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In defence of talkback radio

In the wake of the latest round of flagrant racism, some believe it’s time the format was completely written off. Alex Braae argues that talkback has so much more to give than audiences are currently getting. 

If you think talkback radio in New Zealand is only ever an unremitting stream of bigotry and outrage, you’ve clearly never listened to In My Day with Bruce Russell. 

Over a long Saturday shift on Newstalk ZB, Russell gently wanders through the memories of a mostly elderly audience, swapping stories about train lines that used to exist, and sweets that used to be in the shops. A social historian wondering what it was like to be in the prime of life in the 1960s could do much worse than just running a tape over the show. 

Take, for example, a recent highlight the station decided to pluck out and post on the website. The topic was Christmas, and how it used to be celebrated. The bit that jumps out is right at the start, in which caller Louise thanks Russell for everything he’s done for the listeners over 2020, and keeping them company. Another highlight involved a caller describing the feeling of being fit and strong in his youth from a job at the meatworks, a job that is now obsolete, in a world that has turned many times since.  

Russell almost never runs out of calls to take. The show isn’t political, or about whipping up a reactionary frenzy. It’s about people and their stories, and Russell is skilled at keeping it moving. Sometimes the listening is dreary, sometimes it’s riveting. Sometimes, Russell drops a few clangers of his own, and like all radio hosts will have said things he shouldn’t have. But it rates like crazy. 

Since MediaWorks’ decision to take John Banks off air on Magic Talk, plenty of questions have been asked about whether the format of talkback radio is fundamentally broken. After all, how easy was it for Donna Chisholm to collect a litany of scandals? There are plenty of other examples that could easily have made the list. 

But to point the finger at the format of talkback misses the point, and, crucially, it lets people in media companies with actual power off the hook. The open, mask-off racism of both Banks and his caller was the direct result of a programming decision to put the former MP on air. 

Former Auckland mayor John Banks (Getty Images)

In a previous era, it probably would have even been encouraged by management, who would have been thrilled by the controversy and publicity it generated. Now brands and companies are fleeing the station, likely for both commercial and moral reasons. 

Some will look at this and suggest it’s “cancel culture” or the result of a “woke mob” or whatever the terminology being thrown around this week is. It’s nothing of the sort. Brands have every right to associate with whoever they want, and a large group simply decided that it was bad for their brand to be associated with bigotry. 

In some ways, it’s possible to sympathise with the reasoning behind stacking a talkback radio station with Banks-like figures. After all, the programme directors have to make their station money. If you look at the charts on who is still listening to linear talk radio, the potential audience to be gained for talk is likely to be older, whiter, and more moneyed than the general population. Besides, Banks once had a successful talkback show, so why not just wheel him out again over the holiday period? 

The core skill of a talkback host is to make the phone bank light up. It’s not wildly different to the various social media engagement jobs that now exist in newsrooms. You need to hit the metrics, and in both cases the easiest way to do that is make people feel angry. 

But the problem with that strategy is that over time it becomes an exercise in circling the drain. Conversations degrade into mere shitfights, prioritising those who have extreme views over the vast majority of potential listeners who don’t. Eventually, many of the latter will simply change the channel. 

And for a format so rich in promise and potential, that’s a tragedy. Because good talkback radio can do one thing that no other media is capable of – putting the voices of regular people in front of the public. The often ham-fisted vox-pops used by Radio NZ aren’t really a substitute for this, partly because of how heavily they’re mediated through a news story, and partly because they involve the journalist actively prising views out of people, rather than just opening the floor to whoever has something to say. 

People are endlessly surprising and fascinating. The best talk radio shows are able to surprise and delight their listeners, keeping them entertained with more than just shock and schlock. It shouldn’t be so hard for programme directors to hire hosts and producers who are able to bring these two basic points together. 

Perhaps I’m being naive and overly optimistic. And I’ll admit, I only spent four years working at a talk radio station, none of it in management, so it may be that I simply don’t understand how it all works. 

But over my time in radio – and as an avid fan of quality talkback ever since – I’ve heard masters of the craft do exactly that. They’re versatile and empathetic, and more importantly, they actually listen to what the person on the other end of the line is trying to say. They ask questions, test and challenge the ideas being put forward, and bring new information into the world. It’s thrilling to sit in the control room and listen to a real conversation develop. 

Putting his views to one side, Banks is a remarkably limited broadcaster, at least on the evidence of his fill-in gigs in recent years. He is seemingly incapable of anything more than hammering the same basic lines again and again, with no development or insight. There’s little light or shade, just the same honking and hectoring hour after hour. 

A basic truth for all media to understand is that they get the audience they deserve. If you treat the intelligence and humanity of the audience with contempt, then you’ll get contemptible behaviour coming right back. Audiences pick up on what media companies put down, and respond accordingly. 

But the world is changing. And if the likes of John Banks aren’t happy with that, he can always ring up Bruce Russell and talk about how things were in his day. Hell, he might even learn something about radio from one of the greats.

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