• Rev. Frank Ritchie

THE IMPORTANCE OF TALKBACK RADIO

I’m a massive fan of talkback radio. When it comes to talkback here in New Zealand, Newstalk ZB is king. For that reason I feel very privileged to be in a position where I get to interact as a Newstalk ZB announcer. I have the pleasure of co-hosting Total Recall, a Sunday evening show that’s on every week from 6-7:30pm. I also host shows during Easter and Christmas each year.

There are times when I get strange looks when I tell people I’m a part of the station and that I love it. I’m not sure why. It might be because I’m a Christian minister and they’re surprised a large secular station would give room for that. It’s worth noting that I’ve never been pulled up for talking about faith on-air, or my work as a minister… and they were more than fine with my clerical collar being in the imaging for the show I co-host. It may also be because I’m often viewed as centre-left in my political leanings (I would describe myself as a centrist these days) and in the eyes of some, that simply doesn’t fit with the stereotypical views of talkback radio.

I can’t say why ZB is happy to give me some airtime, but I can say why I love the bit that I get to do.

I support and appreciate all forms of news media; it’s why I set up Media Chaplaincy New Zealand to support people across all forms of the industry, but talkback holds a unique place for me.

I cut my teeth on 8 years of Sunday night talkback on Life FM. Four years of that were also spent doing music format radio full-time (nights and drive) alongside a great group of people. I began doing talkback in my mid 20s and not long after I started, New Zealand hit the political era of Civil Unions, prostitution law reform, and the heady political days of Destiny Church and the ‘Enough is Enough’ march on Parliament. It was all a big deal for a largely young, conservative Christian audience.

In my years on Life FM, I dealt with those political issues along with topics like self-harm, depression, abortion, suicide, pornography, relationships and many pop-culture flash-topics that people were thinking and talking about. I once even went through a series questioning the veracity of a prominent supposed revival that was taking place in the US, and its central personality – challenging the miracle claims. That one got to the point where the media liaison got abusive towards me when she couldn’t provide the evidence for miracles that they claimed they had. I had opinions, but I had to navigate my opinions with the audience. In talkback, I couldn’t simply put a thought on the table and walk away.

I’m grateful to Life FM and Rhema Media for the space they gave me. They helped create who I am and cemented the love I have for talkback. Looking back I’m also grateful for the audience – those who affirmed me, those who challenged me, and even for the many who complained to me or about me. Since I left, I’ve encountered many of the silent majority who listened to that show when they were young and found it helpful. Because of all of that I’m happy to give back to Rhema Media – formerly as a board member, and now as the chaplain for the organisation.

While working for Rhema Media, along with listening to Life FM I was also an avid listener of Newstalk ZB. I saw it as the holy grail of talkback, wondering if I could ever foot it on air with them. Though we’re different political animals, I was enthralled by the finesse of Leighton Smith’s style – though I could never emulate him, I learned a lot about the medium by listening to him. I realised the value of the audience by hearing the respect Kerre McIvor would show to each caller. I love Larry Williams’ hard news style. I’m now a big fan of the quick wit and pacey style of Mike Hosking (I don’t know anyone else who can cram as much into 30 seconds as Mike can), the opinionated centrism of Andrew Dickens along with his willingness to challenge callers and the audience, and the offbeat and strangely gripping approach of Marcus Lush.

There are too many personalities to work through individually, but I’ll give mention to the Weekend Collective – the personalities of Tim Roxborogh and Tim Wilson, with their contrasts, match well. Their show is a great balance of information, but with a light touch; providing that smile we all want on the weekend. Across that spectrum of announcers is a diverse group in their political views, and that diversity is reflected in their large audience.

Personalities are a big part of it, but the reason I adore talkback is because of the callers – they’re the unnamed personality.

I’m aware that when I turn on a mic, whether it be with my co-host or by myself, that if the point of the show is audience interaction, then I bring the paintbrushes via the topics, but the audience brings the colour. It gets proven time and time again when the callers make a show surpass anything that I expected to happen. I enjoy the people that interact with the shows I am a part of. Their ability and willingness to come to the table, whether they like me/us or not is particularly important.

I devour news at a voracious rate every single day. But if all I did was read what journalists write, I’d be in a bubble. Those written articles are important, but they can only go so far. As a minister I want more – I want to know what people really think… and not just those who make a living from sharing their thoughts. Importantly, I want to hear those thoughts in conversation – which is vastly different from the seeming scattergun approach of social media where comments fly from the safety of keyboards with little consideration or in-the-moment pushback.

Talkback can be down and dirty. It can be both sublime and insanely crazy. It can provide ‘aha’ moments, and also moments that leave you scratching your head, wondering what just happened. That’s what happens when the public is given a forum to push ideas around; to test the thoughts of a host. That’s what happens when the stories come off the page and the person in the street is given a chance to say what they think. What often shows up when that happens, is that the public thinks quite differently from those who mediate the news. I’ve got all the time in the world for hearing that – even when it disagrees with my own views.

As a church minister who wishes to meet people where they’re at and go on the journey with them, being in that space regularly rather than being cut-off or kept in an ivory tower, is really important. It’s messy and sometimes it’s infuriating. You’ve got to have a thick skin to take the flack that some people will fling at you, but ultimately I find it beautiful – it’s why I keep coming back and am continually self-critiquing and trying to hone my craft to be better at it. Talkback as a forum is extremely important – it’s part of the democratization of information. As dramatic as this sounds, it helps to act as a buffer against an Orwellian view of the world (1984) becoming reality.

I value the work I do every time I turn on a microphone and give voice to many who would otherwise remain unheard; including those I may vehemently disagree with, and I value the provision of a forum where that can happen.

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