Former home of the Shock Jocks 

27 November 2008

Stephen Hopkins looks at TalkSPORT’s past – and why he dislikes its present.

Ever since its inception, Talk Radio, which first took to the air in February 1995 and is now known as TalkSPORT, has revelled in its somewhat controversial reputation. This desire to let the fire lick its wings nearly strangled it at birth, and though it soon got over its nadir, it has always been Five Live’s brasher, somewhat wilder rival.

Its launch ethos was that of the American-style “shock-jock”: loud, brash, in-your-face presenters who say exactly what they think and anyone who doesn’t like it can go hang. Controversy is their stock-in-trade; very rarely is negative publicity bad publicity.

In the United States, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern are perhaps among the best known exponents of this genre. Sirius Radio made the news when it signed up Mr Stern to its satellite channel. Being non-terrestrial, it was able to escape the shackles of “taste and decency” that the US Federal Communications Commission is able to apply to the mainstream media; Mr Stern lost no time in taking advantage of the opportunity.

Closer to home, Emmis Broadcasting, Talk Radio’s American backers, wanted to shake up British speech radio by trying something similar. Its answer was its launch line-up: Caesar the Geezer, Al Kelly, Terry Christian, Jeremy Beadle. Within days, the complaints came flooding in. Vulgarity, gratuitous crudity, sexual references. The Radio Authority upheld over two dozen complaints, and the station escaped a fine only because it had already given Mr Kelly his marching orders. Listeners voted with their radios; early RAJAR ratings of 1.5 million were a far cry from the three or four million the station was hoping for. MVI, which, along with CanWest and Hambros, was part of the consortium, balked and installed its own man as acting managing director. Several other directors were also dumped.

The on-air talent didn’t escape, either. Chris Rogers, better known as Caesar the Geezer and the self-proclaimed “rudest presenter on radio”, and Terry Christian, once described as the “epitome of broadcasting inarticulacy”, were both sacked in September for repeatedly transgressing acceptable standards of taste and decency. It is alleged that the ironically named Mr Christian’s offence was to give an excess of airtime to an anti-religious bigot.

Mr Rogers later said he thought that the concept was doomed to fail. “It was an excellent idea, but this country is 10 years behind. I told the American investors a shock-jock station wouldn’t work, but we had to do it their way. That screwed up my career.” He also claimed the Americans told him to overdo the shock factor, exaggerating his own beliefs to stir up controversy.

Perhaps. But even if the early audience was more than a few pub hooligans (Mr Rogers says his callers included authors, lawyers, bank clerks and MPs) the launch of Talk Radio was a flop. At the Radio Academy Festival the station admitted as much. It responded by cleaning up its act. Emmis sighed and retreated back home, its ambition of giving the UK its own Howard Stern by now in tatters. MVI bought out the remaining shareholders and sold 49% of the total shares to CLT. Under the new regime its output (and audience figures) improved dramatically. An infusion of polished presenters, among them Trevor McDonald and Simon Bates (complete with Our Tune), helped.

The station soon settled down with a slate of regular presenters. Scott Chisholm had enjoyed a long and varied career in journalism since leaving his native New Zealand. He saw fires raging out of control in New South Wales, nearly came to grief in Tehran when the mullahs mistook him for a spy, got sacked from Sky News for fisticuffs in the news room and did a stint on Granada’s This Morning, before eventually landing a regular mid-morning slot on Talk Radio.

Amidst the frivolity that Talk Radio was known for, Mr Chisholm’s background in hard news meant he often presided over a sober debate of serious subjects. On 7 January 1999 he interviewed Andreas Whittam Smith, then president of the British Board of Film Classification, about the job of rating and occasionally censoring films and video.

“Who would want to be a censor?” he asked. “One disillusioned censor who quit last year has accused her colleagues at the BBFC of pandering to alarmist fears: of slavishly responding to a vocal minority, of not taking note of the vast majority of us who don’t give classification a second thought. There are others who ask, when will we trust adults to choose for themselves? There are others who ask, when will we credit children and young people with the ability to watch critically? Do we need censorship at all? Andreas Whittam-Smith,” he said, turning to his guest, “why would you accept this poison chalice?”

