Talkback, Community, and the Public Sphere.
University of Queensland
In this paper we explore the relationship between the audience of commercial talkback radio and the actual existing democratic public sphere in Australia. Drawing upon Anderson’s (1987) notion of an imagined community and Warner’s (2002) discussion of publics the paper suggests two different but entwined modes of address operate around the talkback audience. The first centers on the active creation of an imagined community brought into being and maintained through host and caller interaction, whilst the second, which is dependent on this prior formation, involves the audience being treated as a political public within the public sphere.
Key Words: Talkback Radio, Public Sphere, Imagined Community, Political Accountability, Language Analysis.
Public access media, such as letters to the editor, TV talk shows, and radio talkback, are increasingly seen as one of the main channels through which the perceived rise in anxiety in modern society is being managed (Bauman 2000, C. Wright Mills 1978). By connecting private experience with public concerns, public access programs work to create a ‘public’ space where ‘personal’ stories and narratives can be articulated and editorially displayed as ‘public’ issues (Lunt and Stenner, 2005 Fitzgerald and Housley 2006). In Australia, the prominence of radio talkback as a significant medium in this type of social action is reflected in the wider interest within political and media circles where talkback is often regarded as a barometer of public opinion (Ward, 2002). The talkback programs that attract the widest media and political interest usually come from commercial radio stations, broadcasting to state capitals or syndicated to state and national audiences, where the host and callers provide outspoken opinions and debate on political and social issues of the day. It is this type of talkback that garners the reputation of talkback in Australia (whilst only accounting for a small segment of all talkback programming in Australia (Ciccotelli et al 2005)) as expressing the opinion of a crucial voting constituency. However, to regard talkback as dominated by ‘public’ issues ignores not only the diversity of the genre but also elides a deeper understanding of the programs’ work. In this paper we take a step back from treating commercial talkback as primarily a channel and platform for a certain type of public opinion, and instead explore the way the host and callers work to discursively construct an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1987, Delanty 2003). Moreover, we suggest that it is the discursive articulation of an ‘imagined’ community that provides the basis by which others are able to perceive and treat the programs’ audience as constituting a public’s opinion in the public sphere (Warner 2002).
In order to explore these issues our discussion is theoretically framed through the notion of publics within the public sphere (Habermas 1987, Warner 2002). This is combined with a methodology informed by the detailed study of language use developed from ethnomethodology (Sacks 1995, Hester and Eglin 1997, Housley and Fitzgerald 2001, 2007, Fitzgerald and Housley 2006). This method of approaching social action through detailed analysis of social interaction, first developed by Sacks (1995), involves paying analytic attention to the use of social category description in talk as a way of gaining analytic insight into the way members interpret and engage in the social world. Through this type of analysis it is possible to explore the detailed ways in which language not only organises an interactional event, as part of the on-going local production of social order, but also the way wider social and political processes are revealed through such language use.
The public sphere: the formation and role of publics in state and civil society.
According to Habermas (1987) the public sphere is a space in which citizens come together and enact the democratic process through deliberation about affairs in common. This space is distinct and separate from the administration of the state or the workings of the market, characterised by the free exchange of ideas and argument without recourse to vested or governmental interests. However, according to Fraser, the process envisioned by Habermas, based in the bourgeois public sphere, tended to exclude women, workers, people of colour, gays and lesbians (Fraser, 1992, p. 67). In response these groups developed alternative or ‘counter’ organisations (counterpublics) in opposition and in conflict to the bourgeois ideological legitimation. Counterpublics were separate from the organs of power and the state, being neither economic nor administrative, and so existed as part of civil society. As Fraser suggests:
That civil society is separate from the state is identified by Habermas in his conception that the public sphere consists of a body of private individuals assembled to form a public. The public in the public sphere are not then to be state officials and participation in the public sphere is not undertaken in any official capacity. Rather then leading to authorising state power it creates public opinion as commentary on the authorised decision making. The public sphere is not the State, rather it is the informally mobilized body of nongovernmental discursive opinion that can serve as a counterweight to the state. It is precisely this extragovernmental character of the public sphere that confers an aura of independence, autonomy, and legitimacy on the public opinion generated in it. (Fraser, 1992, p. 75)
According to Fraser such groups, operating outside the deliberative administrative process of liberal democracy, can be characterised as ‘weak publics’, where their deliberative practice consists exclusively of opinion formation and not decision making. Weak publics are then counter posed in contemporary democratic society through ‘strong publics’, such as sovereign parliaments, that are able to both form opinions and make decisions which are legally binding. In contemporary democracy the relationship within civil society of public opinion and administrative power as separate activities has, over time, become blurred with ‘public opinion’ embodied in the election of a parliament with a deliberative function and administrative responsibility (Fraser, 1992). Within this environment the media (Bauman 2002), particularly public access media (Ross 2004, Housley and Fitzgerald 2007), have increasingly claimed the space of unmotivated public deliberation and public opinion.
