Talking in the UK: Perspectives from an American Talk Show Host Working in London

| May 20, 2013

By Charlie Wolf

wolfcharlietalksportLONDON — Working in London, England, as an American talk show host has its challenges.  For instance, for the first two-three years of my six year stint as a host on commercial national talk station, TalkSPORT, (Talk Radio UK) doing a political/news-based show – it was the audience’s view that I was not allowed an opinion at all, either as a host and especially as a “Yank.”

bbcFor years on the BBC – where there is “speech radio” (drama, news, news analysis – and done very well) there had been very little interactive talk, and even then the host – though he would occasionally explore or challenge a point – was mostly a moderator not an instigator or opinion former.  Talk shows on the BBC, now more opinionated than they used to be, are very much in the mould of “on the one hand there is …. But on the other hand…. what do you think?”  British radio – due to over-regulation, a fairness doctrine, dominant licence funded BBC, a lack of competition, and a “scared-of-one’s-own-shadow” attitude to regulators – will never have a thriving talk radio market as in the US.  There is not the space for talent to truly develop in talk commercially.

radiocarolinelasershipIt took the pirate stations of the sixties – Radio Caroline, Swinging Radio London — and Laser 558, in the eighties to shake up music radio, create competition and loosen the stranglehold of over-regulation.  It was this over-regulated radio, as luck would have it, that gave me my first opportunity to come to Britain in 1984 as part of Laser 558, an offshore Pirate radio station situated on an old cattle tender some 16 miles off the coast of London in the Thames estuary (see Richard Curtis’s film, “Pirate Radio” – I’m told I was the inspiration for a scene in the film).  On shore, radio was over-regulated with union mandated needle time­ rules limiting the amount of recorded music played.  It would take at least two union members to put a record on the air – one from the musicians union to cue the disc and another from the electricians union to hit the start button – this in addition to the studio engineer, producer and talent.  There were only two music radio stations in London, BBC Radio One and commercial station, Capital Radio.  Laser 558 with a constant diet of hits – “Never more than a minute away from music” – and the need for just one person, the jock, generally sans a shower due to water restrictions, to cue and get the records on air, was an instant hit with a listenership of around 12 million in the South East of England.  Five or six of us, with about 15 “marine crew” and an aerial system constantly blown down during Force Nine gales, food shortages, seasickness, and the fear that the music rotation card box would spill to the floor with the next high wave.  Yet, shut off from the world we were the most creative and most listened-to station in London.  We were the story; the boat that rocked.  We changed the face of British radio.

I will never forget a government minister at the time calling for Laser to be shut down explaining that “It [was] the government’s job to decide what people should listen to.”

atlantic 252I was also the morning drive jock on Atlantic 252, a joint venture between Irish state broadcaster RTE and Radio Luxembourg.  We broadcast on Long Wave – further down the AM spectrum—to the UK from a former doctor’s office next to the cattle auction in the rural town of Trim, Co. Meath, thirty miles north of Dublin.  We succeeded from that rural location to be hip, UK relevant and all before the luxuries of the internet.  Atlantic 252 brought American presentation techniques and tight song rotations to British radio.

But I do not see a similar challenge to talk radio.

A presenter – to use the term here – and an American at that, has no right to tell Brits how to run their country, especially when it comes to sacred cows such as the National Health Service (NHS) – the universal state healthcare system that Obama dreams about.  For Brits, the NHS is more blindly worshipped than Kim Jong Un in North Korea.  Watching the “celebration” of the NHS during the Opening Ceremony of the London Games last summer I got a sense of a country trying to convince themselves, not others, of just how good they wish they had it.

From afar, I have also, disturbingly, been able to see America’s lurch (either by her own will or the design of her leaders) down the path to the welfare state.  Instead of the can do spirit found in America, the welfare state here is horribly inefficient and intrusive.  It has created a culture of state dependence in place of personal independence; class warfare and division instead of e pluribus unum; and a sense of entitlement replacing one of self responsibility.

In that respect, Britain’s welfare state is years and years advanced than we across the pond.

There is a market for talk radio, especially in finding new night time audiences.   I proved that on Laser 558 – a late night music show more akin to what Stern and Brandmier were doing  in the morning—and again from 2002-2003 in Cork, Ireland.  My friend, Henry Owens, had launched a music station, RedFM, targeting 18-35s.  Along with consultant Tommy Hadges, we created a night time talk show (to comply with speech regulations) “Cork Talks Back” that was not only number one at night, number one on our station’s own schedule, but had created new night time listenership.  By far, it was one of the most interesting jobs I have ever had.   Walking into and conquering a very discerning and parochial foreign market, Cork is a proud town that doesn’t take to strangers.  In Ireland, Cork is known as The People’s Republic of Cork.  They speak their own language – no not Irish (Gaeilge) but a lexicon of English slang including words like Langer (jerk), bure (girl), feen (guy).  And try pronouncing this town: Gurranabraher (grawn-a-bra-her).   Giving Corkonians a nightly forum, and being an American exposing and satirising the foibles of Irish culture earned me high ratings, a high personal profile, and nomination as Irish speech broadcaster of the year.

