No news is… no problem for Radio Ulster

I was in the house the other day (as we all were) and I turned on the radio. Talkback was on with two regular contributors who were presumably disagreeing vigorously about something. I turned it straight off and four or five days later I still haven’t a clue what they were debating. That doesn’t matter because I’m pretty certain I know the positions they were taking on it (whatever it was) and the tone of how the “debate” progressed.  What I definitely know is that whatever they were saying didn’t matter. To anyone. That’s not a good place for the BBC to occupy but it’s one the news senior management in Ormeau Avenue have actively sought out.

To be fair, Radio Ulster has its strengths. It’s strong on sport and its evening music shows are eclectic and often informative. Also, its core breakfast and evening news programmes are still decent (if too long in the case of the evening). But on the average weekday, of the eleven “daytime” hours between 7am and 6pm, no fewer than seven of them are devoted to what they would see as news programmes. Add to that ninety minutes after lunch that seems to just consist of songs about people in America missing County Tyrone (or maybe its people in South Belfast missing Tyrone), and we’ve got just two and a half hours of mainstream music and chat. How is that possibly sustainable in a place with a population the size of ours where pretty much nothing actually happens?

Simple. Radio Ulster tries to make it look like something IS happening and to make people angry about it. That’s both lazy and dangerous. To do so it manufactures issues that it knows will generate rants from Norman from Bangor, Sean from Fermanagh, George from the Shankill, Brian from Andersonstown or my personal favourite, Stephen from Antrim who is simply angry at Stephen Nolan rather than the issue under discussion. It’s a very small number of them and they call both the Nolan Show and Talkback on a regular basis. So, we can set our calendars for the shows on (among others) St Patrick’s Day drunkenness, big Bonfires, Twelfth Day drunkenness, and James McClean not wearing a poppy. Oh, and should there be an all-Ireland football team every time Northern Ireland loses a match.

To generate the optimum level of fury they’ve given profile to some of the most extreme yet politically illiterate voices in society. They’ve created monsters who are not there to take a nuanced position on the issues. That’s not what the producers want. It’s black and white all the way.

Of the journalists who appear regularly – too many of them have cheapened their already vulnerable profession by effectively adopting roles as verbal combatants, the better ones are simply diminishing themselves as a brand, seemingly taking up positions that will get them invited back rather than using their experience and knowledge to broaden their base. I can understand that from their perspective. Newspapers are in terminal decline and they’ve still got quite a few working years ahead of them. So, their Radio and television profile may be envisaged as an investment in their future. But it’s not. Their willingness to speak on subjects on which they are clearly not knowledgeable undermines their credibility on subjects on which they are expert. If they’re on too often people will get bored with them. And that’s just the good ones.

Then there are the rejected politicians. As soon as a seat is lost Talkback is straight on the phone and a regular place is reserved for them. But the real issue is that we, the public made clear that we no longer wanted to hear from them, so why won’t the BBC respect that?

What’s the answer? The easy one is to say we get rid of the phone-ins that are so toxic to our political discourse. There’s a lot to be said for that suggestion. But if Nolan has indeed got the largest audience in “the country” then maybe there’s an argument for retaining it. That post-breakfast slot is often devoted to phone-ins in local stations. But the quality threshold needs to be addressed and the level of debate improved. Nolan – like it or not – is a genuinely talented broadcaster as he demonstrates on his weekly slots on national Five Live. But like many broadcasters who become successful in a narrow arena, it looks to me like Stephen has become bigger than his employer, and as a result quality control has gone out the window (remember “Radio Face”?).

But can the continued existence of Talkback be justified? A show dealing with the same issues as Nolan just ninety minutes later, with many of the same pundits and callers? Is that really a worthwhile use of BBC money and airtime? A Nolan Show for people who like a lie-in? Maybe it can, but not in its current format. Surely there are many other issues that can be addressed. Consumer programming on Radio Ulster seems to have been relegated to early Saturday morning. That’s a wasted opportunity. When I worked in the West Midlands the local BBC station had an Australian guy, Ed Doolan, in the Nolan slot. Obviously, the issues facing that region were very different to ours, so they didn’t have Troubles Porn to fall back on. Doolan was feared by employers, dodgy retailers, etc and consumers really felt they had an outlet. Have we scope for that here? Definitely.

Also, are the people who are at home, or travelling during the day being sufficiently entertained? I know the BBC has suffered a similar experience to the Belfast Telegraph in having to replace long-established names who had been in place for decades in some cases. But you have to wonder would Gerry Anderson be given the time of day in 2020. Okay, Gerry was special. He wasn’t just a great entertainer; he also had a top journalist’s nose for a story and for making us laugh at our idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies. That was irreplaceable. But “entertain” is one of the three pillars of the BBC mission. That’s a serious business and it should be given serious thought.

This issue is probably becoming more visible to more people during lockdown. There is virtually nothing happening now due to Covid-19, and there hasn’t been for a couple of months. Yet Radio Ulster devotes three hours daily to the same people phoning in to discuss it with the same people – not one of them experts. That takes me back to the start of the article. The vacuous and repetitive nature of those discussions surely must be starting to grate, even on whatever floor the management is based in Ormeau Avenue. Assuming they aren’t just listening to Spotify.

Note: The original mention of RAJAR figures proved to be unverified and thus have been removed.