The Media as a vehicle for public opinion.
Whilst the perceived political demoralisation and apathy in society posed by Bauman (2002) is characterised as a social landscape where fragmentation, distrust and uncertainty reign, the media remains an arena where discourses of democratic culture and public participation are seen to be found. The decline in the trust of other institutions (e.g. the family, traditional politics, education) to effect change has created a space that the media increasingly tries to fill by providing avenues through which the viewer/listener is constituted as an activated (democratic) citizen. Through this co-flation between consumer and active participant the media creates a channel within, and through which, individual expressions of social anxiety become managed, processed and displayed as democratic engagement. On commercial talkback individual caller’s anxieties and concerns are routinely framed through recurring topics such as heartless bureaucrats/politicians, political-correctness-gone-mad, the latest celebrity antics and the possible effects on children, or the decline of morals and values. Thus, underlying the display of privatised, yet publicly aired, concerns is a sense of common sentiment discursively framed as expressing or representing public anxiety (Fitzgerald and Housley 2006).
Whilst for the most part the relationship between opinions on radio talkback and political effects is debatable (Jones 1998) some programs, and in particular some Australian hosts, are regarded as politically influential and conduits for their audiences’ opinion. For example, issues discussed on talkback are often subject to report and analysis in other media formats, talkback often provides the impetus or moral voice on stories covered through commercial current affairs programs, and many politicians including the Prime Minister regularly appear on talkback programs. In this environment the expression of individual opinions on political and social issues not only provides an outlet for the caller and collective sentiment for the audience, but may also, by being framed as representing ‘public opinion’, have real political effects.
Talkback as a ‘community’ of listeners.
The talkback program examined in this discussion is the John Laws Program, hosted by John Laws and broadcast from Sydney and syndicated throughout Australia. The program runs for three hours every weekday morning between 9 AM and 12 pm, drawing one of the largest audience shares in Australia (Turner 2003, Turner et al 2006).
For many observers (Higgins and Moss 1982, Lewis 1992, Flew 2004, Bruton and Adams, 1997, Flew, 2004), commercial talkback, including the John Laws Program, is regarded as a medium dominated by conservative political and social opinion, with an audience drawn from amongst the older demographic (www.nielsenmedia.com.au). However, as with all such broad characterizations, the listeners to John Laws are far more complex than a politically narrow focused group of people. As recently indicated by Turner et al (2006) many of the calls to commercial talkback, including to John Laws, have nothing to do with politics. Rather, the main reason for calling the show seems to be the opportunity for a chat with the host, telling them about the new water heater they had fitted after waiting so long or the holiday they are having. The very ordinariness of the call topics suggests a sense of ease between listeners, host and callers and a level of familiarity created through a sense of having something in common. This notion of commonality or shared experience provides an element of community between listeners, drawn together around the particular program or host and articulated through the discourse between the host and callers. Through this sense of commonality callers become part of a wider complex and subtle communicative environment that serves to build and maintain a sense of a community-of-listeners for this program. In this sense the community is ‘imagined’ in that although the members my never meet the community it is aware of itself, can recognize fellow members, engage in boundary maintenance, have common experiences, and knowledge held in common. In the next section we explore in more detail the actual lived work engaged in by the host and callers in creating and managing this sense of imagined community, before then turning our attention to how this community becomes treated as a public, and as a vehicle of public opinion.
