Has talk radio outlived its usefulness?

David Bullard says there's not enough to talk about, and too many people talking about the same thing

When I first came to South Africa as a shameless economic mercenary in 1981 there was only one radio station worth listening to. However, not knowing any better I first tuned into the South African Broadcasting Corporation's version of the morning news. Being an early riser I managed to catch the farming report before six o'clock, a programme which would have been invaluable had I been planning to plant mealies that day.

Then came the officially approved English news bulletin followed by a lady called Bea Reed whose reassuring tones managed to convince most white South Africans for years that god was in his heaven and all was well with the world, whatever the Rev Leon Sullivan might be saying.

At some point there was a pause for a religious slot called "think on these things" which usually involved a reading from the scriptures. This was introduced by a man whose voice was syrupy enough to suggest that he may actually have god's ex-directory telephone number. Much as I adored Bea Reed's voice I decided that Radio Today was not for me.

I asked a colleague what I should I be listening to on the drive to work every morning and he suggested a very young radio station called 702 which broadcasted on the medium wave band. So I reset all the radios I owned to 702 kHz AM and tried not to drive into an underground parking area if there was something interesting happening on air.

In those days my constant companion on the morning drive to work was the legendary John Berks whose prank calls and surreal morning exercise routine frequently reduced me to helpless laughter. It was easy to see which other drivers were tuned into 702 because they were also having trouble controlling their vehicles.

The first fifteen minutes at the office would be spent discussing Berksy's morning routine over a coffee. In those days 702 was still a music station so in between all the nonsense there were some good musical interludes. It was easy listening and I don't recall arriving at work feeling nearly as stressed as I do when I listen to the depressing content of Talk Radio 702 these days.

The transmogrification from music to talk finally happened in 1991 after a few years experimentation with a half talk and half music format. It couldn't have been a better time to make the transition as South Africa moved towards its first democratic election.

The wagging finger of PW Botha meant that the SABC had lost credibility among all but the most gullible and Radio 702 (still infuriatingly on the Medium Wave band until 2006) was the go to station if you wanted to hear what was really happening in the country. Apart from talk, Radio 702 was gradually evolving into a credible news channel.

Because the transmitters were located in the nominally independent homeland of Bophuthatswana the SA government could do nothing about the editorial content being broadcast without admitting that the homelands were nothing but a sham. It probably helped that the eyes of the world were on the recently released Nelson Mandela and the country's embryonic plans for a democratic transition of power.

Suddenly we were able to hear people who had been labelled "terrorists" talking quite rationally on an independent radio station. The significance of Radio 702's role in the run up to the first democratic elections shouldn't be underestimated and the station's role in the post election South Africa was equally important. Never was the slogan "in touch, in tune and independent" more apposite.

But that was long ago and one has to wonder what role "talk radio" plays in 2013. Why, for example, do I want to tune into an hour long programme asking listeners to phone in to tell the presenter what they have "stolen" from hotel rooms? How can this possibly enrich my life?

The problem with talk radio in 2013 is that there simply isn't enough to talk about and there are too many people on air talking about the same thing. So, for example, if there's a major news event like the Oscar Pistorius shooting then every talk show host from dawn to dusk will be raking over the same dying embers with no new angle being introduced.

When nothing's happening it gets even worse because talk show hosts have to resort to sensationalism to keep listener numbers up. Rape, violence against women, racism, homophobia and police brutality are all good topics to dredge up to make sure the incoming lines light up. And then there's the "open line"; a sure sign that the presenter's producer is completely devoid of ideas that day; or maybe just can't be bothered to think of something.

Years ago, before I became a "disgraced former Sunday Times columnist", the station manager at 702 begged me on bended knee to host the Talk at Nine programme. They urgently needed to get their listener figures up in the evening and reckoned that a mega celebrity columnist ought to do the trick. I declined the offer for a number of reasons. Firstly the pay was a joke. Secondly I like a glass or two of wine with lunch and didn't want to have to stay sober for an evening show. Thirdly, if you're on air every night between 9 and 12 you have to deal with loonies who have nothing better to do than phone radio stations and talk crap. Fourthly, an evening radio show would have played havoc with my social life. Fifthly, I doze off around nine thirty these days and sixthly, being on radio every day is like turning up to the same dinner party day after day. Nobody, not even me, could be that interesting.

That, sadly, is the problem with the majority of talk radio presenters-they aren't very interesting if you have to listen to them day after day. Worse though are the people who phone in. Why do I want to know what Bert in Benoni thinks about the proposed e-tolls? And am I really going to believe a word a government spokesperson says on a radio show?

What I want to hear is some sleazeball being grilled by a good interviewer and I do hear that on Talk Radio 702 but not enough. Then I want programmes that feature people who can tell me something I don't know. But when a desperate presenter comes on air and asks me to phone in with my experiences of unflushed public toilets then I want to reach for the off switch. And these days I find myself reaching for the off switch fairly frequently.

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