Talkback and its discontents

This is from Matt Mollgaard, a colleague in crime teaching radio at AUT. Thanks Matt!


Thanks for getting off the couch and starting this up Pete (therefore getting me off the couch and thinking).

The piece on Reading the Maps had me thinking about the roles and responsibilities of talkback radio and talkback hosts.

Commercial talkback is about one thing – ratings. It is not a ‘public sphere’ in the traditional sense as it is designed to attract listeners by being controversial i.e. not-balanced, not-fair, not-open. The filters that operate to ensure that the right amount of the elusive quality of ‘controversy’ is created are the hosts. By allowing certain callers to have a say while ignoring or ‘cutting off’ others they are preventing a full, frank and balanced discussion of the topic of the moment. It is designed to provide a ‘spectacle’ – sights of conflict were minds and mouths face off for our entertainment. That is not rocket science, but it is critical for commercial talkback radio as it generates listeners to the ‘arena’ and therefore attracts advertisers.

Talkback hosts succeed if they can get enough controversy into their shows to make people angry enough to call up and argue with them and other callers. Therefore they need to constantly generate a ‘position’ on a topic and maintain that position against callers that disagree with them but also to reward callers that agree with them, further angering others etcetera. This makes for interesting if somewhat voyeuristic listening for others who experience the drama of a ‘contest’ played out over the radio during the timeslot, and if the hosts are consistent enough in their views, over the lifespan of the show. This can stretch into years and even decades when this consistency of character is fully developed and coherent. Hosts such as Leighton Smith of NewsTalk ZB have perfected this and have had long and successful careers.

A key skill of a talkback host is picking the right topics (read: ‘fights’). The topics that they engage with should ideally be ones they have knowledge of and therefore a position. This is part of building a coherently-positioned character. While having a thorough education can be important to developing positions, it is not critical. Often ‘life-experience’ will do as a substitute. Many talkback hosts have no tertiary education but can argue convincingly on topics they have broad and sometimes deep experience of. Paul Holmes is one.

This is why what happened last Tuesday night on RadioLive is hardly surprising. Karen Hay and Andrew Fagan are erudite, lyrical and well informed on many topics, but not anti-Semitism. As I did not hear the show I won’t go much further than that, except to say that it seems clear from Reading the Maps that they did not have enough knowledge of the political, historical, social and economic backgrounds of anti-Semitism to be able to prevent a concerted campaign by extremists being broadcast on their show. Once one of them got on, a flood of fellow-travellers filled the phone lines and had an orgy of self-release. The hosts did not know enough about what their callers were saying to know when to moderate or close down the discussion. This will probably play out further in any Broadcasting Standards Authority complaints that are heard. (I’m picking there will be a couple) Note: radio code is here.

As an aside, this highlights an endemic problem in New Zealand radio – a lack of talent. Our small country does not produce many Holmes’, Woodhams’ and Laws’. The hunt for talkback hosts is a brawl between the two commercial networks that dominate our radio spectrum. With slim pickings available, ‘profile’ is often preferred to education or even experience. Recognisable people (such as Karen Hay and Andrew Fagan) come with a ‘built in’ audience. Those that ‘know’ them will (hopefully) be interested enough to listen to them, generating ratings and therefore advertising dollars.

But, that’s a discussion for another time.

Another aside: Probably our most educated talkback host is Kerre Woodham, who holds an MA in History (and also has that magical ‘profile’ sorted). I would put money on Kerre cutting the callers that Karen and Andrew entertained to shreds in seconds, then stopping the discussion immediately. She doesn’t suffer fools. Her education won’t let her.


2 Responses to Talkback and its discontents

  1. Karyn Hay says:

    Matt, whilst I agree with the overall theme of your piece I cannot help but question your willingness to believe everything Scott Hamilton (or ‘Maps’ as he likes to anonymously call himself) says in his blog to be true. You seem to have bought into the hysteria that there was a three hour ‘orgy’ (as you put it) of comments denigrating Jews and I just let them go ‘hell for leather’ either deliberately, or without pausing to think, or having the will or the intellect to stop it. This is sensational bollocks to put it mildly. There was not a ‘concerted campaign by extremists’ and a ‘flood of fellow travellers filling the phone lines’ (as much as I admire the alliteration.). I challenge Mr Hamilton to take it to the Broadcasting Standards Tribunal and see if any regulations were broken. He can apologise after he’s wasted their time.

    In response to your general comments about talkback hosts I continually challenge the role of the stereotypical talkback host and do not deliberately antagonise the audience in order to get a response.
    By the way, I consider my education to be very ‘thorough’ thank you, and Andrew holds a degree in political science and anthropology from Victoria University.

    Your last ‘aside’ about Kerre Woodham left me flabbergasted.

  2. seo blog says:

    This is a really interesting blog post,I have added your blog to my favourites I really like it,keep up the good work!

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