Mr Chisholm was prepared to tackle anything, from the serious to what traditional news bulletins call the “dog on skateboard” items. He hosted a group debate about UFOs, and discussed with Brian Micklethwait the teaching of mathematics. He interviewed Lindsay Jenkins about her allegations, published in Britain Held Hostage, of a forthcoming EU socialist dictatorship, and broached the thorny subject of child sexual abuse. A regular ‘Scambusters’ feature aimed to ensure that anyone trying to rip off the public or engage in sharp practice had no place to hide.

Jeremy Paxman, who was putting the finishing touches to The English: A Portrait of a People, came into the studio to discuss ‘Englishness’. Colin Wilson explained his thesis that the Sphinx guarding the great pyramids of Gaza, Egypt had tell-tale signs of water and wind erosion, ergo Egypt must have had a far wetter climate several millennia ago. A caller wasn’t convinced: Mr Wilson was a conman cashing in on a craze for pseudo-science. Rubbish, retorted Mr Chisholm: Mr Wilson was a successful author who almost certainly had more money than he could spend.

Anna Raeburn’s style was different. She was the agony aunt, dispensing matronly advice to the nation as once she did to the listeners of LBC, and would again some years later after, having taken a page from her own book, pulling her life back together following a divorce and a spell on the dole.

A former snooker ace had a tremor in his hand; Anna happened to know of the National Tremor Foundation. A mother was concerned about her four-year-old who wanted to share the bed. Night-lights, monster traps and laughter follow. Someone was worried about her 20-year-old son suffering severe mood swings after losing his job. Missing persons, elderly parents, lonely hearts and the simply lonely; all turned to Anna Raeburn for support.

The unavoidable accusation levelled at those who run question-and-answer sessions in public media on deeply personal, sometimes very awkward, sensitive and difficult subjects is that they’re exploiting human misery. This charge is almost impossible to refute: anyone tuning in can eavesdrop on other people’s human misery being paraded on air for all to hear. But the callers know that; some of them would ring in wanting just to talk to Anna. Sorry, that’s not the deal.

I would often listen to Ms Raeburn whilst sitting in the car during a break from work. She was not uniformly sympathetic; sometimes she’d tell callers to stop moping around, pull their socks up and sort it out. When needed, though, she was a shoulder to cry on and a dispenser of sympathetic and practical advice.

Peter Deeley was another journalistic heavyweight, having sparred with a veritable who’s who of world leaders, including President Reagan, President Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Dr. Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. For Talk Radio, he threw a handful of populism and tabloid rhetoric into the mix.

“The lunatics are running the madhouse again,” he intoned in August 1997, following the monthly meeting of the Bank of England’s recently established Monetary Policy Committee. “Interest rates go up for the fourth time… We have a bankers’ economy run by a complete banker.” The unfortunate banker in question was “Steady” Eddie George.

He didn’t much like the European single currency, either. “We are being conned. […] We are being stitched up like a kipper,” he seethed, incandescent with rage, after Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister, extolled in 1999 the joys of the Euro in the House of Commons.

This self-proclaimed “voice of Middle England” was the Victor Meldrew of Talk Radio, according to The Independent: a grizzled, phenomenally toxic curmudgeon far enough to the right for Mrs Thatcher to ring up and ask for an interview. The Guardian, surprisingly, was a bit fairer when he was on LBC News 1152 AM, saying that with the “excellent” Peter Deeley, among others, on board, LBC News could be the unfancied runner that steals a march on its FM sibling.

Tellingly, a Digital Spy poster observed that Mr Deeley took few calls on Talk Radio, at least on the serious topics, although, after interviewing Ruth Lea, then of the Institute of Directors, he turned to continued fevered press speculation about the love life of Diana and her apparent infatuation with Dodi al-Fayed, both of whom would be tragically killed in a Paris underpass in August 1997. For his two cents, he invited callers to propose a new paramour for the Princess of Wales. “She’s looking for a man so why don’t we try and find her one?”

