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Saturday, 2 December, 2000, 08:24 GMT
Tune in, phone up

Radio phone-ins have been on the airwaves for more than 50 years. But is this half-century or so of chat just hot air? By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

Once the radio listener's job was just to listen - often to a dinner-jacketed announcer talking in clipped tones. The phone-in has transformed all that.

Today, anyone wishing to broadcast their views on the airwaves is spoilt for choice - with almost every British radio station actively encouraging listeners to pick up the phone.

BBC broadcast control room
"If he criticises the Empire, I'll cut him off!"
The phone-in actually has its roots in celebrity interviews, says You're Through To The Show, Caller - a Radio 4 documentary to be broadcast on Saturday.

In 1945, bored New York DJ Barry Gray was looking for ways to jazz up his show, when he hit on the idea of asking stars to ring in.

When the black entertainer Josephine Baker called, conversation soon turned from celeb chit-chat to the discrimination she'd experienced in a top local nightspot. The phone-in as we know it was born.

Peter Barnard, radio critic for The Times, says the phone-in has revolutionised broadcasting.

"I'm very much in favour of them. They have democratised the airwaves - and that can only be a good thing."

Public access

Brian Hayes, presenter of Saturday's Radio 4 show and himself a veteran phone-in DJ, says the BBC was initially wary of this "democratisation".

"BBC management was horrified to learn that local stations were going to put 'ordinary people' on air."

Family gather around a wireless
"Ordinary folk on the wireless! Shall one take to the streets, father?"
Producers were warned "not to incite violence and cause riots".

The corporation has since enthusiastically embraced the phone-in, without the UK's streets running with blood. But the format does have its pitfalls.

"The greatest problem is that you're dealing with essentially an amateur audience, not experienced broadcasters or experts, they tend to wander off the point," says Mr Barnard.

"With a phone-in you get much less enlightenment per hour than you would from a more structured show."

Mark Wray, assistant editor of the Nicky Campbell show on BBC Radio 5Live, says good phone-ins require considerable effort.

Phone fest

"Anyone can open a fader and say: 'Who do you think should be made England manager?'"

Mr Wray says a balanced panel of experts, a well-briefed presenter and an experienced team manning the telephones can make for a thorough debate.

"We never underestimate the intelligence of our audience, or their ability to pick up even a very complex subject and run with it."

Imelda Marcos
"I'd like to talk about public spending"
Mr Wray says the BBC is "scrupulous" in its approach to callers, offering air time to all shades of opinion.

"[However] if we had 70% of callers in favour of something and 30% against, we would reflect that. That's not to say we'd neglect anyone, but we wouldn't create an artificial balance in the calls that go to air."

So do the views aired reflect those of our nation as a whole? Mr Barnard thinks not. "These shows tend to attract extremists."

Filter out "vested interests, nutters and publicity seekers," he says, and you'd still be left with few clues as to how the "silent majority" was thinking.

Mock jock

But no matter how strange a caller's point of view, listeners cannot abide hearing them mocked by a presenter, says Martin Campbell, head of programming at the Radio Authority and former managing editor of Talk Radio.

George W Bush
"Hey, Rush, ditto!"
"The thing that most offends listeners is the bad treatment of callers - it upsets them even more than the use of bad language."

British audiences differ markedly from American listeners in this respect, says Mr Campbell. The abrasive so-called "shock jocks" who captivate millions in the States have failed to get a foothold here.

"Talk Radio tried shock jocks in the early days - and they just didn't work. British audiences want radio which is useful as well as entertaining."

In America, figures such as the flamboyant Howard Stern delight their listeners with tirades aimed at members of the public brave enough to call in.

Right-wing icon Rush Limbaugh boasts a legion of fans - self-confessed "dittoheads" - who enjoy nothing more than endorsing his strongly-held opinions.

Close call

British DJs are not without their occasional lapses of taste or impartiality. In 1995, a phone-in host at Gateshead's Century Radio was suspended for swearing at a caller claiming to be a "benefits swindler".

President Clinton
"Is this the office romance phone-in?"
Last year, Sheffield's Hallam FM was fined 50,000 for a phone-in including "gratuitous" references to sexual assaults.

Mr Wray admits that even with the stringent checks employed by the Nicky Campbell show, the "occasional extreme or offensive voice" can still make it to air.

However, Martin Campbell - from the Radio Authority watchdog - says such rare hitches should not be held against the phone-in format.

"It would be sad to see phone-ins end. Just because now and again something gets through, that doesn't mean the whole format is at fault."

Archive Hour, You're Through To The Show, Caller, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 2 December at 2000 GMT.

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14 Dec 99 | Entertainment
Record fines for radio stations
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