Talkback radio isn’t all bad, but some of it is just awful. That’s the conclusion of the first in-depth academic study of one of the leading current affairs phenomena of our time. The study, conducted by Queensland University academic Graeme Turner has turned up all kinds of juicy findings.

This report in The Age focuses on the funniest, that is, figures that show Alan Jones is not so much allowing his audience to talk back as talking over them, in what is clearly an attempt to gain political influence.

But there are lots of other interesting findings as well.

Turner concludes that most talkback announcers are not “shock jocks”, and that the format can provide a vital means of community engagement, particularly in rural areas.

At its worst, though, it can be “a corrosive form of entertainment offering the ritual violence of an argument between the host and a caller”.

Turner’s research included interviews with the presenters and their audiences, as well as detailed content analysis of Melbourne 3AW’s Neil Mitchell program, John Laws’s program, Alan Jones and Radio National’s Australia Talks.

Laws and Jones will not be happy to read what Mitchell said to Turner on the issue of “live reads” and the ethics of talkback. Mitchell said:

There’s a lot of pressure to do [live reads], but I’ve always refused, because I think it compromises you journalistically….[And] apart from comprising you – it demeans your voice. When I start talking, I want people to think, maybe I want to hear what he’s got to say, rather than, is he selling me fried chicken.

And on the John Laws argument that ethics don’t apply to him because he is only an entertainer, not a journalist, Mitchell says:

Once you turn on that microphone, I think you’re bound by certain moralities, regardless of what you call yourself.

Presenting his findings in a speech at Sydney University on Tuesday night, Turner talked of the “good, the bad and the ugly”. The “good” was clearly Melbourne 3AW’s Neil Mitchell.

Mitchell’s program, Turner said, “operates very much as news/current affairs journalism in terms of its structures, practices and objectives.”

He praised Mitchell’s “independence and legitimacy” and said he sought “influence of a social rather than an explicitly political or ideological kind”.

“The ugly” was Alan Jones, who “exacerbated social tensions to build a personal following” which was then used “ruthlessly” and in a way that could be seen as anti-democratic and corrupting of political processes.

In between good and ugly were the “bad” – the shock jocks, and the celebrity hosts, such as Laws. Shock jocks were “hyper-opinionated, reactionary, masculinist, confrontational, anti-intellectual” and they provoked controversy to build the following and commercial success of the programs.

Laws was in a category of his own – a “celebrity host” who had some aspects of the “good” and of the shock jocks.

He offered “a form of parasocial relations to the callers that is about connecting with a celebrity rather than discussing an issue.”

Peter Fray

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