Another presenter who was quite capable of giving Five Live a run for its money – at least, if you discount the sometimes inane audience participation factor – was Dr David Starkey. This university lecturer turned writer, broadcaster and doyen of media historians has probably forgotten more about the Tudors than I’ll ever know.

If Chris Rogers took for himself the title of radio’s rudest presenter, Dr Starkey says his epithet “the rudest man in Britain” was awarded to him by the Rev. George Austin, archdeacon of York, after he’d exploded over the Rev. Austin’s pomposity about the personal life of Charles and Diana. This media label came in quite useful during his stint on The Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4.

For example, in 1999, with Michael Buerk sitting nervously in the chair, Dr Starkey condemned the NATO incursion into Kosovo. It was worse than a crime and a blunder, he thundered: it was a disaster.

Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College, London, entered the lions’ den. It was worth it, he ventured. Slobodan Milošević was destabilizing the entire region; the west could not just watch from the sidelines.

Dr Starkey bridled. Do you share Clare Short’s complacency about Serbian refugees? Did they deserve their fate?

Mr Freedman offered an analogy. I’d prefer an answer, Dr Starkey snapped. Mr Freedman persisted, comparing the expulsion of the Serbs with the Beneš expulsion of the Germans from Czechoslovakia.

So you do approve of ethnic cleansing, Dr Starkey concluded. And so it went on and very much on.

At Talk Radio, in the aftermath of the Bernie Ecclestone Formula One scandal (not to be confused with the Max Mosley Formula One scandal), Nigel Nelson, political editor of The People, put in a guest appearance on Starkey on Sunday, a programme name perhaps betraying delusions of grandeur by recalling David Frost’s discussion series on London Weekend Mk. I. Ecclestone didn’t try to buy the Prime Minister, Mr Nelson opined.

Dr Starkey probably raised a quizzical eyebrow. No? Surely the point of lobbyists is to change government policy, n’est-ce pas?

No, Mr Nelson naïvely replied. The whole point is to buy access.

Dr Starkey had had enough. Imagine the conversation, he said. How nice to meet you, Prime Minister. It cost me a million pounds but simply shaking you by the hand is worth every penny. Please don’t consider the effects on Formula One of a ban on tobacco sponsorship. It would be most unworthy to mention it. Good day, see you at Evensong.

For Dr Starkey, this was the Conservatives’ Back to Basics all over again: if mere humans try to reach the exalted heights of the moral high ground, sooner or later they will end up in the swamp. He does admit he was comprehensively humiliated by Dennis Healey, whom he was interviewing in 1995. A harmless old duffer, he thought; Baron Healey tore him limb from limb, Dr Starkey recalls. Probably like being savaged by a bit more than a dead sheep.

Ian Collins and James Whale also come to mind, although I always thought you could take them or leave them. However, Mike Dickin was always good value for money. He had the unenviable task of being on the air as news came through on 31 August 1997 of that car crash in Paris, and he it was who first told the nation of Diana’s death.

“Diana has been seriously hurt,” he said, not quite his normal self in what, by any measure, was an extraordinary night, “and is in intensive care at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in south-east Paris. And a newsflash…” he paused for about two seconds. “And I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but Diana, the Princess of Wales, has died, according to British sources. The Press Association has just announced that Diana, the Princess of Wales,” twice he used the definite article, “has died of her injuries, according to British sources. There’s very little I can say at that moment.” Forget the BBC and ITN: Talk Radio listeners, you heard it here first.

While Chris Rogers and David Starkey vied for the title of Britain’s rudest man, Mr Dickin was happy to settle for the nation’s angriest, or grumpiest. The country was going to hell in a handbasket, but what could we do about it? Social workers were useless; the police hidebound by political correctness; town hall bureaucrats were good for nothing but wasting our hard-earned money; trade unions didn’t know their ACAS from their NALGO. If a Welshman mated with a sheep, there was a one percent chance of the result having two brain cells to rub together – but only if the sheep was pretty.

