Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Radio Songs #36: Talk Radio

Pictured above is the actor Eric Bogosian who wrote and starred in the Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio. It was partly inspired by the life and death of DJ / talk show host Alan Berg who was killed in the early 80s because white supremacists didn't like his show.

I worked with two main presenters (and a variety of fill-in dudes) during the ten plus years I "produced" the late night radio phone-in. Both had very different styles, but each soon realised that in order to get people to call in night after night, you had to occasionally play devil's advocate and court a bit of controversy. And as a result, for every listener who loves your show, you'll find one who hates it. But sometimes the ones who hate it - if they can be persuaded to call up - can make the most interesting radio. Listening to people agreeing with each other on a variety of subjects night after night soon becomes boring. The best thing of all though is if you can get someone else to do the controversy for you. Let someone with truly outrageous views (listeners will always be more outrageous than any presenter is allowed to be) vent for a while... then watch the switchboard light up and you've got a call log that'll last you till the end of the show.

However, there are certain subjects which are talk show poison. Everyone has an opinion on them and loads of people will call in... but everybody says the same thing and from a listener's perspective it becomes very dull very quickly. (Good radio hosts quickly understand the balancing act between what active callers want to talk about and what passive listeners want to hear.)

Chief poison is dog poo.

Dog poo on the pavements. Dog poo in the park. Dog poo on the bottom of your shoes.

If ever you hear a local radio phone-in where they've resorted to talking about this, I can guarantee you two things:

1. The presenter really doesn't want to be talking about it: they know how boring it is.

2. Nothing else they've tried that night has caught on, so dog poo is desperation.

As a "producer" (I put the term in rabbit ears because I never thought of myself as such and was rarely ever called it: "phone-op" was far more common), your job is simple: keep the calls lined up. One on air, one on hold, a third in reserve just in case either of the first two disappear or say something that gets them cut off. On quiet nights though, you just pray for a call. Any call. You daren't leave the switchboard to grab a coffee or take a toilet break. Not until you have a couple in reserve. And when the switchboard flashes green, you jump on it...

"Hello - the $*£&% phone-in. What would you like to talk about?"

"Dog poo on the streets."

The presenter (who at this point has been talking for ten minutes without a break, desperately trying every trick in their arsenal to drum up calls) then gives you a look of relief tinged with gratitude, a look that also says: "At last! Get them on air NOW!" And you have to break the news to them that... yes, you can have them if you want... but I don't think you're gonna want them.

Still, at least after that you'll have calls for the next hour or so...

(Oh, in case you're wondering, nobody assassinated either of the presenters I worked with. There was the odd psycho and occasional stalker though. We'll get to them.)

36. The Dandy Warhols - Talk Radio

I reckon I have quite a few posts about working on the phone-in (even more if I can find the notebook I kept at the time) but I might spread them out a bit to stop them getting too boring. Believe me, I'm no advocate for talk radio. Like most things I was involved in during my time in radio, I can see how - done well - it can be entertaining... but in the end, I grew to hate it. Kinda like the Dandy Warhols obviously do. Watch this video if you want to see how it affects the minds of impressionable listeners...


  1. I love your radio posts as we learn a lot about what goes on behind the scenes - You were Roz from Frasier then!

    1. I had a lot of sympathy for Roz.

    2. I was thinking the same, Alyson - picturing it exactly as in Frasier.
      I also really enjoy these posts, Rol, and the behind-the-scenes snippets of info. You've suddenly triggered long buried memories of late night listening to the Robbie Vincent show too, the first phone-in show I recall paying any attention to. Think it was pretty successful - I don't remember any dog poo!

    3. He must have been doing alright then. I do remember an episode of Frasier where nobody called in and Roz was tearing her hair out.

  2. Haven't seen Talk Radio since it first came out, but my first recollection is how intense it was. Hope your work days weren’t like that.

  3. Great post - an intriguing glimpse at life behind-the-mic.

    Do you remember the old Screen One (I think?) Night Voice with Alexei Sayle. It was fun but even I could see how ridiculous the premise was as Sayle cut each caller off after just a few seconds each with a poisonous putdown - who would ring up in droves for that?!

    1. Never saw it... but there was a similar presenter when I was growing up (I never worked with him) and he never seemed short calls.

    2. Most be a masochistic strain to some callers then!


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