On Talk Radio and Consumption

There is no doubt in my mind that of South Africa’s many talents, radio is certainly not one of them. Every city is host to a collection of uninspired and politically sensitive stations whose DJ’s vie for the title of most banal. I do not think any of these people have skeletal structures, they are possibly just bags of flesh that burp into microphones in such a manner that we mistake it for talking. The image of rotting narwhal corpses wheezing in midsummer off the coast of Greenland is by far and away more entertaining than hearing a mixed demographic of people make dimwitted small talk.

And small talk is apparently all they are capable of. The average South African commuter spends their morning stuck in traffic terrified to listen to anything other than podcasts and MP3’s. The act of turning on your radio results in a deluge of idiot-minded fuckwittery pouring from your speakers like the probiotic runoff from a Swedish enema clinic.

Some of you may accuse me of being obtuse. You will correctly point out that media, and the consumption of it is a purely subjective thing. I completely agree. You are 100% correct. I am being unfair, vulgar for the sake of entertainment and incredibly bias. However, it does not change one simple fact: This is what we want.

A quick trip online to one of Durban’s more prevalent radio stations shows an interesting brand decision: make noise. I do not say this is interesting in that it is counter-intuitive. In fact, having the “loudest” brand image out there ensures a reliable stream of consumers eating the self-replicating bacterial colonies being passed off as entertainment. Make no mistake, the buckets of grey slime being poured down our throats are very much of our own choosing. “Loudest” in this context simply means noise. It is full of nothing but loud static. The content of the media does not shatter convention or express individuality. It is merely there to pass time. We, the ever-bleating masses, stand in the fields of tall grass willingly. Here is why:

It is safe. It is so undeniably safe. This has always been a problem with the consumerist culture. The basic rule for building a brand is to build a safe one. We need to listen to people who sound like they are our friends. We need to hear the soft voices that challenge our perceptions of the world in no way. The relatable fellows next door need to speak to us. They are responsible for telling us about the traffic, playing the music our friends will be talking about and keeping me informed as to where I can get my next distraction. This is good for me because I am not challenged. Safety is not housed in combative opinions or view-points which are not my own. Safety is what I want and what I make of it.

Therein is the problem. We all have a say.

Media is democracy. It shouldn’t be. I can, at the stroke of a few buttons let a personality know precisely what I think of them. In fact I already have. The point is there is no getting past our ability as consumers to directly engage with our entertainers. They know immediately if what they have said has offended you. The irony is not lost on me that in writing this very article I am waving my angry fist at people who are just trying to do their job. Hypocritical? Definitely. However it is for you to decide whether it is justified.

Public input is true of all forms of media but I think the one that suffers the most for it is radio. Radio is still enjoying the luxury of having a captive audience. Most commuters have only a few radio stations to choose from, beyond that they have to entertain themselves. Who does that anymore?

Remember that popular radio station I talked about earlier? The one where all the presenters are made from the same amoebic cuttings? Their entire schedule is built around carefully selected focus groups and polling. It is a company policy to adapt and play to the immediate taste of their listeners. They are undeniably not the only one. Every company on Earth has a business model built on this sound concept – give the people what they want and nothing more.

As a result, tuning in is the definition of mass appeal. We have chosen the banal discussions, the shared links to children born with three faces and the ceaseless noise made by these people when adverts and music are not doing their jobs.

We want this.

I have no doubt that these poor DJs whom I have been so incredibly rude about are not these people. Perhaps they have opinions that are controversial? Perhaps when the studio books a psychic for them to fill ten minutes of time all the DJ wants to do is tear them limb from limb? The point is that these people have thoughts of their own. They are not there as representatives of their company’s (read: your) inclinations. They are employees following a policy. That policy is to keep it light for the fragile audience.

And this is a wasted opportunity. Radio is definitely enjoying the perks of its captive commuting audience in South Africa. Tie this to the incredibly unique social and political climate we have a prime petri-dish for informative, educated and engaging debate. I can name one, one, radio station whose morning show has this.

Now it would be unreasonable to expect South African radio to turn into a perpetual panel discussion on local and global events. However, what I am asking for is personality. The fact is we won’t get it. We have asked for the sanitized breakfast rush team. Whenever they do something remotely obscene, the station’s social media is swamped by the kind of angry wave Alex Jones thinks of when trying to ejaculate. Whenever they do something engaged the same angry wave accuses them of being boring. As a result we get the puerile conversations, the specious attempts at emotion and the completely neutered views. These presenters can’t move for our opinions.

This makes us feel safe.

And that is the problem.

So yes, there are DJ’s who are in fact nothing more than Vicodin laced voodoo dolls. They do exist. They are objectively uninspired as people. Yet they deliver what we want. They are so good at being that relatable and unchallenging everyman that they get their own radio program. They sit down, a production assistant places a lobster bib around their necks for the drool, and get on with the rush hour show. There are also DJ’s who have to pretend to be this. They have to make believe that they are not their own person. Their battered self-image makes them feed into the lie that they are quirky, interesting and entertaining but only in the way that we want them to be.

Imagine radio where these people fought back? Imagine that kind of rush hour broadcast where the DJ sits down and says something proudly over the microphone with the calm clarity of Joe Rogan or Stephen Grootes? Imagine where this person, on popular radio no less, is not fired or reprimanded because they told a screaming 30-year-old to get off the phone line for being an idiot. Imagine having an informed, intelligent and composed person discuss hard beliefs between the top forty. Imagine learning about the world from your radio presenters instead of hearing its noise.

Imagine being entertained, engaged and challenged?

Imagine the kind of entertainment you would get if you had no say?

I don’t think you want to. I don’t think you really want to.

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