The secret for me has been to discover and learn everything possible about a market, to try and know more than the locals, and to be truthful in my beliefs.  Here in the UK that’s not always been easy.  I couldn’t have found three harder stances to hold – I call them my holy trinity – I am American, Republican and a defender of George W. Bush along with the war or terror and Gitmo; I am Jewish and a steadfast defender of Israel and her policies; and probably worst of all, I am in favour of that age old British pastime of FOXHUNTING!  I used to own a horse and learned to ride in Ireland.

In liberal statist societies such as the UK “balance” and “equality” must be found everywhere; and this is the scourge freedom of expression and the free marketplace of ideas.  Ideas are not promoted on their own merit or audience acceptance.  Minority/victim group opinion is propped up through fear of offence; populist non-elitist opinion is muffled and lefty group received wisdoms are rarely challenged.  Forced balance creates  anything but balance; many BBC programmes –and especially on the Iranian owned propaganda network, Press TV, on which I debate fascists and anti-Semites on a regular basis, balance a mainstream view with that of a radical voice, giving each an equal bearing and disproportional credence to the radical view.

burrowslynetteIn the UK the notion of “offence” calls of “bigot” and reliance on victim group status is constantly used to successfully shut down any talk host, or guest, on a controversial topic such as immigration reform or gay marriage.  In 2005 broadcaster Lynnette Burrows was actually visited by the police after a conversation on BBC Radio Five Live on the new Civil Partnership law.  As the Daily Telegraph reported at the time:  “During the programme, she said she did not believe that homosexuals should be allowed to adopt.  She added that placing boys with two homosexuals for adoption was as obvious a risk as placing a girl with two heterosexual men who offered themselves as parents. “It is a risk,” she said. “You would not give a small girl to two men.”  A member of the public complained to the police and an officer contacted Mrs Burrows the following day to say a ‘homophobic incident’ had been reported against her.”

Political “campaigning” or taking sides by a host, even on a commercial station, is extremely limited.  Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would not be allowed on UK radio for long, right wingers are treated like pariahs.  Glenn Beck’s campaigns for Israel would get him in trouble with the regulator OFCOM – while at Talk Radio UK I had been spoken to on more than one occasion for being too outspoken on Israel.  As for Michael Savage, he wouldn’t even get into the country!  That’s no joke; in 2009 Savage was barred from the UK for allegedly “seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred”.  The banned list of 22 was populated with Muslim extremists rightfully banned for incitement…. and Savage, obviously added to “balance” the list.

Where Hannity and Rush look forward to a presidential election to advance their ideology and the beliefs of their listeners, an election here it is a different story.  “The Representation of the People’s Act,” an act of Parliament and therefore statutory law, prevents broadcasters from holding opinions on the election, endorsing candidates, parties or influencing the vote; producers with stopwatches time the airtime given to each party.  While hosting my talk radio show, the election was ignored, it was less hassle and far easier to talk about anything but politics.

By the way, air personalities here are not allowed to do live reads or personal endorsement ads where the bulk of your money is made in the States.

skynewsaljezeeracnnBeing an American working in the British system does have its reward.  It has made me a de facto American representative and spokesman.  It has brought me work as a commentator on British and international radio and television including BBC Television and Radio, the BBC World Service and BBC World TV; Sky News, CNN and al Jazeera where I’ve been a regular guest with Sir David Frost.  I’ve debated and represented American thought on BBC Radio Four’s most prestigious programs including Today, Any Questions and the Moral Maze.  I’ve debated Bianca Jagger on the death penalty (with David Frost), interviewed the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, and explained American politics to George Galloway the left wing anti-war MP who famously feted Saddam Hussein.

I’ve been the go to man on everything from American Exceptionalism, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, separation of powers, the Electoral College, why we spend so much on presidential campaigns; it’s all in a day’s work.  Defending our gun laws and trying to explain what the Special Relationship actually entails is of great interest here.  Hosting talk shows as a conservative American in the days after 9/11 and during the Bush Administration, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Guantanamo and the war on terror, made me an instant lightening rod.  Callers weren’t just disagreeing with me, but my country and all she stands for.  One regular caller, Tony from Enfield, or “Cuban Tony” as he was known, would constantly call to berate me as to the “horrid conditions” in America and how it was not as good as in Cuba.  He could never give me the names of anyone swimming from Florida to Cuba instead of the other way around.

Who could ask for better and more interesting career than I’ve had as a London-based international talker, commentator and radio jock?   Working in a foreign market – a world city like London- has given me perspective.  I have been able to watch the country of my birth, one I intimately know, from afar and from a British viewpoint.

I also have a better perspective of international events.  I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the First Amendment.  I’m able to comment on life in the UK with the intimate knowledge of living here for thirty years but approaching it with the unbiased and unvarnished view of a foreigner; an American.  It is a marvellous perspective not afforded to many others.

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Charlie Wolf is available as a “go to” source for American broadcasters in need of a UK or European perspective on breaking issues.  He can be emailed at Charlie@itsthewolf.net.  Visit www.itsthewolf.net for more information.  Meet Charlie Wolf at Talkers New York 2013 on Thursday, June 6. 

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Category: Analysis, Features