Building ‘community’ in talkback radio: from the public to a public?
In the case of the John Laws Program it is not simply a matter of defining all who listen to his program as belonging to a community simply by virtue of their listening or tuning in. The notion that the audience forms a community involves features that necessarily transcend the generality of ‘listener’ towards a sense of membership of a ‘community’. Indeed, it is the ability to transcend the generality that is essential to the formation of both the ‘imagined’ community, with its sense of commonality, and ‘a’ public, with its associated socio-economic and political coherence.
For Warner (2002) the moment of transformation between the (general) public and the formation of a (political) public lies in the form of address directed towards and organising an imagined cohort. The interpolated cohort, created through the discursive act of address, is brought into being and organised only through discourse, which in turn produces a sense of membership of the cohort. It is not then a case of joining the community or a public, but rather an imagined community or a public is created and maintained through, and only through, its local discursive practice. The discursive formation of an imagined community can thus be examined alongside Warner’s theoretical discussion of the formation of a public. To be clear, we are not suggesting that John Laws’ audience actually forms a public but that the criteria for the formation of a public discussed by Warner (2002) is observable within the hosts ‘community’ discourse, which in turn allows the ‘community’ to be treated as a public.
1. A public as a relation amongst strangers.
According to Warner (2002) a public sets its boundaries and its organisation by its own discourse, rather than by recourse to external frameworks such as formal membership or attended meetings. As such the address interpolates those identified through their attendant participation in the discourse, meaning that membership cannot be known in advance of any address. The discourse of a public cannot then define who receives the message, rather it sets its margins only through its address that unites strangers through participation (ibid.). Once a public is discursively activated it can then take form within a social imagination – an imagined cohort of other with similar relevant characteristics – within which strangers can be treated as members of the cohort through displaying appropriate predicates for such membership. In this way the characteristics for membership of a political public, invoked through interpolation, may then generate a sense of an imagined community through those assumed similar characteristics. However, the organisational relationship between a public, and that public forming a ‘community’ is reversed in the case of John Laws, where the community is firstly discursively formed around the host which is then able to be treated as a public.
Forming ‘community’ in and through talkback radio.
The introduction sequence on talkback radio fulfils a number purposes including preparing the off-air caller, identifying the next caller for the audience, and providing a cue for the caller to begin talk (Fitzgerald and Housley 2002, Hutchby 1996, Thornborrow and Fitzgerald 2002). In the case of many talkback programs the introduction section involves a minimal amount of greeting turns so as to proceed immediately to the point or concern the caller wishes to raise. The role of the introduction is then seen as a necessary, but mainly topically unrelated and only partially audience relevant, part of the call in the process of establishing co presence and proceeding to the main business of topic talk. This truncated sequence, using minimal amounts of greeting, is evident in the extracts below taken from a UK and Australian talkback program.
Extract 1 UK. BBC National Radio
01N: Michael Mason from London what do you make of this
02M: um..well Sir Ian has touched on the point I wanted to
(Call Nick Ross)
Extract 2 Australia. National Radio
01A: .hhh Let’s go to Rita in Melbourne first (0,0) Rita (.) Welcome to the
03C: Thank you sandy. (.) Sandy I get great exception to you your using ahh
04 September eleventh
In extract 1 the introduction sequences involves simply the name and location of the caller, whilst in extract 2 the sequence involves name and location of the caller and a welcome to the show. The caller’s respond to both these utterances as an invitation to begin topic talk by either embarking on topic talk or providing a greeting response and then embarking on topic talk. That is to say, the introduction sequence is contained within a single utterance by the host that is responded to by the caller by beginning to talk about the topic. However, in the extracts below taken from the John Laws there is a marked difference in terms of greetings, these being both more elaborate and extended.
Extract 3 John Laws introduction 1
01Laws: Ali, good morning.
02Ali: Good morning John, how are you?
03Laws: I’m very well thanks. How are yo::u.
04Ali: Ah, not too bad, John. I just felt a bit offended
Extract 4 John Laws introduction 2
01Laws .hhh Drew (.) are you there?
