Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

"Just warming 'em up": radio talkback and its renditions

David Rowe


I once appeared as a guest on a talkback show on a metropolitan commercial radio station. I feared that nobody would call and that the host and I would be left to exchange nervous on-air small talk while he dispiritedly exhorted listeners to ring in on the available lines. I had heard just such an embarrassing broadcast the week before (on another station). Mercifully, on this occasion, after the host's brief prefatory statement about me and my topic, a call came in. To my consternation, this first caller was roundly attacked by the host. I tried to intervene, but the technology was against me. I briefly considered a flamboyant exit from the studio, protesting against my apparent superfluity, but suddenly there were many incoming calls and the host apologetically said off-air 'Sorry, I'll back off now and leave it mostly to you. Just warming 'em up'.

Apart from cautioning potential talkback callers to beware of being first to speak (a warning which, if accepted, is likely to produce the kind of stalled and stilted program I pessimistically anticipated) this anecdote displays the main ingredients of the talkback exchange: the seeking, construction and maintenance of an audience; the notion of audience response; and the question of discursive authority. In this article I will concentrate on what talkback can be said to stand for in mass communication and why, as a consequence, it (or at least the relationship between radio broadcaster and radio audience) has been the subject of certain representations in film and literature. I have chosen not to analyse radio talkback through sociolinguistics, conversation analysis or ethnomethodological examinations of rule. Instead, I am primarily concerned with how academics, filmmakers and novelists have interpreted the socio-cultural significance of talkback. This approach demonstrates, in part, that there is much more common ground between social science and popular art than is generally acknowledged in either field. The emphasis on second-order significations and mediated treatments of talkback is also governed by a methodology which seeks to apprehend cultural phenomena within a discursive framework that refuses to give priority to text over context, production over reception, and deconstruction over interpretation (or, of course, the reverse). Before turning to fictive renderings of radio talkback, there is a need to consider briefly what academic analysis within communication and cultural studies has made of radio talkback.


Radio has been, in general terms, theorised within traditionally dominant "process" communicative models (McQuail, Fiske, Introduction), with talkback understood as an atypical instance of radio communication. The medium of radio, chronologically sandwiched between the literary and the televisual, briefly crystallised and enduringly typifies twentieth century mass communication. In this model, coherent messages are electronically transmitted from a single or restricted source to a large, disparate and dispersed audience. The use of radio for (in particular, Nazi) propaganda purposes and later for a combination of mass advertising and "high rotation" pop songs, made it vulnerable to attack from a wide range of mass cultural theorists. Here was, apparently, a clear case of the manipulation, exploitation, pacification, trivialisation and exploitation of the masses by the media (see Swingewood). Such sweeping dismissals of whole fields of cultural production have now fallen into disrepute, although radio has been characteristically neglected in recent assertions of "the Carnivalesque", "popular productivity" and "audience empowerment" (Docker, Fiske Understanding).

I am not going to explore and to celebrate radio from the perspective of the 'new revisionism in mass communication research' (Curran). I am, however, focussing on talkback because, in any case, it is a different form of radio broadcast that permits the addressee to share the medium with the addressor in something like real time. Hence, talkback is already an example of a media form in which poly-directionality can be easily demonstrated without recourse to audience ethnography or textual interpretation. The absence of meaningful audience feedback is something which mass cultural critics bemoan in the modern media, so the opportunity that talkback affords for members of the audience to respond to and interact with the medium, even to initiate topics, indicates at least a potential check on institutionalised media power.

It is because of this relatively direct contact between audience, communicator and medium that, I will argue, radio talkback has been a pretext for the fictional exploration of the power of mass communication. Academic analyses of talkback are sparse, largely because radio itself has received nothing like the theoretical and empirical attention directed to film, print and television (see, for example, the distribution of entries in Blum and Wilhoit). One brief but influential analysis has been provided by Andrew Crisell (65), who describes (in the terms of the linguist Roman Jakobson) the function of the calls to a "phone-in" (the British term for talkback) as:

both phatic - a demonstration that the audience is "present" and can hear the radio message - and metalingual - that it is capable of understanding and even contributing to it.

Crisell (183) develops the Jakobsonian analysis of talkback by describing the 'emotive' and 'conative' functions of the caller's participation as taking three main forms, 'the expressive, the exhibitionist and the confessional'. The dyadic and triadic permutations of broadcaster/listener, broadcaster/caller, caller/listener and broadcaster/caller/listener, at once individual/collective and private/public, introduce both elements of voyeurism and activism to radio broadcasts. All this occurs in sound without vision via a combination of private and public technology in which some interlocutors are the "Names" and the named while others are the obscure and the anonymous. In this complicated interactive context the media gatekeeper and game warden - the professional broadcaster - is crucially positioned to seek to control the 'task environment' (Hirsch).