According to the Broadcasting Standards Commission’s third annual report, Mr Dicken’s anti-Welsh comments attracted 41 complaints. Apparently, one caller suggested that Mr Dickin and Richard Littlejohn could together “form a political party we can bloody vote for.” We had considered the idea, replied Mr Dickin, and floated the name “Littledick” for it. British Airways recruiting terminal staff after the summer peak to deal with their perennial churn rate was like recruiting Father Christmases in January. He was against the European Union and banned trades unionists from his programme, which he always broadcast from a studio in Bodmin, Cornwall.

I didn’t always agree with his politics then, although I somehow suspect that, as I’ve become older and taken on a somewhat more nuanced view of both left and right, I might have appreciated his perspective a bit more now than I did at the time. Mr Dickin, whose health was never in question, was the classic curmudgeon, with trenchant views on a wide range of subjects that infuriated and delighted in equal measure. He had a knack of cutting through cant, and a marvellous line in put-downs when he thought callers’ claims were unsubstantiated by the facts, as he saw them.

One caller, who was allowed a minute on Mr Dickin’s soapbox to say – without interruption – what he liked, before being mercilessly cross-questioned on what he’d said, was told, “You just open your mouth and let your belly rumble.” In a discussion about workplace bullying, a caller said his daughter had been off work for a month thanks to her boss. “I know where my sympathies lie,” Mr Dickin retorted. “While she’s trotting off to see the doctor, who’s doing her job? Maybe your daughter’s incompetent.”

In a freakish co-incidence, Mr Dickin was also killed in a car crash: a six-car pile-up on the A30 on Monday 18 December. Some bloggers on the internet think that he himself was murdered for always casting suspicion on the official version of the death of the late Princess of Wales.

Alas, all this came to an end in 1998. On “Black Thursday”, 12 November, TalkCo. holdings, led by former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie (whatever happened to his political foray in Haltemprice and Howden?), bought the station and promptly sacked half the presenters.

One Digital Spy poster who was around at the time says that Talk Radio was great on the Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Nick Abbot failed to turn up for his evening show, and the station seemed to change almost immediately. You can just imagine him entering the building and being called into the chairman’s office. Nick? You’ve done a great job here at Talk Radio, and I just wanted to express my appreciation for your contribution to the station. Oh, and by the way, you’re fired. Tommy Boyd? You’re fired. Anna Raeburn? You’re fired. Peter Deeley? You’re fired.

This upheaval marked the start of the station’s metamorphosis into Talk Sport, although the rebranding didn’t become official until Monday 17 January 2000. Hard-core sports nuts loved it, of course – the station’s after-the-match phone-in draws in a very opinionated punditry – but Kelvin Mackenzie’s name is a swear word among die-hard adherents to the old regime.

They might be forgiven a sense of schadenfreude over the station’s recent travails. Mr MacKenzie filed a lawsuit in 2004, claiming that flaws in Radio Joint Audience Research’s (RAJAR) audience measurement system was costing the station £1.5m a month in lost revenue. His case was essentially that RAJAR relies on listeners filling out a diary. When Mr Mackenzie’s company, The Wireless Group, conducted its own research using electronic measuring equipment, similar to that used by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), the audience figures were much higher. Mr Justice Lloyd, a High Court judge, was not convinced that The Wireless Group’s research was more reliable than an average “scoop” in The Sun, and in December dismissed the case, ordering the company to pay both sides’ costs, estimated at some £700,000.

A couple of years later, Graeme Le Saux (remember him?) published his autobiography, accusing Andy Townsend of homophobia. In an extract in The Times, Mr Le Saux talks about his time at Chelsea, when rumours had started flying thick and fast over his sexuality. Mr Townsend saw Mr Le Saux reading The Guardian on a bus and, reaching over for it, said he wanted to look at the sport. He threw it back a few seconds later, according to the Times extract. “There’s no fucking sport in here,” he snarled. You fucking poof, he didn’t add. Now, one might struggle to feel sympathy for any highly paid premiership footballer, never mind a Guardian-reading Chelsea player (three sins for the price of one) but bullying – which, as part of a wider pattern, such incidents can amount to – is bullying, whoever is on the receiving end. This didn’t stop Mr Townsend being offered a high-profile (and no doubt lucrative) weekend presenting role with the station.

