How can I help you? Would you like to speak to Anna?" The producer Vikki Cook repeats the mantra. On the screen before her, the listeners' problems are reduced to a few lines: "Sue, Ipswich. Worried abt 20-yr-old son, recently lost job. Suffers from v severe mood swings."

Elgar's "Nimrod" swells climactically over a chat with Dave from Lewisham, who has developed a tremor in his hand. For a former snooker ace, this is a worrying development. Anna directs him to a relevant organisation. "I'm glad to say there's such a thing as the National Tremor Foundation," she says, possibly the only broadcaster in the world who would know such a thing. "Here's their number." Vikki smiles. "That's nothing," she says. "Last week we had the Restless Legs Support Group, for people who can't stop jiggling, even in bed."

All human life passes through this studio in the agony hour: missing persons, directionless children, aged parents, the solitary, the lovelorn. Intimacies are exchanged. Laura from Bath has rung about her four-year- old who demands to sleep in his mother's bed. Anna and Laura discuss night- lights and monster traps, and make each other laugh. "Laura you're wonderful," says Anna. "If I were four, I'd want to crawl into bed and sleep with you myself". "Steady on, Anna," chorus the studio people.

"Do you know what this place reminds me of?" asked MacKenzie, surveying the long corridor of producers, researchers and presenters hunched over computer keyboards. A magazine office? He nodded. "A bit buzzier than a magazine, and just short of a national newspaper office at about twenty to seven. It's got the magazine atmosphere because the women are pretty."

Kelvin has made sacking people into an art form. He explains each termination smoothly. "We asked Danny Baker and Danny Kelly to talk about football, and effectively Mr Baker rather talked about general subjects. Which is fine. He can talk about general subjects. But if we ask him to talk about football and we're signing his paycheque, he should either do what we want or he should leave." He has also seen off 12 producers and umpteen presenters, including Kirsty Young and Andrew Neil. Ideas have been tried and dropped after only two try-outs. MacKenzie does not believe in waiting for the verdict of focus groups.

It's 3.50pm and Peter Deeley can hardly contain himself. The Prime Minister's speech about the joy of eurocurrency has just been beamed over from the Commons, and he is incandescent with rage. "We are being stitched up like a kipper," he seethes. "We are being conned. Did you hear what he said?" Peter is the Victor Meldrew of Talk Radio, a grizzled, crop-headed curmudgeon of phenomenal toxicity, a man so right-wing that Mrs Thatcher once rang up to ask him to interview her. He is self-confessedly "the voice of Middle England" and shares his afternoon studio with Sally James. A former National Sweetheart, Ms James used to present Tiswas, a Saturday morning children's show, in the late Seventies. She has grown up and left behind her trademark V-neck jumpers. She is now a vision in black leather. Her views, surprisingly, accord with Peter Deeley's, although she brings a domesticated, motherly tone to the discourse.

Peter interviews a chap from the Chamber of Commerce down the line. His first question goes on for five minutes, until the microphone, walls and speakers are all flecked with Deeley spittle. "So you're broadly in favour, then?" asks the man on the phone, and Peter is off again.

What's your name?

What are you calling about?

Paula Williams, the producer, reckons she gets about 40 calls per topic, 80 per hour on a good day. Sandra from Luton "can't believe we aren't being given a choice" about the euro. Gary from Swansea thinks they should speed up the referendum. Nobody seems especially well-informed, or any the wiser, despite Peter's vituperations.

You're through to Talk Radio.

Sandra? Are you still there, Sandra?

During an advertising break, you notice there are five distinct levels of noise going on: Sky TV, the squawking down the phone lines, Peter saying "and we'll have to bail out Spain's rotten economy" to no-one in particular, Craig the studio manager speaking into Sally's headphones, and the commercial itself ("Gonna get myself connected...") beaming over the airwaves. The cacophany makes your head swim. In the studio, the strains of "Deutschland uber alles" start up. Deeley affects a German voice: "As I slide zer jackboot up my leg..." Has he flipped? "This referendum is not going to be democratic," he growls by way of explanation. "This is Nazism..."

Grace from Gateshead rings in to ask about how the single currency will affect pensions.

Who are these people that ring up phone-in shows? Aren't they either mad, sad or boring? "That's just not true," said MacKenzie. It was a real wake-up call to me to discover how smart these people are. They're mostly very intelligent, they spark off debate between listeners, they really make a programme. There's lots of knowledge out there. We get doctors, accountants, lawyers, company directors..."

There's an air of excitement about the place because Tuesday night features the "Eubank's People" slot in the middle of the three-hour "SportZone". Tonight Chris, or "Crith" as many of the staff amusingly call him, is having Frank Bruno as his guest. "Chris just rings up his mates and invites them to come on," Clare explains. "Last week it was Linford Christie." Eubank is considered a surprise hit by one and all. The great boxer apparently does not feel comfortable broadcasting from a chair, and tends to dance about the studio and declaims poetry into the microphone on a whim. "He's done Kipling's `If' and `Desiderata', says Ms Furlong. "I'm not sure what's next."

"This is the first step in a long journey," said MacKenzie. "I'm not going anywhere. I hope to be running this company in 10 years, 15 years' time. Even if I lose some of the early rounds, I'm going to keep on coming back. I see speech continuing to grow as a market, as there's more college education. Ask any of the commercial experts, the one thing they all agree on is that radio will continue to grow."

Hello, you're through to Talk Radio.

Why are you calling?