Other writers have, therefore, concentrated on the relative powers of broadcaster, caller and listener. Christine Higgins and Peter Moss, for example, analyse the transcripts of talkback programs with an emphasis on the talkback host's capacity to filter and direct messages through techniques such as endorsement, ridicule, solicitousness, referral and truncation (my terms). Higgins and Moss analyse (commercial) talkback radio using a combination of sociolinguistics (derived from the work of M.A.K. Halliday) and Gramsci-inspired cultural studies (for example, that of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall ). They are particularly concerned with the way in which the flow of cultural meanings in talkback is managed by the host within the confines of the medium and its conventions. They argue that listeners are 'not narcotized' (70) by the commercial talkback combination of advertisements, calls, interviews, news, songs and the host's "patter", and that 'cultural meanings, as filtered through commercial radio, are more porous than some critics believe'. Nonetheless, talkback hosts are regarded by Higgins and Moss as among the (not always successful) "encoders' of dominant messages' (3) and considerable attention is given to the different types of host and their various strategies in the management of talkback discourse. Indeed, the use of the term "host", rather than "presenter" or "announcer", signifies their high estimation of the situational power of the media professional in talkback exchanges.

Keith Windschuttle takes a stronger line against the narcotisation thesis, criticising Adorno's ascription of the term 'totalitarian radio' both to Nazi propaganda and to American commercial broadcasts (241). The rather sinister view of radio adopted by Adorno is, perhaps surprisingly, suggested by Marshall McLuhan (208-09) in his discussion of Hitler's use of the 'hot medium' of radio, recounting his statement in a 1936 Munich speech that 'I go my way with the assurance of a somnambulist' as he deftly used the 'subliminal depths of radio [that] are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums'. In the Australian context, Windschuttle argues that the "Frankfurt line" on radio (adopted, he suggests, by Noel Sanders) is challenged by the research of Don Aitkin and Ann Norrie into the function of talkback in political participation. Aitkin and Norrie found that politics, broadly defined, accounted for almost half of all talkback calls and that talkback radio operated as an important forum for its predominantly female audience situated in the politically isolated private domestic sphere. Windschuttle concedes that content analysis methodology is ill-equipped to deal with important dimensions of broadcasts such as 'nuance and emphasis', that certain talkback hosts (such as John Pearce) are 'authoritarian male figures' and that talkback 'has never been, nor claimed to have been, a true "access" type of program. It does not turn listeners into broadcasters' (242). However, like Higgins and Moss (and, as shown below, Potts) he emphasises the diversity of approach in different talkback shows on competing stations, for example in the ABC's use of 'intelligent women as presenters' (243).

John Potts, drawing on the sociolinguistics of Gunther Kress and Bob Hodge and Joshua Meyrowitz's conditional restatement of McLuhan, places less emphasis on diversity in arguing that 'conventional talkback [is] built on the installation of the single host as authority-figure' (164). Potts, however, also contrasts talkback hosts whose styles are 'open' and 'closed', presenting and analysing the transcripts of taped exchanges between hosts, invited guests and listeners. While the 'contemporary aural theatre' (166) that is talkback is not totally controlled by the host, '[i]n all instances, however, it is important to remember that the host possesses the power to set the agenda, to override the caller or to terminate the dialogue' (135-36). Thus, Potts concludes, talkback simulates rather than extends democracy; 'it seems to provide a democratic forum, yet the parameters of that forum have been set in advance'. Potts - and, as noted above, Crisell (188) - likens the experience and "fascination" of talkback listening (on occasions) to 'the aural equivalent of voyeurism' (164-66). Rebecca Coyle also stresses the attractions of the private-in-public and the public-in-private discourses of talkback radio: 'Listeners become voyeurs, fascinated with callers revealing intimate details of their lives or being publicly berated and satirised by all-powerful hosts' . Coyle argues, following Norie Neumark, that listeners and callers come to participate self-consciously in talkback radio entertainment drama, with all its attendant scepticism and distantiation, rather than remaining unconsciously subject to it (36). The powers of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to control talkback programs which 'exist because audiences wish to hear opinion expressed forcefully and persuasively' are addressed by Belinda Hickman and Domonique Booth in evaluating the degree to which talkback may legitimately offend listeners and the extent to which it may interweave news and commentary (49).

