‘It depends,’ said the caller, ‘on whether you look at the future with your glasses half-full or half-empty.’
And that’s one of the reasons why I love the radio phone-in. That’s the kind of folk poetry you don’t get elsewhere on the broadcast media. If you let the public speak, they’ll keep you entertained. Or, rather, they’ll do their bit so long as you give them the right environment in which to flourish, which depends on having the right presenter.
Hosting a phone-in show is a tricky art. It demands a delicate balance: a high level of self-confidence to ensure the quality of the calls, but not self-absorption, since there must also be a willingness to listen to and interact with awkward and dissident callers. It requires humour, patience, years of experience and, above all, a love of humanity in all its follies, fancies and fascinations. (Which may be why people such as Katie Hopkins and David Mellor struggled with the format.)
For my money, the greatest master of the art was Tommy Boyd, who worked on various stations, but was at his absolute peak presenting the afternoon show on Talk Radio in the mid-1990s.
The originality of the programme was that – unusually in the world of the phone-in – it was not exclusively driven by the news agenda. Boyd would pick a topic for each section of the show that seldom had much to do with anything else that was happening in the media. Cheese is horrible, he would declare at the top of the hour, for no discernible reason. Or: who needs legs in the modern world? Or he’d insist that baths were disgusting, all that wallowed around in filthy water. He’d then expect – and get – sixty minutes of entertaining and completely pointless argument.
It doesn’t sound great, I know, but it was. It worked because of Boyd himself. The man radiated energy and enthusiasm. He didn’t sit down, but prowled the studio with microphone in hand, letting his imagination run riot. You could tell that he loved the challenge of the unexpected, pushing himself to defend ludicrous positions.
I remember on one occasion he switched subject just ten minutes before going on air because his engineer enthused about a book she was reading that concerned the aquatic ape hypothesis. Boyd had never encountered the theory, but he leapt at the opportunity to try it out on live radio.
But his finest moment came on 13 March 1996. That was the day of the Dunblane school massacre, when seventeen people – sixteen of them primary-school children – were shot dead, and fifteen others wounded.
The news was still coming through when Boyd went on air, and to his immense credit, he decided not to address the subject, saying that it was too early, the information too patchy. Any comment at that stage would be fruitless speculation that would add nothing to our understanding of the terrible events.
That, of course, was twenty-one years ago. I can’t imagine any presenter today having the nerve to do such a thing. And, indeed, the reason it comes to mind now is that – as I write – James O’Brien is just coming to the end of his three-hour show on LBC, which has been entirely devoted to the Grenfell Tower fire in West London that has killed an as-yet undetermined number of people. The fire is still blazing and details of the fatalities – let alone the cause – are unknown.
Now I have a lot of time for O’Brien. I think he’s one of the very best practitioners of the phone-in who’s currently working, and possibly one of the best I’ve ever heard. But I believe that this decision today was – with genuine respect – an error of judgement. It would be perfectly proper to break into the show with news and reports, but unfiltered comment and opinion simply didn’t feel appropriate, even with O’Brien’s characteristically responsible handling of callers. There will be political and design ramifications that reach out from this for years to come, there are tales of human tragedy and heroism that need to be told – just not now and not like this.
Much as I love the phone-in, it’s really not the format to deal with an unfolding disaster of this nature. There are exceptions. LBC’s coverage of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, for example, was a highpoint in the station’s history: there were no reporters on the ground, and having calls from residents of the estate was extraordinary.
But that’s not the situation today, and it feels wrong, an awkward and uncomfortable blurring of the phone-in with rolling news. There are times when the journalistic desire to be in the middle of the story should be put on hold, and Grenfell Tower – like Dunblane – is such an occasion. In deference to this belief, I shall not post this on the day of writing.
PS As I post this, thirty-six hours on from the first report of the fire, seventeen people have been reported dead, with more fatalities likely to be discovered.