The Biggest Issues – what happens when talk radio goes awry?

One day I’ll have time to listen to the Afternoon Play Afternoon Drama live on Radio 4 while sitting on a comfy chair with a hot cup of tea in my hand. Until the mortgage is paid off, I have to settle for dipping in and out every week or two.

Last Tuesday’s play – The Biggest Issues – was written by Annie McCartney, recorded and produced in Belfast. [Click on the link to listen.]

Set in a fictitious – yet ever so slightly familiar – Radio Lagan, Sally Stone presents The Biggest Issues show daily. With an appetite for NHS stories, the show “gets a call from a listener complaining that her elderly mother has died of neglect at the local hospital”. The ensuing on air campaign involves the accused doctor and her children, contributors who don’t always know they’re speaking live on the radio, and barely a care for the facts behind the issues portrayed.

Can the presenter, the editor, or even the “boss upstairs” save themselves before further damage is done? Questions of integrity, editorial control, impartiality and most likely a misplaced copy of the editorial guidelines or broadcasting code.

If you ever wonder what would happen if a radio phone-in programme lost its sense of balance and responsibility, this 45 minute play is for you.

Frankly, the parallels with the Nolan Show or Talk Back are too obvious to ignore. In fact, given the language and terminology used in the play, they may have even given some guidance. But I’d be confident that the characters and controls behind those real life programmes are strong enough to avoid any temptation to cross the line in the manner Sally Stone does in The Biggest Issues. (It would have been quite sinister if Wendy Austin had voiced the role of Sally Stone!)

The Biggest Issues is available on iPlayer until 3pm on Tuesday 1 May. Perhaps the play serves as a reminder that reputation and regulation can act to control any ratings chasing urges talk radio and its shock jocks may have.

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  • Regardless of our views on phone in programmes…..and some of us consider them to be a form of inclusive democracy and others consider them to be mere shock jocks……it is interesting that the subject itself is now the subject of plays etc.
    The play….and this one……which I will listen to…..seems to be an example of resting out the fault line between the two. Indeed the “phone in” type programme is the subject of two articles in the Irish News today.
    We line up on one side or other of the fault line.

    The debate itself seems to have driven some “phone in people” to new levels of almost self-parody……loved by their fans but ridiculed by those who dont like the genre.
    I am thinking here of James Whales morning paper reviews on early morning Sky News and Kelvin McKenzie with Anna Botting before midnight on Sky.
    They “need” to increasingly identify themselves with the beleagured “ordinary folks”. And the various hosts do it with various degrees of sincerity.

    Obviously the liberal leaning “Simpsons” portrays a recurring character, a phone in host as being a rather unpleasant person. It would appear that it is based on Rush Limbaugh.
    But I noticed earlier this week that Bill O’Reilly was a guest as himself….on a TV crime show “Rizzoli and Isles”. Curiously the police characters….all good liberals as TV police must be…..did not like O’Reillys type of journalism. Yet O’Reilly seemed to go along with it all in a way that suggested self-parody. Possibly to some chat show hosts its just about a career.

    Populism versus Democracy? The liberal and increasingly conservative dilemna. The phone in show is a genie which will not go into the bottle and in austere times where politics is more divisive, its likely that some will push the boundaries further.
    But has there already been a high tide mark for the populist talk in.
    Again I refer to fiction…more or less……a Sky Atlantic film this week “Game Change” chronicled an account of the John McCain-Sarah Palin Campaign. Increasingly worried by the direction of the negative campaign, “McCain” says “there is a drak side to populism”.
    And I think thats true.
    Liberals have already been aware of this for years.
    “Decent” conservatives are now perhaps waking up to that reality.

  • Professor Yattle

    Your posts are dull and rambling, FJH. Consider not contributing unless you have something new to say.

  • carnmoney.guy


    i note PY that you contribuited zero to the debate, played the man, very john terry of you…

    The drama catches the essence of our shrill reaction which the media play up to. During the recent A&E wait ‘scandal’ BBC reported wait numbers up 55% at the Royal, when the interviewee pointed out that this was on par with the combined total with the City last year they quickly moved on.
    The problem was the intro to the topic the next day,
    ‘ yesterday we brought you the news that numbers waiting was up by over 50%’
    self editing . . . . norn iron disease no hospital can treat

  • Granni Trixie

    Professor thingy
    What you say can be applied to most of us here some of the time. FJHs piece on this occasion is certainly not.
    I do wonder why you are being so deliberately rude?

  • thanks for the nod Alan in Belfast, well worth a listen.

    A very black and white plot with restrained performances and dialogue all round, I’d say that this was very carefully crafted.

    I didn’t hear it trailled, I’m sure it must have been, so thanks again.