The various (but inexhaustive) academic and journalistic treatments of talkback discussed above display a considerable consistency of approach and emphasis - in areas such as language of and as power, institutionally sedimented authority and the coalescence of the private and public spheres. The pivotal concerns are, first, with the functions of the host and, second, with the balance of participatory democracy and voyeuristic fascination in audience behaviour. Evaluations of talkback have swung between pessimistic assessments of pseudo-democracy and more neutral, if not optimistic, post modernist assertions of playfulness in the media. The highly charged nature of talkback has, unsurprisingly, attracted the attention of the makers of fiction and "faction". While some treatments have been comedic, it is the more dramatic and violent dimensions of talkback that have been emphasised in fict/factional narrative.


Probably the best known film about talkback is Oliver Stone's Talk Radio, which is loosely based on a real life story of an assassinated "shock jock", Alan Berg, in the USA. Berg's fate was the subject of a stage play (by Eric Bogosian - who plays the talk host in the film - and Tad Savinar) and a book (by Stephen Singular, entitled Talked to Death). The specialism of the talkback host Barry Champlain (who has altered his Jewish surname) is abuse of the caller, subjecting both friendly and hostile callers to a series of tirades. Champlain detests equally 'the concerned, sensitive, bleeding heart liberal, looking for people with problems he can call his own', the homophobic anti-semites and the wider constituency of callers with their gripes, worries, hoaxes and even compliments. For example, one caller tries to praise the host for his wit, proposing a crude, clumsy affinity between black and Jewish people, and is immediately ridiculed for his trouble:

'Well, I'm black...'.

'Well, good for you. What do you want, a medal?'

[Laughs] 'Well no, I don't. Now don't play with me like them other people. Yeah, I want you to know that I enjoy listening to your show and I want to say, I like you Jews.' 'Well, I like you blacks. I think everyone should own one.'

The conversation degenerates further, with the host questioning the caller about the number of his Jewish friends, claiming that the positive feeling is not reciprocated because Jews economically dominate and 'hate you [blacks]', and accusing him of being an Uncle Tom who tries to 'kiss the master's butt.' The infuriated caller, who started out favourably disposed to Barry Champlain, is invited to hang up, despised for not doing so and is then cut off by the host. This exchange, which is the stuff of the confrontational style of talkback radio, shows how the drive for compulsive listening - warming 'em up - obliterates any reflexive opportunity. The host, acutely aware and making great play of his own Jewishness, seeks to expose naive, totalising positions on racial and ethnic identity by emphasising the persistence of racial/ethnic intolerance and inequality. Instead, because this is show business, he boorishly and oppressively vilifies a caller who becomes simultaneously the victim of societal racism and of talkback radio. This socially destructive behaviour is also (literally) self destructive, as those sympathetic to his fundamentally anti-racist ideology are alienated and the talkback host, who has repeatedly baited the Nazi Jew-haters, is shot by them after his show in the radio station car park.

Talk radio is described by Barry Champlain as 'the only neighbourhood in town. People just don't talk to each other any more', yet the kind of communication he facilitates is hardly likely to promote community. Indeed, in his final broadcast in Talk Radio he castigates the entire audience for becoming dependent on him for entertainment and human exchange. The audience of victims in the end victimises the host, who confides privately that his greatest fear is 'being boring, afraid that the audience will get up and leave', because it demands victimisation as a condition of tuning in. Another complimentary caller is insulted because there is 'nothing more boring than people who love you', all for the benefit of the audience primed for the obnoxious. The self-confessed angry talkback host is imprisoned by the anger that is his major professional qualification. His angst is packaged, inner-directed as self-loathing and translates into nothing more substantial than ratings. It is the audience, then, that comes to be seen as predatory, stalking the host 'every night like a pack of hounds because you can't stand facing what you are and what you've made' and excoriated for needing its daily dose of abuse, for fearing entertainment emanating from the individual lives of its members, and because it keeps listening, calling and talking. The host and audience are ultimately 'stuck with each other' and their pain, their mutual antagonism a sign of media success, until they are separated by physical rather than verbal violence.

