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How Talkback's heady mix of fun and fiery debates transformed Ulster radio

Thirty years after the BBC phone-in show was launched, current presenter William Crawley charts its progress

Published 08/09/2016

Clockwise from left: Barry Cowan, Diane Harron, Leslie Van Slyke, David Malone, Jennifer Brown, Martin Dillon, David Ross and Heather McAlpine
Clockwise from left: Barry Cowan, Diane Harron, Leslie Van Slyke, David Malone, Jennifer Brown, Martin Dillon, David Ross and Heather McAlpine
The late David Dunseith
Former Talkback presenter Wendy Austin

I was still at school in north Belfast on this day in 1986, probably procrastinating my way past an essay deadline, when BBC Northern Ireland launched a new daily radio programme which someone had the good sense to call Talkback.

By all accounts, the bosses at the BBC weren't at all sure it would work. Radio stations across Europe, indeed around the world, had phone-in shows - a platform for listeners to become talkers - but security concerns evidently played on the minds of the audience in Northern Ireland, and it was very difficult to persuade people here to go on-air.

Talkback was born with an ambition to change that.

At first, listeners would ring up the programme and dictate a comment, which would then be read out by the presenter.

Later, as audiences began to trust the programme, we would hear listeners' voices live on the radio. Then came emails, text messages and tweets.

I don't know what the next technological advance in communication will look (or sound) like, but when it arrives, phone-in shows will be among the first to embrace it.

Over time, as Talkback's brand was established, it had no trouble getting people to speak - partly, I think, because the programme had from the beginning a maverick quality, both in the way it approached topics and in its willingness to make room for dissenting voices. Those earliest programmes also signalled to listeners that any issue could be broached on-air. Risk-taking has been central to the show's success.

So, essentially, we shamelessly talk about all the subjects you're not supposed to bring up in polite company - politics, religion, sex and much more besides.

Though, to be honest, I never know if a topic is going to take off until the green light goes on and we're actually talking about it.

Sometimes, it's the entirely unscripted parts of a particular show that turn it into a winner with the audience: a throw-away comment from a caller, an unexpected revelation from a guest in the studio, a massive political development that breaks while we're talking about something else.

You could be presenting a programme about alcoholism, speaking to experts in the studio, and it's an interesting programme.

But when someone who is actually living the topic you're discussing finds the courage to call the programme and tells you about having her first drink before breakfast that morning, you may be on your way to a memorable programme. I took that call last December.

Or you could be discussing HRT, knowing that this is a deeply personal, very intimate issue for many women, and wondering if anyone will pick up the phone that day. Then you take an unplanned call from a leading politician who wants to talk about dealing with HRT while serving as a government minister (even revealing how she coped with hot flushes while making speeches in the Assembly), which triggers an avalanche of calls from others sharing their own stories and responding to each other.

That was a very special programme, which reminded me that phone-in shows aren't about presenters - they're about callers.

Not that presenters are unimportant. If listeners don't trust a phone-in presenter to give them a respectful hearing, they won't pick up the phone.

I am very conscious that Talkback has had just four presenters in its 30-year history, and that I am the least experienced of them all.

Here's another difference between them and me: all my predecessors were household names by the time their careers brought them to Talkback.

I've been the main presenter for less than two years, but my association with the programme goes back much farther. I was a regular stand-in presenter throughout Wendy Austin's five-year tenure, and for the last third of David Dunseith's 20-year term in office.

I never met Barry Cowan, Talkback's founding presenter, who died in 2004 (the same year that I got my first full-time contract with the BBC).

But since David started on the programme as a roving reporter while Barry was at the helm, I've always felt a connection with those early years.

Perhaps it was his own experience as a stand-in during Barry's three years as presenter that prompted David to put his hand on my shoulder more than once and offer me some wise advice as I was starting out. I would pull up a chair for a 10-minute chat, or walk him to his car after work, and he would tell me how it all worked - from curating calls on a phone-in to finding your own broadcasting voice (with the odd sparkling insight into BBC internal politics).

I will always be grateful to David, not just because his advice has stood the test of time, but because he didn't have to share it with me, but he did anyway.

"Keep it real, keep it relevant, and keep surprising them," he once said, as our conversation tailed off and he dandered away. That's as good an editorial brief for Talkback as any.

What's relevant, of course, changes over time. For the past month, at the end of each show, we've been dipping into the archive and playing out clips from thirty years of output. We went back to November 1986, the year of Talkback's birth, to hear Barry Cowan and Ian Paisley in one of their many verbal tussles - this time about what happened the night before, when Dr Paisley donned a red beret at a rally launching the Ulster Resistance movement.

Since then, as David Dunseith once put it, there's been "devolution, direct rule, suspensions and, of course, dissensions." Add to that description of local political instability the emergence of issues that reflect the transforming moral landscape of Northern Ireland and the Republic, advancing secularism, increasing immigration, which is changing the demographics of this island, the world after 9/11, the global financial crisis, Britain after Brexit, gay cakes and blood bans, waiting lists and women's reproductive rights, Nama scandals and an epidemic of diabetes.

Just as Northern Ireland is a society moving - sometimes falteringly - beyond conflict, Talkback's editorial focus has shifted to include many more of those stories that are not about the various causes and consequences of the Troubles.

When people ask me if I'm enjoying being in the chair every lunchtime, I usually reply, "It depends on the day."

When it works, it's a very special experience: we've asked precisely the right question to engage our audience about an issue of real importance that feels more relevant that day than most; studio guests are driving the debate with energy and passion; calls are flying in from all directions; texts and tweets are dancing across the computer screen in front of me; and the conversation has the audience, by turns, laughing one minute, and straining forward to hear something revelatory the next.

I wish that every day could be like that. The truth is, the real test of any phone-in show is how you cope when there is very little news around, when most of the guests you want to book are not picking up the phone, and when half your audience seems to have left the country.

On days like those, particularly, I am especially glad of two things.

First, that I have a team of supremely talented editors, producers and broadcast journalists who've already done the really hard work behind the scenes before I walk into the Talkback studio shortly before noon each day.

And second, that it's just possible someone I've never met will call the programme that day and provide the magic.

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