Remember those ludicrous conversations you used to have on school trips after lights-out, when you and your friends would lie awake talking nonsense until two in the morning? And then, when everything had been said - twice - and you just wanted some sleep, someone would start talking again? Welcome to phone-in country.
The difference is that your talk-show host has to stay awake. And while the Peter Finch solution - he shot himself - begins to look quite attractive as you go to caller number 26 on the Royal Family, it does seem a little final.
Britain's first phone-in show was on local radio in 1968, and must have seemed like a great idea then. Here, in contrast to the stilted, scripted interviews on Radio 4, was immediacy. For the first time, the people could have their say. Twenty-eight years later, there is a strong suspicion that on a range of topics - capital punishment, the Royal Family, immigration, and others from the Cab Drivers' Bumper Fun Book - the people have spoken (and spoken, and spoken) and there is nothing left to say.
Radio 4's Call Nick Ross surmounts this problem by hiring top-notch studio contributors and putting a big production effort into directing the amorphous mass of phone calls into a cogent argument.
On the big American radio talk shows, hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern use the programmes as highly entertaining vehicles for their own outrageous views and are openly disdainful of their callers. "I am presenting this show with half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair," I once heard Limbaugh say.
For financial and legal reasons, neither of these options is open to Talk Radio, so there has been a sensible reduction in the reliance on the casual caller. I also perceive a slight shift in the nature of the contributions from the simply sad to the slightly mad. (Obviously, hiring Simon Bates was a useful first step in this direction.) Tommy Boyd occasionally throws out some fancy pseudo-philosophy - "Give me a call and prove you exist" - and gets a passably intelligent response, while Anna Raeburn, still peerless in the field of human misery, seems to attract callers who have been damaged in ways at which the human imagination can only boggle.
Good for Talk Radio. I have presented phone-in shows for 10 years and have always found people's obsessions far more interesting than their opinions. I have a listener who rings me regularly to complain about wide- screen television. He reckons that when programmes are shown in letter- box format, his licence fee should be reduced by the exact proportion by which his picture is cropped. "I pay to have my screen filled," he never tires of reminding me.
Who are these people? Do you know anyone who admits to having called a phone-in show? James Stannage, a phone-in host in Manchester, used to meet his regular callers in a local pub, but later observed that the gathering looked like the fishing expedition from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
That's probably a little unfair. I am sure some phone in because they genuinely wish to contribute to the public understanding. But it's the flaky call that makes it interesting. I could happily live without hearing one more person's views on the National Lottery whereas I'm beginning to warm to the chap who keeps ringing me wondering why the ice-cream van doesn't come down his street any more.
The writer is a regular presenter for BBC North and has presented on Talk Radio.Reuse content