Where Sensitives Fear To Tread by Trevor Plumbly

I must confess to being more of a concert programme type than a talk-back radio fan, but needs must when it comes to writing about a slice of the media that amounts to little more than a call-free kangaroo court with one judge and thousands of jurors, none of whom could honestly include the word impartial in their vocabulary. The few hours I spent listening to the outpourings of bigotry, racism and sheer despair were fascinating to the point of addiction. The whole thing is brilliantly orchestrated for presentation to an audience worthy of the Roman Circus Maximus with more thumbs down than up.

It’s a fairly simple formula really: the host selects a current topic, the more divisive or salacious the better, delivers the bare bones of both sides and waits for the pot to boil. If it doesn’t, like any good ringmaster he knows that a crack of the whip always excites the lions and the crowd.

This particular day’s topic concerned the increasing problem of teenage gangs, a sure fire crowd pleaser. It enables the fascists to compete with the apologists. It’s riveting stuff, a free-for-all with no winners or conclusions. The bigots kick off early (they always do) but it’s an ill-prepared attack with references to ‘lazy buggers’ and ‘dole bludgers’ but not much else in the way of substance. They fall short of calling for the death penalty, conscription and labour camps, but I got the feeling they were saving all that for another show. The wimps in reply are generally less excitable and as such, not quite as entertaining, but they do seem to play a more intelligent game, using the sympathy card in a careful measured tone and quoting actual cases where the little thugs have become shining lights in the community, after a bit of self-worth therapy and job-skill training.

The occasional Maori and academic wannabe is allowed to join in from time to time just to keep the pot boiling. Their input is based around past grievances and the benefits of a separate native justice system, lack of access to education, poverty and anything else they can toss in the mixture, all delivered in quiet tones which should calm things down, but it’s not really encouraged by the ringmaster; calmness and reason don’t really pull the punters for talk-back radio. Interestingly enough, once this sort of topic reaches the desired heat, the ringmaster tends to take a back seat, after all why risk incurring the wrath of the Race Relations Board or the Broadcasting Standards Authority when listeners are happy to do it for you? ‘Shock jockeys’, it seems, can only work in short spells and after three hours of bickering for some sort of high ground, the teams are beaten by the clock rather than either side’s rhetorical skills. The ringmaster retires, possibly to ease some sort of mental repetitive strain injury, or to contemplate tomorrow’s red rag, making way for the next airways’ Caligula. On talk-back radio the fun never stops!

Talk-back advert breaks are a goldmine for anyone with a sense of the ridiculous. There is literally no known medical affliction that these guys can’t fix, (but if pains persist see your health professional). The evidence is all there on air from grateful ex-sufferers. The sixty-odd rugby referee who now canters fluidly up-and-down the field with teenage ease after taking the magic potion (with the special offer of course). The dowager lady who makes wrinkles tremble, swears by the herbal anti-ageing cream (with the free cake of organic soap). Hair loss? Not a problem! Creaking joints? No worries! Snake oil could make a come-back here any day. Neither should sexual arousal problems bother talk-back junkies. Geriatric gigolos and senior sirens can take heart. One tablet each and you’ll be at it like rabbits, regardless of time and venue. For just 50 odd bucks (excuse the pun), you can join in this bonk-fest without consulting your health professional to assess your chances of survival. They rarely use the term ‘doctors’ on talk-back radio as it would probably imply that your condition is beyond the magic potion and even the special offer. ‘Health professional’ on the other hand, is a bit more bland, implying that even though that particular form of quackery can’t fix you, there’s no need to panic.

Try as I might, I’m still at a loss to fully explain the addictive popularity of this latter-day agony aunt. Public outpourings of emotion will always attract an audience; deep down we all love it, especially when we’re not directly involved or affected. But that doesn’t really explain what drives the regular callers; do they call for a couple of minutes of some sort of notoriety or in an effort to engage the ringmaster’s attention? Or are they simply irresistibly attracted to the lure of mass group-therapy delivered without the embarrassment of physical participation? Doubtless at some stage, an academic thesis will be published to address the question, but that won’t help the current crop of junkies kick the habit and start thinking for themselves.

Cold turkey isn’t an option as there are simply too many phones out there to give the poor sods half a chance. Boycotting the advertisers’ products won’t do much good either; you’d end up with an army of wrinkled, sexually deprived oldies bemoaning the loss of the special offer. The only way to go if a loved one shows symptoms is ‘tough love’. Lock the radio onto the concert programme and remove the dial. Pavarotti could become the methadone treatment here. Flush the cell phone down the loo, ditch the landline and hope for the best.

In closing, I am concerned that once this insightful piece is made public, it too will become a talk-back topic. In that event please do not contact me for further advice; I’ve changed my name and I’m living in total seclusion out of telephone and radio reception. If it’s an emergency, ring your local talk-back station but don’t tell them I sent you.

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