Robert Chalmers doesn't like... radio phone-ins

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The Independent Online

You know how it is. You spend years of your life devoting energy, passion and commitment to something, then wake up one morning and realise that you've received nothing but misery, frustration and disappointment in return. (See also forthcoming columns on: BEER, DRESSAGE and ELIZABETH GREEN OF CARLISLE.)

How much of my life have I wasted listening to radio phone-ins? What might I have achieved if I'd invested that time more usefully? I could have become a legend on the cello or a veterinarian who flew his own plane. I could have learned five new languages. I could possibly have learned to cook. As it is, all I have are fond recollections: mainly of derelicts and drunks tormenting the hosts of all-night broadcasts, which are my main weakness.

Some years ago, I was coming home in a cab listening to a phone-in quiz on BBC London 94.9.

[Host]: "What was the name of the disease that, in the mid-1950s, devastated the rabbit population of the UK?"

[Caller]: "Gonorrhoea."

And that, so to speak, is my problem. I will listen to absolutely any kind of phone-in, whether it's about euthanasia, macramé, or a by-pass controversy in Spalding. I like to have phone-ins in the background pretty well all day, much in the way that a puppy removed from its mother is calmed by the ticking of an alarm clock wrapped in a towel. Because of the high volume of calls the station broadcasts, I spend a great deal of time listening to BBC Radio Five Live.

I can take or leave the serious debates – the kind of phone-in programmes you could really learn something from, even when they're presented by hugely-accomplished broadcasters such as Phil Williams or Nicky Campbell (the latter is, I'd argue, the best moderator of a serious phone-in I have ever heard). But I listen to even these programmes, in the sickening way that some individuals (sports psychiatrists estimate about 98.8 per cent of its demographic) watch Formula One: in the hope that they will see a Really Big Crash. Only this week, Nicky Campbell, fresh from collecting another Sony Radio Award, conducted a stunning telephone interview with motor sport's distinguished ambassador, Max Mosley. But the greatest pleasure Campbell has ever brought me was that catastrophic day a year or two back, when he articulated the same Spoonerism twice in the same morning, in phone conversations with the organiser of what should correctly have been described as the "West Kent Hunt."

Actually national radio, with its vetting of callers (and, in some cases, time delays) is a relatively unrewarding platform for the real, guilt-inducing, base level of phone-in. For that you have to stay local, on stations where callers' preferred subjects tend to be sexual dysfunction, wheelie bins and repatriation. "Yorkshire callers tend to be very keen on justice," says Martin Kelner, of BBC Radio Leeds, and Radio Five Live. "Very keen. They like lots of it; huge amounts, publicly administered. Consider almost any ill in society and you'll find that most callers believe it can be cured by doubling the sentence, whatever it is. Ten years? Twenty years. Death? Double-death."

Aside from squandering my God-given time on phone-ins on a regular daily basis, I have wasted money on a complete archive set of recordings of Hold Your Plums, Billy Butler's former Radio Merseyside programme which offered an unusually rewarding level of bewildered and confused participants.

In one edition, Ethel, an elderly guest, is asked "Which Biblical character went into the lion's den?"


"His name makes you think he might be desperate."

"Desperate Dan."

"No. Just his first name."

"Desperate," says Ethel.

At the end of it all – and this is my real problem with phone-ins – you're left with feelings of seediness, shame and self-loathing, as befits a sad and fundamentally lonely addiction. I have tried to listen to more improving material. Only three days ago, the BBC World Service's Hard Talk featured John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand. The opening question was: "Is your job more difficult than you expected it would be?" This was so palpably un-Hard an enquiry that I switched off without hearing the reply, which may, for all I know, have been: "****, yes. The job's an absolute ************. Let me back down the ******* coalmine."

Phone-ins are the sinful, mind-numbing radio equivalent of an online gaming addiction, but at least they don't promise things they don't deliver. I can still remember the day when, years ago, I was listening to a radio playing in a Blackpool café.

A woman was asked – possibly on Butler's show, I'm not sure – "What is the largest animal without a backbone?" [Correct answer: giant squid]. There was a very long pause before the caller came back with her answer: "The cow."