Talkback: Listeners still in tune with the BBC's 'most dangerous programme'

Ahead of today's 30th birthday bash for BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback, Gail Bell discovers why it continues to hold a special place in the heart of listeners

FOR its legions of listeners and contributors, it is an unmissable part of the day; a chance to say exactly what they think, to moan, shout, argue, agree, laugh (at times), swear and occasionally cry – live on air.

No emotion is ever turned away on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme which today celebrates 30 years on the airwaves as Northern Ireland's longest-running phone-in radio show.

After tentatively reaching out to engage a wary public in "community conversation" on September 8 1986, with the late Barry Cowan at the helm, the programme relaunched – under current incumbent William Crawley – with a new format two years ago.

It is telling that over three decades (comprising 7,500 programmes and more than 11,000 hours of interviews), the ground-breaking show has only had four presenters – Barry Cowan, David Dunseith, Wendy Austin and William Crawley who originally joined on a part-time basis in 2004.

While the emphasis now is on all things digital – technology and social media play an ever-increasing role in engaging listeners – audio engineer John Simpson sat behind the sound desk in the 'olden' days of quarter-inch tapes.

"I was on the first ever Talkback show and it was very different," he recalls. "At that time it was difficult to persuade people to go live on air and the technology was unrecognisable.

"Everything was slower and we worked with four telephones and old-fashioned reels which we cut with razor blades and then stuck with sticky tape."

The technology, content and style may have undergone a seismic shift (music, health and social issues are now part of a wider news agenda) but the heartbeat of Talkback remains stuck in a comforting time warp.

It is a heartbeat that still reverberates through ordinary people in the street who care about the issues, who have built up a long-standing relationship of trust with the programme – and who take the time to lift the phone.

Hundreds of calls come in each day to the 'phone' room at BBC Broadcasting House in Belfast's Ormeau Avenue, and, if Talkback should ever air with fewer than 12-15 live calls, it would be "not be functioning very well as a phone-in show", according to the dedicated team.

Yet even with reels of preparation and experience, it is often impossible to tell in advance what will get the lines jumping.

When I visited the Talkback studio last Thursday it was BBC coverage – or, rather, lack of it – of Irish League football matches – a seemingly tame topic on paper, but one which caused a surprisingly happy rumpus for delighted producer, Colette Maguire.

"We had a good balance of calls and it turned into the sort of lively conversation you would hear in any pub," she says. "It was good radio."

And 'good radio' is what the man tasked with "shaping the conversation" for one and-a-half hours five days a week aims for each time he dons his headphones in the Talkback studio ready to encounter... well, anything, really, except dreaded dead air.

The polymath Presbyterian minister-turned broadcaster is unequivocal on that point: "I have never had dead air," Crawley insists in quasi-serious tones. "If everything goes down, I keep talking."

He is uncharacteristically flummoxed when I ask about similarities between preaching and presenting – might he pray before a show? The answer is non-committal: '"Why are journalists fascinated by that? Lots of people have changed jobs". The impression is given that those days are gone.

The obvious comparison, though, lies in the skill of oratory and smooth, authoritative voice which, while heavily laden with sympathetic tones, belies a razor-sharpness – useful for keeping mouthy politicians and irate members of the public in line.

Sometimes, though, it seems, even Crawley can be left speechless by unpredictable guests and callers to what he admits is the BBC's "most dangerous programme."

But, if you're going to be wrong-footed on your own show, it must be some comfort to know the cause is a Hollywood legend, albeit one who no longer cares for the rules.

Tony Curtis, who died (aged 85) in 2010, was that man, as Crawley explains: "Tony Curtis was definitely the best 'sweary' story that ever went out on Talkback," he says.

"He turned the airwaves blue and there was not a thing I could do about it. I kept saying, 'Now, Tony, you can't say that word on the radio', but he blithely ignored me.

"It was a live chat – most of our guests are interviewed live, apart from some pre-records because the timing doesn't suit – and I was panicking a bit. After he died, I had people from all over ringing me up because it was one of his last interviews.

"On another occasion, we were doing a moving piece on alcoholism and a woman with a serious problem phoned in. I asked when she last had had a drink and she said, 'I'm having it right now'. You could have heard a pin drop."

But the element of surprise – and occasional risk – is what keeps the programme fresh and after tackling a variety of sensitive subjects before 9am while presenting 'Sunday Sequence', Crawley is pretty much immune to discomfiture, whether talking HRT or Brexit.

Yet, behind the banter, sanguine smile and unflappable demeanor, though, he is his own worst critic with, apparently, a "whole repertoire of flaws".

"You get used to the producer's voice in your ear, while listening to a caller and reading texts, tweets and scripts at the same time – I have four sisters who all talk at once – but listeners aren't shy in pointing out how you could be doing better," he muses.

"I know I let callers go on for too long sometimes and I interrupt people too much – listeners text me to say I'm annoying, that I'm over-talking. And they remind me while I'm still live in the studio.

"Apart from that, I have had no disasters yet. The hardest day would be a a day with no news, so that doesn't happen, and I always make a point never to swear – even in a darkened room with the mics off. I am aware of far too many stories...

"For me, if we've had engaged guests and callers, if we've had a fun, interesting conversation, then we've done our job."

Talkback's 30th birthday is being celebrated today with special guests, more than 100 invited listeners and a nostalgic trip down the airwaves

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