A letter to the editor of the Herald recently claimed that the one thing that talkback hosts would never talk about is talkback itself. So that night, I opened up a discussion about talkback. I readied myself to public pillory - but what resulted was a love-fest as listeners called in to say how much they enjoyed talkback and Willie Jackson and John Tamihere's show in particular.
Of course, I was preaching to the converted but it also made me realise that all the bloggers, tweeters, texters and letter writers who have panned us as evil spawn intent on dividing and shocking the nation for ratings, do not actually listen.
Talkback is not even very right-wing these days. On RadioLive, you have Marcus Lush, Sean Plunket, Duncan Garner, Karyn Hay, Andrew Fagan, myself, Ewing Steven, Emma Lang and - until recently - Jackson and Tamihere. Not very Fox TV is it? I do not wish to speak for the guys at Newstalk ZB, but if you look at its line-up as a whole, it seems moderately conservative.
On talkback, listeners like you if they agree with your views and dislike you if they do not. Unfortunately, it does not work if you try to tailor your opinion to what you think the audience thinks. Callers seem to be adept at spotting a phoney and do not respond. That is why talkback hosts soon learn that playing devil's advocate does not work.
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What we talkback hosts really want are great New Zealand stories and well thought-out opinions from listeners. We would prefer not to have to blab on by ourselves; rather to sit back and let you do all the work. Sometimes it is like that - and sometimes the discussion is banal or just plain ghastly. Often, I come home after my talkback shift and cringe at what I remember I said and how I could have said it better. But it is a live medium dealing with the issues of the day. Those issues are often polarising and contentious, and for most talkback hosts, it is not a matter of if they find themselves in the firing line, but when.
A few years ago, I breached suppression orders surrounding Brad Shipton's and Bob Schollum's court cases. I appreciated the support I received from an anti-rape group but did not deserve it because I had rushed into the studio to fill for someone else and was not adequately prepared. It should not be like that, we should be on top of all the issues but because it is live, because it is every day and sometimes the subject matter is controversial, we do screw up. You may think that because it is high-risk we should ban talkback.
But talkback is the original interactive social media. If you ban talkback, you should also ban blogging, tweeting and chatrooms. I have found a lot of the social media comment recently to be more extravagant than anything I hear on talkback.
Media fragmentation and the growth of new media seem to have resulted in lots of self-regarding little feedback loops. Because they are not a broad church like old media, some pundits within new media groups seem to lose perspective as they compete against each other to be the most outraged in their online community.
I was surprised to hear the hate term "rape defender" in relation to the Roast Busters case sprayed around so liberally. I suppose by saying that I personally like Jackson and Tamihere and hope they will be back on air soon, I will be inviting similar nomenclature by association. But what I am really defending is our right to free and open debate.
In my time as manager at RadioLive, I did have to take one host off for his repeated extreme views. His name was Matthew Hooton.
• Mitch Harris is a RadioLive talkback host.