02Drew Yeah. G’day John. How you going?
03Laws Pretty good. What about you?
04Drew Ah (.) [fantastic]
05Laws [(laughing] Good on you=.
06Drew =fantastic. Oh look I’m telling you….
Whilst extracts 1 and 2 displayed a marked redundancy of greetings, in extracts 3 and 4 John Laws accepts and embarks upon further greeting work following the initial establishment of co presence with the caller. In each case the caller responds to the host’s initial utterance with a return greeting followed by the initiation of a new greeting (line 2 in both extracts), which is then returned by Laws only to be followed by another host initiated greeting (line 3 in both extracts). That the first utterance by Laws is not treated as a cue to move to topic talk provides a sharp contrast to other talkback programs where this is the case, and where, as in this example, again taken from the UK, the caller is sanctioned for not doing so.
Extract 5. UK Local Radio. The wrong greeting move.
01 H. Jo:ohn next
03. J. he-hello/
04. H. hello John in: Marylebone
05. J. er- hello er your- your people didn't give me any wa:rning
06 er (.) okay [ .h
07. H. [well I said hello: you're John: now that was
08 the warning now what d'you have to say
00. J. right erm (.) i:t's about the dogs
(Hutchby 1996: 47)
Thus, in comparison to other talkback programs, which actively suppress the greeting sequence, Laws not only allows the caller to initiate a greeting to which he responds, but encourages and initiates further greetings.
Whilst on the face of it the extended greeting sequence between caller and host would seem to largely exclude the listening audience it is possible to understand the extended greeting as including the listeners. In this case the extended greeting can be seen to work as way of generating possible membership of an imagined community. Woven through the introduction sequence are various levels of inclusion in which the host and caller are actively negotiating membership and inclusion into the community. In this way it is possible to understand the extended greeting sequence as documenting the caller’s transition from membership of the ‘audience’ through to membership of the ‘community’. This orientation and transition from audience to community membership is also apparent in an extract from a US talkback program in which the caller can be seen to negotiate and move through various stages of membership organised through an extended greeting sequence.
Extract 6. USA Program
01 H welcome? to the Irv Homer Show. (Introduction + Co presence)
02 C Irv. I just want to say first time caller, (Acknowledgement plus
bid for level ONE membership
(: regular listener)
03 H welcome. (Acceptance as level ONE member)
04 C long time listener. I love your show. (Bid for level TWO membership
(: member of community)
05 H thank you man (Acceptance as Level TWO member )
06 C love your show (Greeting as member level TWO)
07 H thank you friend. (Greeting as member level TWO)
(Ferenčík, ms, p. 5)
In the above extract the caller moves through various levels of inclusion from unknown caller to ‘(known) caller’ to ‘regular listener’ to ‘member of the community’. The shift in status from ‘caller’ to ‘community member’ is acknowledged at each stage by the host’s use of further greeting actions (lines 03, 05, 07). What is also of interest here is the way the caller bids for membership of the higher order of ‘community’ (line 4, ‘level TWO’) through declaring his ‘love of the show’. In this case, and in a similar way to the John Laws program, to say you are a long time listener and that ‘you love the show’ is to be seen to claim to be more than a mere listener. It is to claim membership through active listening because you like what is said and done, as opposed to just being a happenstance listener or there for other reasons. The declaration of time spent listening, ones feelings towards the show, and agreement with the host’s opinions announces that you share the same predicates (values) as a member of the category ‘member of the community of listeners’. The extended greeting or introduction sequence thus builds further layers of participatory relevance, where the caller is not simply a caller, or a caller to this program, but a caller who is a member of this community. The extended greeting also provides acknowledgment of that membership for the caller, and a display for the listeners that the caller displays the right credentials to be recognised ‘one of them’. Of course, the ‘right’ credentials are indeterminable but, as suggested above, the ticket of entry may include the length of time the caller has been listening to the show and exuberant praise of the host.
The above discussion suggests that for these hosts and callers the greeting acts as more than a perfunctory acknowledgement of co presence and invitation to topic talk but rather as a way of discursively documenting and managing inclusion beyond mere participation. Moreover, once the introduction sequence is negotiated and membership established, the recognition of this community space is reflected further in the open discursive space in which to express a range of topics from the personal and impersonal, the private, the social, and political.
2. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal.
As suggested above, Warner (2002) situates publics as existing only in their discursive articulation, formed through address. However, hearing a public’s discourse is not necessarily to be addressed by it. Being addressed and not being addressed is not found in the hearing or not hearing of the words but of hearing the address as-for-me. To feel the connection between public discourse and personal address involves giving social relevance to personal experience, so as to be able to identify personal experience as common social experience. The commonality felt is engendered through a feeling of singularity with others (others think the same as me) and reflexively threaded through and attributed to others (others are similar to me).
As indicated above the majority of calls on the John Laws program are neither overtly political nor confrontational, but rather classified as miscellaneous (Turner et al 2006). Thus, rather than entering into debate or raising an issue to debate the caller’s talk routinely addresses what would seem mundane personal stories or doing mundane things. For example, in Extract 7 below the caller informs the host that they are a ‘John Laws family’ and that they are on holiday; in Extract 8 the caller talks about the host being seen in her town some time ago; and in Extract 9 the caller decides that a ringing phone in the background is more important to answer then continuing to talk to the host.
Extract 7. Being a member of the John Laws Family
01JL: ye:s Jane good morning
02J: good morning John it's lovely to talk to you
03JL: and you
04J: we're (.) a John Laws fa:mily my little dog (.) k announces when you come on
05 the radio if I'm not in the room he sits and how:ls to tell me you're on?
06JL: heh [heh heh really hmhmhm]
07J: [heh heh every morning] yeah ha ha ha now I'm just ringing you to say we
08 live in (.) .hh south-east Tasmania at the minute it's beau::tiful here today
09JL: I'll bet it is
10J: I'm sitting looking over the water it's as flat as a tack we got the sun
11 shining (.) and you just made it even better this morning when you came on 12 and talked about George Negus
Extract 8. The Personal Touch
01N: And I had one also when I was um growing up a in a town called
02 Maitland and I walked past you one day in a little side street in East
03 Maitland near my school .hh and I thought to myself I know that man
04 I’m I’m sure that’s John Laws you used to be on radio up (.) that way
05 at [one time]
06J: [.hh ] yeah in N:newcastle.
07N: in Newcastle [yeah (inaudible) I ] don’t know what you were doing in 08J: [.hh yeah and I and]
09N: East Maitland [but (inaudible)-]
10J: [well I well ] I lived in (.) I lived at Balwarra.
11N: oh right. Ye:s
12J: on out on the Balwarra road= [.hh ]
13N: = [well] I havn’t forgotten you and that’s 14 why I still listen to you
15J: well that’s very sweet of your Nona thank you (.) do you still have a 16 glass of wine every now and again?
17N: u::m (.) y:es I don’t mind a glass of wine (.) yes I I I um
18J: well you could share it with your friends (.) I’ll send you some of my 19 wine.
20N: will you John?
21J: .h I will.
22N: oh you don’t have to do that [that’s ]
23J: [I know] I don’t have to (.) I know I don’t 24 hav- I just want to Nona.
25N: oh that’s lovely
26J: [Ok ]
27N: [thank you] John [I’ll] think of [you] when I’m having a glass.
28J: [I’ll] [I ]
29 Ok now don’t hang up hang on their (.) .hh so that arr we can (.) .h get 30 it to you and get it to you quickly and its McGuigen wine (.) my
31 sponsors wine (.) you’ll .hh just love it
Extract 9 Chewing the fat. Other things to do…
01B: it w:ith the whole re’r vision mirrors up and she shined inside the cab 02 yeah
03J: wow. .h well that a that’s a hell of a thing to see.
04B: (Phone Rings) Yeah [Yea:h ]
05J: [The other phone] the other phones ringing mate
06B: A;rr it’s a two way (.) they’ve probably got something for me to do
08J: [(laughing)] .hh Ok have a good day thanks [for the call ]
09B: [Alright mate can] I just ah
In each of these calls there is a seeming lack of caller orientation to wider issues that would traditionally be seen as talkback fare. Rather, it seems that the calls are concerned with relating personal stories or information, with the host’s encouragement. That these types of topics are raised, discussed and encouraged by the host reinforces, together with the extended introduction sequence, the idea of a community, where the community is an imagined space where the ordinary is interesting and where members share similar interests and have similar outlooks.
