David Slack: Talkback radio - the chatty, ugly, homely runt of the litter

Sunday Star-Times columnist and talkback host David Slack: People might still say that talkback is a worthless cesspool ...
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Sunday Star-Times columnist and talkback host David Slack: People might still say that talkback is a worthless cesspool but have you taken a look online?.

OPINION: In talkback hosting, they told me before I started, you get the callers you deserve.

Poor ugly, homely talkback radio, the runt of democracy's litter. A soapbox for the people, but the first thing people think of when they want shorthand for uninformed and intolerant. Or at least it was until the last US election.

But I like it. You get to know the callers, you hear what's happening in their lives, a neighbourhood bar of regulars. Sue is incensed every day and night about housing and what's being done to Glen Innes. Harmony, the Motueka hippie, still thinks it's not too late to make Bernie president. Dal in Marton knows all about the beach highway that brought my forebears to Bulls in a bullock wagon.

A bar of regulars, with the odd visitor dropping in. Sometimes it will be the wrong sort of stranger and the bar will fall quiet, just like in the Westerns. Sometimes it will be a person who has lost her way and needs help and the bar will be full of kindness.

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You get this at any hour of the day, but you especially get it in the smallest hours of the morning.

Michael would call from Queenstown, where he retired after a life of Italian restaurants in Auckland. He was proud of those restaurants, proud of his family. He would always begin with seven minutes of praise for every host on the station, if you let him. 

The day-time hosts might give him short shrift, but at night you've got all the time in the world. Tell us more, Michael. He would be noisy, completely over the top, but he was listening closely, astutely. If it was quiet, he helped you along. The empty board would light up and hello from Queenstown, here comes an anecdote about a cabinet minister. 

Then one day, just like that, Michael was gone. His daughter let us know. This is something you come to expect, and it keeps happening, and we grieve for them because the family is real.

The day after last week's budget I got a caller who was so angry, so choked with rage, she would have to pause to find the next word. She was feeling the neglect many people in Christchurch feel, many poor people feel, many struggling people feel, and she was railing. An hour later she posted a long message on my Facebook page saying sorry for shouting, and quietly setting out what was enraging her. I told her she had nothing to be sorry for.

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So I love talk radio, and also I nearly walked away from it a few months ago because I discovered, after the US election, that a triumphal and angry Trump supporter could make me snap. I can politely dump the anti-Semites and the racists and the misogynists, but this guy managed to get me to shout. It's only now, now that they seem less angry about winning, that I can deal with them.

On we go, and people might still say that talkback is a worthless cesspool but have you taken a look online?  People become so terribly brave when they don't have to face you, in the comments sections, on Twitter, on Facebook, anonymous and seething and vicious.

To be fair, some of the talk audience will do that, too, in the text messages. We're egotists, though. You have to work hard to dent us. One said "I wouldn't listen to David Slack unless I was tied up and gagged in a dark dungeon." I use it to decorate my Twitter page. 

But they save their worst for the women. I've seen messages they've sent to Ali Mau, and honestly, what is wrong with you people?

Online, the hatred and cruelty is there all day long, vile, hateful, the way it's been for the author Emily Writes, who decided to walk away from it this week. She counts "Feel so bad for your kids to have you as their mum" as relatively moderate. 

All day. All night. 

Strange to say, but talk radio, where the cruel and bigoted and hateful are only ever a dump button away from vanishing might just be the safest place today for a woman to pick up the phone and talk about what is choking her with frustration.

Follow David on Twitter: @DavidSlack 

 - Sunday Star Times

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