At about the same time, two presenters were rapped over the knuckles over anti-gay jibes. In May 2007, Mike Mendoza had questioned the worth of footballers making public appeals for the return of Madeline McCann, a four-year-old child who went missing in Portugal. Paedophiles are not the type of people to take an interest in football, he mused; he was unaware of many gay football fans. Ofcom bared its teeth for once and upheld two complaints: linking homosexuality with paedophilia was “highly offensive”. Mr Mendoza was suspended for a week.

A month later, a gay rights protest took place in Moscow. Peter Tatchell, a gay rights activist who was taking part, was arrested. Again. Well, he always was a bit of a hothead. Making light of the affair, Gary Bushell, a Sun columnist (that paper, again) wondered what the protesters were doing, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about already. Russia had more pressing problems to solve, he declaimed, before queers started preaching the gospel of perversion. Mr Bushell’s co-presenters challenged his remark at the time, but Ofcom still found that such an “inflammatory” remark would be regarded as derogatory and offensive.

Now, Mr Mendoza’s comment was demonstrably factually inaccurate, and his suspension was arguably justifiable, but you could argue that censuring Mr Bushell offends against support for free speech. I’ll get the obligatory disapproval out the way: I disagree with what he said. But, Voltaire-like, I find it hard not to defend his right to say it. If it means anything at all, the right of freedom of expression means the right to cause offence. Ofcom was wrong to intervene over Mr Bushell’s remark. Inflammatory? Arguably not. Derogatory and offensive it may have been, but that’s the price we pay for living in what still purports to be a free society. The complainants should have been told to take a hike.

Even so, you could be forgiven for thinking that Talk Sport, set up in its current form by a former Sun editor and with former footballers and right-wing red-top columnists on its payroll, was (is?) institutionally homophobic.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Talk Sport was forced to sack James Whale for breaching Ofcom rules on political impartiality before an election. On 20 March 2008, in the run-up to the London mayoral election, Mr Whale urged listeners to vote Ken Livingstone out of office. It was a mark of how seriously Talk Sport took this breach that it gave Mr Whale his marching orders. Boris Johnson duly won the election, although I suspect this might have more to do with Andrew Gilligan’s propaganda – sorry, reports – in the London Evening Standard. The Standard just happens to part of the group that includes the Daily Mail.

Talk Sport’s Wikipedia entry states: “In recent years, the station’s political outlook has been characterised by traditionalist attitudes towards issues such as capital punishment, immigration, and the ongoing military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Well, to the extent that it supported the removal of a fascist regime it arguably got Iraq right: Nick Cohen has been roundly pilloried by his erstwhile fellow-travellers on the left for pointing out what he sees as the inherent contradictions of the anti-war movement, and its betrayal of those forced to endure a regime that routinely acted in ways that any humane person would find repugnant. Even so, Wikipedia’s assessment of Talk Sport’s political outlook gives a flavour of the not entirely edifying nature of the station, and that’s before you factor in the background, and all that therewith goes, of some of its presenters.

Even as Talk Radio, I always thought it the sort of station that aimed to appeal to the more populist, tabloid end of the market. It certainly didn’t (and doesn’t) try for the cool, calm reflection that is the hallmark of Radio 4 at its best. But in the mid 1990s, I would often tune into Talk Radio at different times of the day and night and find interesting and entertaining radio. It is all a far cry from what TalkSPORT has become: a station that I go out of my way to avoid.

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2 responses to this article

Shaun Fielding 1 December 2014 at 11:02 pm

Caesar the Geezers real name was Chris Ryder, not Rogers. Chris and I communicated often in the 90’s as I was part of the team that run the RSL Rocket Radio with Rod Lucas in Kent as well as assist in Medway FM (now KMFM) when it was also an RSL.

Mike Humble 22 March 2015 at 6:17 pm

i danced for joy at the sacking of Anna Raeburn and Tommy Boyd

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