3. A public is constituted through attention.
Because the community is imagined, membership makes itself visible through the perceived attributes and predicates of members that are then mapped onto that community. By hearing individual callers as part of an imagined community means that the calls that do address political or newsworthy issues can be mapped and attributed to a cohort with assumed broadly similar beliefs and attitudes. As such, an individual’s view may be seen as representing the community’s opinion. However the success of this transformation from individual to community opinion and from community opinion to the formation of a public depends upon the community being seen as and treated as a public by others. It must be seen to exist as an cohort or entity with a political voice.
Whilst the imagined talkback community does not demand members register, engage or even listen constantly, there must be some way to indicate more than just happenstance listening. Just listening to talkback does not mean further involvement or association and cannot be taken as forceful public opinion, in the same way as watching a march go by should not be taken as active involvement or support for the march. Rather, in order for the imagined community of a talkback program to be treated as a public, there must be some way of sorting members from bystanders, and also for those members to demonstrate allegiance to the community. One of the routine ways by which members and non members are identified in the John Laws program is through the spontaneous flattering plaudits given by callers to Laws, examples of which are contained in the extracts above. This praise, given voluntarily, not only identifies the caller as a member of the community but also resembles the model of ‘voluntary association’ which is important for the formation of civil society (Warner, 2002). This self-selecting praise giving, often expressing agreement and identification with the views of the host and other callers contributes to the community being treated as a public. A public made concrete through the program and whose views may be articulated through the host. Thus, whilst the host provides focus for the imagined community he is also able to be treated as acting as representative of the thought, will and action of the community through his address and action.
Furthermore, raising the media and political importance of the host’s proxy ‘public’ opinion is the temporal immediacy of that opinion within the news cycle. The immediacy of radio together with public access talkback produces not only the discursive opportunity for instant response by callers but also provides useable ‘public opinion’ early within the news cycle.
4. The immediate and temporal circulation of a public’s discourse.
According to Warner (2002) a public’s discourse thrives through the temporality of the circulation that gives it existence. The temporal circulation of a public’s discourse is crucial to the sense of the discourse as currently unfolding and addressing current issues, rather than occupied with meditation or speculative discourse. The more immediate the circulation the more it is able to be regarded as ‘public opinion’ and in turn this very punctuality can index its relation to political importance (Warner, ibid). With ‘immediacy’ being one of its main, radio it ideally suited to on-the-spot reporting of events and reaction. This temporal advantage over TV, means that radio news teams are able to respond rapidly to emerging news stories and contribute to the emergent discourse around a news issue (Jaworski et al, 2004). Because of the temporal location of the John Laws Program, as well as other prominent talkback programs, in the news cycle, talkback is often one of the first to have ‘public’ response to emergent issues. More importantly, because it is the first to be heard and the first to be responded to, it is also in a position to influence, contribute, or set the early news and political agenda. This is reflected in the readiness of politicians to appear on talkback in order to address or explain emergent issues to the listening audience.
Furthermore, just as a public needs to have exposure beyond itself, the discourse of talkback does not remain static or end with the program. Rather, talkback continues to resonate within the intertextual environment of further citation and report through other radio news programs and other mediums including evening TV reports, and morning newspaper coverage (Turner et al, 2006). This ‘dialogic network’ (Nikvapil and Leuder, 2002) that interweaves talkback opinion through the news cycle gives agency and duration to the topics whilst also building legitimation for the programs’ role in agenda setting. With a potential new issue everyday, and the sense of the talkback community as a barometer of a certain constituency of public opinion, there is no moment when the public falls silent, rather it is continually revitalised every morning with a new set of issues to discuss. Thus, the community created through talkback is seen to represent the worldview of a particular political constituency that is readily available, harvested from the airwaves, and demanding attention from the political administration.