Talk Radio is concerned with several of the main themes covered in the aforementioned academic analyses of talkback. It is simultaneously about the authority and charisma of the host who makes entertainment at the expense of many of his callers. Indeed, as noted above, entertainment values are substantially produced by the dramatic (and dramatically uneven) contest between host and caller. As Potts puts it, 'Many listeners delight in the abasement of the hapless caller at the hands of the malevolent host' (127). It needs to be acknowledged that the intention and ideology of the conservative host who harangues largely powerless callers from the position of patriarchal, gerontocratic and dominant ethno-cultural power differ from those of (as in Talk Radio) a radically uncompromising member of an ethnic minority trying spectacularly to reveal and corrode, rather than to obscure and sustain, the mechanisms of social power. Yet the structural relations between host and caller are identical in both instances - the show is made by the knowingness, articulacy and authority of the host, for whom the calls are merely a means to exert command over radio time and space. Ultimately, the disadvantaged listeners/callers, whose only weapon is the hand on the dial, strike back in the fictional world of Talk Radio via the atypical real life event of media homicide - the hand moved from the dial to the gun. Ignoring for a moment the political extremism of the killers in the specific context of the film, the "wasting" of the host can be seen, at the most symbolically general level, as a move to dethrone "The Father", the dispenser of wisdom and judgement. In this way, the direct physical action of murder, which can be contrasted with what is portrayed as the ultimately fruitless activity of talkback dialogue, is an act of mutant feedback. It is a move against totalitarian radio - in the case of Talk Radio an act performed by totalitarians. The film is, then, preoccupied by, although at its conclusion inverting, the relations and acts of violence that form so much of the mass cultural critique. It is "the masses" who are ultimately depicted as threatening rather than the threatened. This is a shift from what Alan Swingewood (10) calls 'the threat to culture stemming from above, imposed through the profit-seeking capitalist mass media' to 'the threat to modern society from below, from the "common man", "mass man" who must be taught to know and accept his "natural" place if traditional culture is not to be submerged by barbarism' (4). In this manner the "streetwise" talkback host can be located within the tradition of conservative cultural criticism and "left Leavisism".

The theme of violence pervades other filmic treatments of talkback and "personality DJ's". In Play Misty for Me, for example, the media professional is stalked by a psychopathic killer. The host may also be presented as instigating or abetting violence, particularly in vulnerable and unstable callers. In The Fisher King, the regular caller who seeks romantic advice is contemptuously but playfully advised by the talkback host, Jack Lucas, to exterminate "yuppies". That he takes the message literally and shoots a number of people in an up-market bar is treated - ironically, by other media - as a measure of the power and irresponsibility of the host who constructs entertainment out of other people's tragedies. In Pump Up the Volume, a suicidal caller is treated offhandedly by the pirate talkback host, Happy Harry Hard On, and again the unsatisfactory counselling session ends in death - this time only of the caller.

The emphasis is on the host's role as professional counsellor and the possible abuse of that power, as in the case of romantic expert Dr Nancy Love in Alan Rudolph's Choose Me. Dr Love's Love Line program is similar to that of Dr Sheila Fleming's in Talk Radio, which is condemned on-air by Barry Champlain as giving 'dubious advice' to those with 'psychological problems or are just plain suicidal.' Dr Love is presented as the physician in need of healing, dispensing anonymous (hers is, of course, a pseudonym) radio counsel on human relationships yet emotionally and sexually dysfunctional, to the extent that she herself is undergoing therapy - conducted by telephone. "Ann" (like Nancy, an assumed name) pretends to operate a telephone answering service when asked what she does, saying that she feels comfortable 'not having to deal with the complexities of people's faces' and liking the control and order of receiving 'straight answers when I ask straight questions.' Just as Barry Champlain regards himself as a tragic figure, beset with self doubt and weighed down by the responsibility of an audience which he tells 'the only thing you believe in is me', so Ann surreptitiously reveals that 'she can help others but not herself' in 'speculating' about the psychological state of Dr Love.

Some people worship her. Now can you imagine how hard that must be to live with, knowing that anything you ever say to anyone will count heavily, be acted upon, whether you're right or wrong? ... She must wonder about her own experiences.... She must do some eccentric things that have become quite natural to her, you know, half in, half out of reality.

