On to our next caller, and make it snappy

Talk radio is coming. Will it bring democracy, shockjocks or just bad v ibes? Now everybody is in show business, and everybody is a star
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The Independent Online
Next Tuesday at 6am, Talk Radio UK surfs in on the medium wave with 24 hours of "up-front, irreverent and entertainment-led" chat. TRUK will deliver "a lively mix of contemporary, entertaining, controversial and agenda-setting programming" primar ily to an audience of B1s, C1s and C2s aged from 25 to 49 who, it appears, have expressed a "massive demand for new-style, speech-based broadcasting which gives listeners a respite from music radio". Agenda-setting is, of course, unforgivable, as is the rest ofthis machine-readable, sub-literary hype. But that aside, I think TRUK has a point. Like it or not, a new form of broadcasting is on the way, and it is called Talk.

Talk, like Wonderbras or the Troggs, is a big new cultural rediscovery. Broadcasters have seized on Talk as a way of being both entertaining and serious. On the one hand, it pulls in the punters; on the other, it involves the people, thus allowing the companies to claim they are ushering in a new era of direct democracy.

Yet the air waves have always been full of talk. Radio 4 talks soothingly to us, and chatshows have almost always been on the television schedules. Where a degree of audience interaction is required, it has been reluctantly provided in the smallest possible doses by the abysmal Points of View, or the supremely pompous Question Time.

All of that, according to the mandarins of the new Talk, is dead. Their kind of Talk is funkier, and it is radio-led. The phone-in is at its heart. In the United States, the phenomenon is now huge and terrifying. "Shockjocks" like Rush Limbaugh preach hard-right politics either to the redneck converted or the few simpering liberals fool enough to phone in. And there is Howard Stern, delivering weirdness and bad sex to an audience sated with family values and Dr Ruth. There is even a film - Oliver Stone's Talk Radio - in which the shockjock disintegrates as he absorbs the sins and psychoses of society. "Talk radio," he insists, "is the last neighbourhood in town."

This cannot happen here. We have not yet acquired the psychotic richness of the US, and, whatever the pre-launch hype claims about its own shockjock, Caesar the Geezer, TRUK would not dare. We do not have a First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing free speech, and we do have a Radio Authority with tight rules on balance and taste. But the climate of broadcasting can be changed by the demand for audience participation.

To some extent, this has happened already. American TV nuts and sluts shows like Donahue and The Oprah Winfrey Show have spawned British imitations from Robert Kilroy-Silk and Esther Rantzen. They are uniformly dire, but all indicate a shift of emphasis in form and content. The form changes because, suddenly, the show's presenter is on the side of the audience against the experts. The content changes because it abandons the whole notion of respectable subjects, going instead for the clammy, the intimate, the immediate.

On radio, the same process has started here. Stations like Kiss FM - awful music and lobotomised chat for the cultivated man to slit his wrists by - or shows like Chris Tarrant's on Capital FM aggressively engage audiences through competitions and games.Perhaps most significantly, they surprise listeners by calling them up without warning. As far as I know, nobody ever gets angry about this, just as TV watchers don't get angry when Jeremy Beadle or Chris Evans invades their lives. The point here - and it is the most important precondition for the success of Talk - is that ordinary people are now very good at broadcasting. Thirty years ago, if you confronted a man in the street with a camera or microphone, chances were he would freeze, or deliver a fewdeferential platitudes through his clenched, frightened teeth at best.

Now everybody is in show business, and everybody is a star. The public walks the streets or even sits at home expecting the arrival of microphones and cameras. When the hardware does appear, they will be brilliant, natural, funny and opinionated. Above all, they want to Talk.

This has certain implications, some of which have been understood by TRUK. Jeremy Scott, the programme director, says market research shows their target audience regards a standard interview between a journalist and a politician as a joke. It is a joke because it is boring, irrelevant and rigged, a game played by two mutually supportive halves of the same establishment and specifically designed to exclude the newly media-confident masses. Two programmes are seen as the most compulsive players - BBC2's Newsnight and Radio 4's Today.

The Talk response is to subvert the game by breaking the rules. Politicians will either not get airtime or they must accept the terms of Talk. This will mean subjecting themselves to a random sample of callers - a high proportion of whom will be mad, terminally misinformed or plainly wrong - and to a set of issues that may not remotely resemble those chosen by Westminster.

The good side of this is that Scott and his sample of B1s, B2s and C1s are right. Politicians and the media are locked in a deadly and stultifying embrace. Nothing appears to happen because nothing is happening - only the dull grind of the party game. This is not, as some will claim, because one party has been in power too long. It is because the conventions and terms of debate have become so desperately narrow and restrictive when compared with the world as it has become. An electorate that has discovered a talent for the mass media cannot be spoken to in the terms and tones of the 1950s.

The bad side is that the new world of Talk may offer only incoherence. The serious caller on a phone-in - like the celebrated lady who took on Mrs Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano - is a rarity. Sometimes, they are crazy or ignorant, but most often, they are simply ringing in to mouth an entirely predictable attitude. Such attitudes may be shallow or wrong, but if they are well-expressed, they will have more weight in the real, media-led world than a Royal Commission report or the complete works of Isaiah Berlin.

In the world of Talk, what counts is the snappy expression of a crowd-pleasing point. What counts, above all, is winning. The shockjocks in the US fight only to win and, in doing so, they accurately embody a society in which conflict can only ever be resolved by total victory or defeat. We are not yet quite so bad - but how bad are we? Talk will be creative in a literate, confident culture. It will be destructive in a fragmenting, ignorant culture. Which are we? Why not give Caesar the Geezer a ring andtell him what you think?