From a public to a counterpublic?
Finally it is worth considering if talkback might be seen to occupy a further dimension of the public sphere, a counterpublic, due to its unique formation within Australian history and contemporary mythology. The modern counterpublic has a sense and realisation of itself as fulfilling an alternative or critical stance, of representing (ordinary) public opinion (Warner 2002). Rather than comprising a simple reform group formed around a single issue or main cause to promote or bring about change, a counterpublic sees itself as engaged in on-going public opinion formation and socio-political critique, whilst at the same time maintaining at some level an awareness of its subordinate status. Fulfilling the subordinate status in talkback and politics is the discourse of the ‘battler’ or the ‘ordinary working man and women’. Within Australia the underdog ‘battler’ is an enduring cultural myth that manifests itself in contemporary society through an imagined and emotive description of the struggling worker who just wants a ‘fair go’. The ‘battler’ is willing to work hard, does not want much beyond their basic needs yet is forced to fight for basic survival everyday, often in the face of heartless, unseen and uncaring bureaucracy or big government. The enduring mythology around the ‘battler’ has emerged as a potent political force, where, to be seen as being one, or representing them, or acting on behalf of the ‘battler’ is a position to covet, and one the talkback community as a public is seen to provide.
The line of politicians queuing to appear on talkback is matched only by their reluctance to appear on mainstream political media programs (Turner et al, 2006). Talkback is seen to provide direct access to the ‘ordinary Australian’, addressing them directly without journalist media interference through straight talking and open access. In turn, talkback hosts promote themselves as either ordinary themselves or ordinary-done-good, and so in a position to articulate, mediate and translate callers concerns for their political guests. The importance of this is not found in the irony of the hosts’ elite status, or the sham ‘mateship’ of the politician, or the close connection between the host and politician, but in the way their ‘ordinary’ credentials are actively promoted through their discourse and address. It is through this role representation that the hosts’ opinions are able to be treated as coming from ‘ordinary’, the ‘real’ Australians, and their programs can be given the status of Australia having a say.
In the paper we have tried to move beyond one-dimensional characterizations of commercial talkback in order to explore the role of commercial talkback in Australian political and public life. It is not our argument that we can or need to conceive of talkback as either a community or a public. Rather we argue that it is possible that talkback can be seen to engender an imagined community, and that at times this community is seen or treated by the host and others as a (political) public. Clearly a caller ringing up to tell the host about the new water heater they have had installed or the holiday they are on hardly constitutes public opinion. Rather, these actions (of which there are many) are to be seen as part of the living discourse of community formation and maintenance, where the sense of community is made real in the everyday talk about anything or nothing in particular. At times, however, the topic of the call may involve a political or socio-political issue, which, through ascription to the ‘community’, allows the community to be transformed into a public. Moreover, it is a public accessed via and represented by the host who speaks on behalf of ‘his listeners’ (‘his community’) in following up an issue with a relevant spokesperson, minister or even the Prime Minister. In turn when politicians turn up on talkback programs they are responding to what is said and treating what is said as public opinion emanating from a public, often articulated through the host.
Finally the observed complexity and diversity of talkback around formations of community and the public sphere not only raises issues around the way communities are discursively generated and maintained but also the interrelationship between the (old) media, citizenship, public opinion and the public sphere. Whilst recent focus has been towards new technologies and their formations of virtual communities the technologically mediated community through talkback suggests a neglected yet important area of analysis of rural and urban Australian society where the imagined may reflexively fold into the real.
The authors are grateful to the University of Queensland for funding this research. Also thanks go to a UQ reading group and Graeme Turner for comments on earlier drafts as well as to students at UQ for providing some of the transcripts and discussions helping us understand the fascinating world of talkback in Australia.
The transcription notation draws upon and is developed from the transcription conventions developed by Gail Jefferson as detailed in Atkinson and Heritage (1984).
Underlining really stressed sound
Colons pa::sed extended sound
Square brackets [well do you] overlapping speech
Equals signs = = no gap between speech
H’s hhh. Breath
Bracketed dot (.) pause
Bracketed numbers (.5) timed pause
Capitals NO loud
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