After fortuitously experiencing neurosis-free sexual pleasure, Dr Love/Ann re-assesses her role as talkback expert adviser, explaining to a caller 'prepared to do whatever you tell me' that the radio therapist is herself still learning, 'you just can't listen to me, even I have to be careful of listening to myself.' In spite of Dr Love describing herself as 'not God...just a clown', the undeterred caller, Betty, continues to demand instruction ('I don't know what I would do without you') and to heap praise on the 'wonderful...fantastic...greatest person.' As in Talk Radio, the host's callers and listeners in Choose Me are shown to make excessive demands on the host-as-guru and unwilling to be empowered by tuning out and becoming more self-reliant. These representations are concerned with the fitness of the talkback host to counsel and to advise callers. Like academic mass cultural critiques they depict contemporary society as fragmented and atomised - typified by David Riesman's famous phrase "The Lonely Crowd" - so that dependence on the counselling of talkback hosts is regarded as a symptom of social malaise. Higgins and Moss note how one host 'seems to see his role as that of a rather paternalistic, on-air counsellor or welfare officer, handing out free advice to people with problems. Certainly listeners seem to interpret his role in this way, since so many callers do ask for advice or help of the kind normally sought from a social worker' (24). For Potts, the host listens to 'personal problems that may once have been the province of a local priest' and responds to questions normally addressed to 'a social worker or counsellor. For listeners with emotional or psychological problems, the conversation possible with the host, and the host's advice, may be akin to the "talking cure" offered by an analyst' (119). The talkback counsellor-host is, wittingly or unwittingly, aligned with the care-givers and control agents of the welfare state and the private medical establishment in such analyses of the advisory role. Yet in other areas of their professional practice, talkback hosts and other radio professionals, again following mass cultural theory, are seen to be capable of inciting social disorder.

In both Good Morning Vietnam (where the host provides his own gallery of callers' voices) and Pump Up the Volume, the presenter's nonconformity, affinity with the audience and potential to galvanise listeners to engage in dissident activity is, however, celebrated. These films hinge on a resistive rhetoric whereby authority, as represented by the school, the military and the family, is corrupt, hypocritical and repressive, so that the radio is a catalyst for the expression of dissent. In this way they mirror conservative assessments of the political subversiveness of mass (especially youth) culture, although with clearly different ideological ramifications. The dramatic screening of talkback and related forms of radio have been, therefore, "serious" in their consistent relation of the media to violence, dissent, social atomisation and anomie in a manner closely allied with strains in mass cultural theory. Below, two examples from literature demonstrate some shared concerns, but with a particular emphasis on the fascination of talkback as "the aural equivalent of voyeurism" and its confusion of the private and the public.


In David Lodge's comic novel, Changing Places, a middle-aged, British, male academic, Philip Swallow, undertakes an exchange with an American counterpart, Morris Zapp. The book makes much of the cultural differences between California and the English Midlands in the late nineteen sixties, symbolised by the names of their respective universities - Rummidge and Euphoria State. By accident rather than design, Swallow becomes a figurehead in the radical student movement and so finds himself as a guest on a talkback show, 'dispensing liberal wisdom to the audience of the Charles Boon Show on every conceivable subject' for over two hours (198). The talkback host is already known to Swallow, a former student at Rummidge 'of plebeian origin' (35) (the threat from below) represented as a charlatan and opportunist with a 'heart of pure show-business' (75) (the threat from above), whose show on a non-commercial network is distinguished by the radical stance and opinionation of the host, who is rude to callers with whom he politically disagrees. Inevitably, one caller - 'a homosexual clergyman' - is suicidal, but is successfully mollified by Boon, who performs other counselling and advisory tasks (75). Thus the fictional talkback host Charles Boon possesses many of the characteristics and performs most of the functions identified in the academic analyses of talkback, save for the specific sixties Californian twist.

The host is instrumental, however, in laying bare the "aural voyeurism" and public/private conflation of talkback. At the end of Swallow's guest talkback stint, he receives a private call from Hilary, his wife in England, who does not realise that her words are going out over the airwaves. Swallow fails to terminate the call - Hilary interpreting his non-communicativeness as an emotional rebuff and Boon physically restraining him from interrupting the broadcast. The farcical conversation ends as follows:

'You've got to come home at once, Philip, if you want to save our marriage.'

Philip laughed, briefly and hysterically. 'Why do you laugh?'

'I was writing to tell you more or less the same thing.' 'I'm not joking, Philip.'

'Neither am I. By the way, have you any idea how many people are listening to this conversation?' 'I don't know what you're talking about.' 'Exactly, so will you kindly get off the bloody phone.' 'If that's the way you feel about it ... I just hope you understand that I'm probably going to have an affair.'

'I'm having one already!' he cried. 'But I don't want to tell the whole world about it.'

That finally stopped Hilary. There was a gasp, a silence and a click.

'Terrific,' Charles Boon said, when the red and green lights went out and the mike was dead at last. 'Terrific. Sensational. Fantastic radio.'


