Talk radio has the potential to be comforting, personal and exploratory, yet often it's a last resort, a final bleat into a howling void, the sound of blokes down the pub talking really, really loudly about subjects they know very little about. Talk radio smells like lager-breath and sadness. It's the preserve of the lonely, the infirm, the outcasted, the in-flux. Most of us only ever find ourselves in the company of Nick Abbott or Nick Ferrari or Dotun Adebayo when we're in the back of a cab while perusing the broken tat of other people's broken lives at car boot sales.
LBC, in particular, is a strange station, lacking the state-supported authority of 5Live or the it's-just-banter-yeah defiance of TalkSport. It's just there: eminently listenable, but rarely worth intentionally tuning in to. If you've never listened before, just imagine following 30 vaguely right-leaning 45-year-old blokes from Plaistow called Jules on Twitter, and then Polly Toynbee, just for balance.
Perhaps in search of more female hosts, this week LBC bigwigs called in Katie Hopkins as a presenter. (They also gave Andrew Castle a slot too, but Andrew Castle is about as interesting as a day trip to a polystyrene-packing factory, so we are skipping over that.) Presumably they were hoping Hopkins would create some buzz and controversy around the station, so I dutifully tuned in on Sunday morning, ready and waiting for her to spew bile over the airwaves.
Before we get to the content itself, a word on Hopkins' hosting skills: she makes a terribly dull presenter. When it is occasionally done right, as it is on James O'Brien's show, talk radio can effectively function as a robust discourse. Hopkins' debut felt like a succession of points being made, then ignored, then made again minutes later. Ideas were trotted out over and over again – David Cameron's tax avoidance is fine! Protestors are bad! – without any kind of development. Callers aren't questioned, let alone interrogated. Hopkins parrots their points back at them and then repeats those very same points between calls. Essentially, it's like trying to navigate through that terrifying room of mirrors in the London Dungeons, except your own reflection has been replaced by the banal opinions of Ruben in Stratford, and Charles in Camberwell.
Hopkins herself sounds bored for most of the show. Her jibes have all the punch of a block of tofu. John Prescott is fat! Protesters don't wash! Students do silly degrees in silly things like art! HMRC employees are dreary drips! By now she's little more than a negative-reaction-bot, a feelings vacuum, a vessel into which the easily upset can pour scorn each and every time a woman paid to say nasty things says nasty things. It's stagey in the worst way possible, slightly sad, and incredibly neutered. Katie Hopkins, the high priestess of anti-PC rhetoric, has become the pantomime dame in a provincial performance of Puss in Boots.
Much of the first hour of the show was dedicated to the Prime Minister's current tax tribulations. Hopkins was adamant that it doesn't matter that our PM has benefitted from offshore tax arrangements because here in Britain we hate the rich! For no reason! "Yes, I avoid tax too," she sort of boasts. I say sort of, because, as outlined above, her heart's not in it. When she rifles off a list of things she resents funding via tax – pro-EU leaflets, overseas aid, the welfare state, state school places, NHS treatment for fat people, left wing politicians, police and crime commissioners, climate change – you can hear her trying to whip up an online storm. But there's nothing. Nothing but a voice swimming in the eternal nothingness of the uncaring, unthinking universe.
But then after the 11 o'clock news, we segue into more unusual territory for Hopkins, as she discusses whether is it a parent's duty to be totally honest with their children at all times. Hopkins, as you may know, recently underwent brain surgery in an attempt to cure her epilepsy, and she decided not to tell her children about it beforehand. This first-hand experience had the potential to create talk radio that navigated a particularly tricky moral maze. And, in a way, it succeeded. Hopkins sounded more human than she's been allowed to be in recent years, and there was something oddly touching about this public monster talking about her relationship with her children. There was, at points, a quiver in her voice, a slightly tearful straining.
Now you don't need an AS level in media studies to guess this had the desired effect: She's not a monster! She's just a mum! Just like all of us! But the fundamental question she posed, which was about parental honesty and the morality of protecting the innocence of one's children, remains an interesting one, and one that Hopkins and her listeners rose to. They spoke of seven-year-olds forced to deal with the horrors of cancer and the reality of bereavement, they spoke of abandonment, of life-ruining dishonesty and deceit.
It made for undeniably arresting radio at times, because it stripped away the increasingly boring facade that the Katie Hopkins character cloaks herself in, revealing something that resembled something that resembled humanity.
That unexpected emotional reaction left me feeling oddly conflicted about the whole thing. What LBC's loyal listeners had been offered was an insight into the mind of a conflicted broadcaster, one who relishes her position as the unstoppable, unflappable voice of the silent majority, but who also maybe, just maybe, has started to realise that rent-a-gobs come with shelf lives. The result was a strange, uneasy show that didn't really seem to know who it was for, or what it wanted to do. If Hopkins is allowed to cast off the shackles of faux-outrage, we might get something genuinely worth tuning in for. If not, it's just another talk radio moan-a-thon.
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