“Quite simply radio gives power to those who often feel powerless,” writes former LBC radio host Emma Barnett for the Telegraph. “I suspected this was the case as a listener. But until you see the switchboard burn bright with hundreds of calls when you start a conversation about disability or blindness, you have no idea what a lifeline it is.”
The turn of the 20th century saw the very first experimentation with broadcasting in both music and talk via radio, commercially occurring for the first time in the early1920s. Pioneers included evangelist Aimmee Semple McPherson, who purchased her own station, and Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial figure with an audience of millions. Though talkback radio first found its feet in the 1930s, it would be a further three decades before it became the staple for entire shows.
RadioLIVE host Karyn Hay believes talk back radio to play a vital role in society. “It gives a voice to the people, no matter what part of society they come from, or what age or gender they are,” she tells me. “You can participate in democracy in the respect that your voice is being listened to by politicians and law makers. Every call has the potential to be influential.”
An Australian study by Reporting Diversity, titled Talkback Radio: Homeland and Heartland, is a rare examination of the concept. It examines audiences from ACT and a further three states, discussing how they consider the airwaves among the safest of places to actually air their views. “Talkback radio provides a space in which audiences conceptualise national identity, citizenship and belonging,” writes study author Jacqui Ewart. “Multicultural Australia is engaging in discussion and debate about issues of concern and interest via talkback that has been created specifically for these audiences.” She concludes the programmes to be a form of “citizen media” with audiences also able to recognise – and be critical of – the fact that “some talkback radio plays a news agenda setting role”.
“We are there 24/7,” says Karyn, “when something good happens, when something bad happens, when nothing is happening! We are a Civil Defence radio station and are always the first port of call in an emergency, providing help and information, as well as comfort and support to communities right round the nation.”
In an interview with Radio Ink, Mark Masters, president and CEO of the Talk Radio Network, describes the medium as a “pressure release valve” for a society under-served by television. “When you don’t have a robust, dynamic marketplace of ideas, tension and frustration build,” he says. “… Talk radio creates a venting… Hosts — whether conservative, liberal, libertarian — emote on your behalf. And it’s a cathartic effect that allows perspective to come back.”
Barnett believes talk radio stations to be the original social networks. “I also didn’t know that religion formed one part of the holy trinity of the three topics always guaranteed to peak callers’ interest: religion, war and immigration.” She reveals that callers especially open up under the perceived security of the darkness. One call in particular has always stayed with her, from a man who’d snuck out in the night to discuss his wife’s post-natal depression: “He explained how he just didn’t know what to do to repair their marriage. And then he broke down live on air. Hundreds of calls offering him support, empathy and advice quickly followed.”
I ask Karyn if she ever finds it tough to switch off following a shift on-air.
“Sometimes it is extremely difficult,” she says, “especially if you have had a stand-up argument on air — we do get the occasional bully — or someone has told you something personal and traumatic.
“I am always impressed by the fact that there is always someone who can provide an answer to a question, or a solution to a problem. We tap into the knowledge pool on a regular basis. Conversely, in this job you have to be aware that some people are simply incorrect, or misguided, To be the ‘moderator’ of so many opinions, experiences and points of view is a huge responsibility.”
Karyn’s noticed a shift over the years in the number of regular and new callers. “There used to be many who’d call more than once a week, sometimes every night,” she says. “But now the majority of callers save it for when they have something to contribute. This strategy is far more powerful and effective. I regularly hear the words ‘first time caller, long time listener’.” It’s common for the callers to become familiar with each other, with communities blooming from within the airwaves. “Many who listen to the show every night enjoy those who make regular contributions. Alternatively there are others who can really grate on some listeners nerves, but, ultimately, they’ll put up with them because they like to know what the opposing viewpoint to their own is. This is particularly true with political debates, but relevant to any subject.”
It’s a notion that nicely ties nicely with Barnett’s observation that talk radio’s the original social network. I finish by asking Karyn if that online phenomenon has changed things in the studio. “Not really. Radio is part of the mix, and is often more effective. There is nothing quite so powerful as the human voice when it comes to communication. You don’t hear many trolls on the radio. That’s confined to social media because it requires a large element of cowardice. You need courage to express yourself live on air nationwide, and courage is something trolls lack.”