The comic tension in this passage derives from elements of the ordinary and the extraordinary in talkback radio. Discussion of personal problems is commonplace in this context, but the caller is normally aware that s/he is being heard by the host and a large audience, while other persons - that is, third parties to the conversation - are usually spoken about rather than directly addressed in the broadcast. Also, expert commentators are frequently used in "phone-ins", but usually in their capacity as objectivist intellectuals rather than as the unwilling subjects of the program, especially when what is being discussed is both private and prosaic, thereby eroding their public authority. Yet the entertainment value of eavesdropping on the personal discussion of a fragile relationship - aural voyeurism - outweighs, in the end, that of the legitimate canvassing of political issues in the public sphere. Talkback, Lodge implies, is never more then one step - or call - from gossip, no matter how far it may extend its claim to seriousness It is listening in and owning up to the private in the anonymously public that is the foundation of talkback's appeal or, more strongly for devoted listeners, of its fascination.

In Don DeLillo's White Noise, as Potts notes (165), one character, Babette, displays an obsessive enthusiasm for talkback radio and what it reveals about others' lives. The twin themes of the novel are the dread of death and media saturation. Throughout the book, the media - especially radio constantly impinge on the lives of its characters. Radio is the source ~f officially legitimised information about the weather (even if it is challenged by the senses), the quality of water, the effects of chemical contamination and the causes of UFO sightings (DeLillo 22, 34,125-26, 236). At the same time it is believed by one character, Heinrich, to produce levels of electromagnetic radiation that cause 'nerve disorders, strange and violent behaviour in the home...[and] deformed babies' (175). A malfunctioning radio auto-timer disrupts a dramatic, emotional conversation between Babette, the compulsive talkback listener, and her husband, in which she reveals the depth of her anxiety, her drug addiction and its related infidelity (195). Babette, who 'could not get enough of talk radio' comes to believe that 'Talk is radio' (263, 264), yet sound itself becomes a source of dread: 'What if death is nothing but sound? ... You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful' (198). Babette's immersion in talkback radio is represented in White Noise as a symptom of her psychic deterioration, an obsessive fascination with external "noise" to assuage her own despair and terror. Her fascinated attention is directed to the public/private world of talkback, with its agonies and banalities confirming, rather than easing, her sense of hopelessness. Once again, reliance on talkback becomes an index of social and individual pathology.

Talkback (like the rest of the media) is depicted here as denying silence and the assumed reflection and clarity that it brings. Fixation on the media in White Noise - and, as noted earlier, in Talk Radio and Choose Me - is thus seen as systematic avoidance of engagement with a "real life" which can presumably hold the "mindless media" at bay. The main critique inherent in these works springs from the characters' continual dependence on the media in their various roles as producers, consumers and professional interpreters (the latter being White Noise's popular culture scholars). Talkback radio is therefore shown not only to contribute massively to media babble, but also to have betrayed whatever potential it might have had to admit meaningful experience of this "other world". Yet while Choose Me at least suggests that a more vital world can be found beyond talkback counselling and Changing Places satirises what it sees as the Californian form of talkback, the darker implications of Talk Radio and White Noise are that beyond the agonies of talkback radio callers and their hosts are nothing more than the unarticulated fears of a talk-addicted listenership. The harrowing inference is that talk radio is not a distortion of human discourse but a representative fragment of it.


Radio talkback is a media form that attracts the attention of scholars, film writers and novelists because of the opportunity it affords to address such highly-charged areas as the power of the media, the responses of audiences and the nature of social pathology. While fictional and non-fictional treatments have stressed the authority of the host and the victimisation of callers, they have also produced a reverse image of the audience as parasites feeding on the "host" body. Most analyses and treatments of talkback have adjudged it not to be a potent symbol of political democracy and media responsiveness but rather, in traditional mass cultural terms, talkback is seen as an index of social alienation and media manipulation.

The motives of callers and listeners have been the subject of considerable interest. Is it for advice, information or company? Are talkback listeners voyeurs and sadists, its callers exhibitionists and masochists? Connected to these speculations on motive is the pivotal moment of the talkback exchange - the (ironically termed) "hang up". The host's power is not just to override callers (using the "ducker") but (again in graphic terms) to "cut them off". The listener can exert pre-emptive power over the host's discursive and technological control by not tuning in or by switching off, while the caller can only hang up before the call is terminated. For this reason, the "temperature" of the audience, the degree to which it becomes and remains warmed up, becomes the measure of the mutual powers of media and public. With the limited alternatives available to them, assertive talkback listeners and callers can only "stay cool" by opting out.


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