Listeners shouldn’t be on air

Forget what social media tells you, you’re probably not qualified to be on radio.

My last post seemed to upset some people. That’s good. Those people needed a shake-up. I suspect this post will win me few friends.

Jeremy Maggs asked me an interesting question the other day. It was to do with a new talk radio station launched last week called Times Radio. He asked me what I thought of it and whether the concept would work in South Africa.

Some context: Times Radio is the latest offspring of controversial media baron Rupert Murdoch, but don’t rush to judge it – it has promise. It’s part of the Wireless Group, which is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp, which also owns News UK, which publishes The SunThe Times and The Sunday Times. Times Radio (see the connection?) attempts to convert the journalistic ethos and tone of Murdoch’s premier UK newspaper titles on to the air. 

Murdoch’s been pushing for this for years, but faced regulatory stumbling blocks. He’s also been dealing with some serious reputational damage from the fallout over the hacking scandal that brought down the News of the World, his beloved tabloid cash-cow. Murdoch hates the BBC, which he believes has an unfair competitive advantage because its radio stations are ad-free, funded through compulsory TV licences; so, he’s gunning for its treasured flagship talk radio station: BBC Radio 4.

And that’s exactly where Times Radio is positioned. It features top-level broadcasters and journalists, well-known pundits, and a seemingly counterintuitive programming ethos: no listeners on-air. It makes for intelligent talk radio.

I sense fur bristling; so let me say this: talk radio, especially in South Africa, is programmed around the assumption that connecting with an audience requires giving that audience a voice. Hence, ‘open lines’ and lining up callers to comment on the subjects of discussion.

But this flies in the face of a fundamental rule of radio: keep listeners off-air.

If that doesn’t make sense, let me reframe the issue using scenarios. You’ve picked up a nasty rash, and your doctor asks if Betty, the receptionist, pop in to give a second opinion. You’re at a top restaurant and a woman at the table next to you goes to the kitchen and insists on taking over from the chef. You take your car to be serviced and it’s left in the hands of Nigel from the Vodacom store door.

Wouldn’t make sense, right? So why put unqualified people on-air? 

This is a point over which I battled with fellow broadcasters and programme managers over the years: every time you put a listener on-air, you hand the station over to them; and they are wholly unqualified. You don’t know what they’re going to say or what they’re going to do. It’s like handing the inmates the keys to the asylum. 

That may sound harsh, but listeners don’t need to be on-air because not all opinions are equal. The opinion of a qualified paediatrician carries far more weight than that of a mother who thinks she knows ‘what’s best for her child’. You can blame social media for making you think otherwise.

But surely a talk radio station relies on listener input? No. A talk radio station relies on talk; and that’s a broadcaster’s job. They can have guests – specialists in their various fields – and interview them and challenge them (which is why journalists make some of the best talk radio hosts), but they must keep listeners off-air. If Mavis from ‘Maritzburg, Sonia from Stellenbosch, or Simon from Soweto want to be heard, they can turn to social media. 

And that’s where talk radio hosts must find the voices of their listeners. Today’s talk show hosts must not only be skilled in the science – and art – of holding listeners’ attention, especially in a highly-disrupted media environment, and be adept at story-telling, and matching turns of phrase to the time of broadcast, but also be sensitive to the sentiment of their listeners. An ear to the ground – or an eye on social media – is therefore essential.

So, will Times Radio work? Yes, it has sufficient talent heft to make a dent in the British radio landscape. Whether it’ll thrive depends on the skill of its broadcasters to tap into listener sentiment; failure to do that risks the station appearing ‘elitist’, whatever that means.

Would the model work in South Africa? Probably not. We have a toxic broadcasting environment. Talk radio, especially, is hamstrung by a fear of offending ‘snowflakes’ – whatever their racial, political, cultural, gender, or religious ideologies – who demand their voices be heard and expect what they say to be sacrosanct.

Cover image: British PM Boris Johnson interviewed on the launch day of Times Radio, 29 June 2020. Credit: PA