When I was at university I had a job answering phones in a network television call centre. Imagine, if you will: people who aren’t capable enough to use the comments section on news.com.au but insist on having their opinions heard anyway. These are the people I spoke to. Ever thought there were too many ads on TV? People call in to say that. Ever thought a newsreader was looking a bit tubby? (Many, many) people call in to say that. Ever told someone you hoped their whole family would die because Beaches wasn’t being repeated? Someone called in to say that, too.

“I’m going to marry Maggie Doyle.”

“Oh yeah, why Maggie Doyle?”

“Because she’s got good breasts and she’ll never leave me.” — regular caller, on his plans for the holidays

Working in a TV call centre is a job that gives you a special, if not always flattering, look inside the minds of the Australian public. Like any call centre job, you have your usual array of huffing m-sturbators and folks with better things to do than to wait around for you (though nothing better to do than tell you about it). But people grow up with television. It soothes them and keeps them company, brings the rest of the world into their homes and babysits their kids. So when people call TV stations to talk about TV, they behave as though they’re talking to a member of their family.

“I’m just so bloody sick of all these Muslim women disrespecting me. Today one of them didn’t even get off the road when she saw me coming — I had to slow down so I wouldn’t hit her!” — caller complaining about not being allowed to run over Muslim women with her car

That said; the way people talk to their family is often more weird and disturbing than the way they talk to anyone else (you all just survived Christmas, you know what I mean). Callers such as the Islamophobic Hyundai driver feel TV is a realm where they can be incited to feel and then express any and all emotions without being judged. Television never disagrees, and if does, you can always change the channel.

Worse, the stories that make you and me despair for the future of our country are the same ones that pull in the biggest ratings and the most phone calls. Current affairs programs such as Today Tonight and A Current Affair have the balance between “which supermarket is ripping you off the most for a loaf of bread” and circuses down to a very fine art. And there’s a sizeable audience of Australians who feel very strongly that these programs not only speak to them, but also speak for them.

“So you people reckon these foreigners deserve help more than me and my kids? I hope you’re one of the first ones shot when they let all the foreigners in.” — caller responding to a story about refugees

The vast bulk of the calls, literally hundreds of calls a day, were people ringing the current affairs program: from complaints about dodgy plumbers to people whose children had been removed by the government. If you ever wondered where these shows find their stories, wonder no more: they have more people calling in with stories than they know what to do with. Having exhausted their options through personal campaigns, legal appeals and government assistance, many desperate people feel that turning to these programs is their last chance. Of course there were also crazies and naïve teenagers who just wanted to get famous, but they were a very small minority. Unfortunately, navigating the moral quandary between lack of access to support services for the disadvantaged and exploitation for profit by the media was not addressed in any of the workplace training.

“I’m calling because I want you to send me out a copy of Steve Irwin’s funeral” — one of hundreds of callers

Whenever I spoke to someone wanting a copy of Steve Irwin’s memorial service, I imagined the caller at home, cutting famous faces out of magazines and sticking them like masks on dolls set up at their kitchen tables so they could eat their microwave dinner with some company. A lot of the callers were very lonely people. But mostly you could see where they were all coming from. Even the furious, threatening bigoted ones, or the woman who rang every day of the 18 months I was there (often in tears) to ask whether there were going to be storms in Craigieburn.

People are funny and frustrated and scared and sweet and tired and weird. My favourite caller was a man who wanted to be on the news because he claimed he was Elvis Presley’s son. He spent 20 minutes trying to prove it by singing Elvis hits down the phone line. We put him on speaker phone so everyone on the night shift could enjoy it — if Elvis were around, I think he would have been pretty proud of him. People see television as something they can trust and rely on, something that understands them and helps them; something that will always have good breasts and never leave them. And who can’t relate to wanting that?

*Courteney Hocking is a Melbourne comedian and writer who now understands her time at this job was karma for all the bad television she has written

Peter Fray

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