I don’t often tune in to talk shows, but the occasions when I do it’s because an interesting personality is on – and there is a chance that I may be enlightened on an important subject like, for instance the citizenship by investment programme, the scourge of domestic violence in our island or even the various economic plans of our mainstream political parties. I will also admit that even when a particular guest attracts my attention and the programme turns out to be informative and stimulating, I often end up switching channels when the show eventually gets to the call-in segment. Having held that frustration in abeyance for a while, I now suspect quite a few people will also agree that this component is the most irritating part of any public talk show, whether it be on television or radio.
So why have most, if not all talk shows in Saint Lucia consistently followed a similar concept and structure? I recently heard the host of one of the more popular TV talk shows on the island suggest that the call-in segment should be scaled down to allow more structure and focus in the presentation and discussion of national issues. Of course, I’ll be the first to concur with that position, as I believe the limited time offered to featured guests to provide and explain their perspectives is insufficient – thereby defeating the very purpose and principles I suppose that undergird the idea of such public affairs talk shows – which is basically to enlighten, educate and inform. If done in a way that raises awareness and promotes fair and healthy discussion, public affairs talk shows can be a means of national education and political enlightenment as well as a source of accountability. Admittedly, there are some talk shows in Saint Lucia hosted by skilled moderators that already do just that.
Yet, I’m all for scrapping the call-in segment which often provides a platform for disputatious characters to derail a purposeful and useful dialogue – causing what sometimes started as a productive discourse to degenerate into a political proxy war. Maybe with a little luck (just maybe), discarding that part of the show can help detoxify the political atmosphere in the country. But I know you wouldn’t hold your breath.
Unlike a friend of mine who believes that talk-shows are trite and therefore a waste of time, I actually think they serve an important educational and edifying purpose in a country where illiteracy is high and very few people actually bother to read. Apropos reading, perhaps it would be a good idea to expand the circulation of newspapers to all secondary schools on the island and have teachers discuss some of the issues (the non-political ones of course) with their students for about an hour or so per week. I actually witnessed such a discussion at a secondary school overseas which had me thinking of the merits and usefulness of the idea in my own country.
At any rate, a good conversation on education, health, culture, etc is often derailed when the telephone lines are opened, particularly when the featured guest is perceived or known to be associated with a particular political brand. Although I really don’t want to homogenize all callers into a single mould, it’s quite usual for certain individuals to call in and not ask any constructive and substantive questions – but instead verbally assault the guest(s) on the programme or make long-winded political pitches (allegedly scripted) with the calculated intention of blocking the telephone lines and depriving other callers from making a contribution. In some instances, even the host ends up being on the receiving end of various forms of verbal attack. Based on what I’ve witnessed so far and especially now in the campaign season when tensions have begun to flare, it takes a certain chutzpah to be a talk show host in this country, particularly when people are hell-bent on defending their various positions (or propagating their sometimes specious reasoning).
Now please don’t get it misconstrued – there is nothing wrong with people having a strong position on any issue, even a political one at that (man is a political animal according to Aristotle) – it’s just that the same people with selfish motives call in all the time and repeat the same old arguments.
As I was alluding to earlier, talk shows need to provide legislators and functionaries more time and opportunity to explain themselves, present their plans and respond to voter concerns. It is sometimes discombobulating to see talk show guests fervently attempting to shed light on an issue only to be interrupted in order to accommodate callers who often regurgitate old vapid lines – thus contributing little value to the discourse. Further, I’m sure there are so many critical questions that need to be asked – and the guests seldom get the opportunity to answer them owing to the fact that the telephone lines are opened too early – often resulting in a worthwhile discussion going off course or losing focus and cogency. Add to that the fact that some answers (especially plans and policies) may be complex and don’t always fit easily into soundbites lasting only a few minutes.
Even so, given the complexity of the social and economic problems facing our small island today, it may sometimes be more useful and judicious to focus on a particular issue, say, the inefficiency of the justice system – in order to more holistically explore possible causes, consequences and implications as well as to view the issue from different vantage points. Self-evidently, that kind of productive exchange doesn’t lend itself to a time-limited and unstructured format – and can best be facilitated by having perhaps, on particular occasions, two or three guests to participate in a panel discussion – allowing a more balanced educational exchange on developmental ideas, policy differences and other national interest issues. Wouldn’t such a popular vehicle be a wonderful opportunity for policymakers, businessmen, functionaries and public figures to face the nation and elucidate and validate their positions?
I can already hear some of you lamenting the fact that many public officials for various reasons are sometimes reluctant to appear on such shows. Alas, it is we the people who are responsible for ensuring that they do and remain accountable. Democracy does not end at the ballot box – in fact this is only the first step in a long process of political engagement and civic participation. Hence, we have to make it our duty to pressure elected representatives to interface at all times with the tax-paying public either directly or through the media.
Make no mistake – I do believe that the voice of the people should be heard, but there are other ways and opportunities by which this could be achieved other than talk shows. For those who can’t countenance the absence of audience participation in talk shows, an idea would be to have a call-in segment every second or third week. Another idea would be to have a live audience in studio that would be allowed to field relevant questions. Of course, these are not revolutionary ideas – such concepts have been part and parcel of the talk-show circuit in most countries that practise representative democracy. Besides, I’m not aware of any public affairs talk show outside our region that constitutes a call-in component.
Perhaps one of the reasons why our society has become so self-centred and quarrelsome is because we probably talk too much (and sometimes out of turn) – and don’t listen attentively to others. We have all become experts on everything, even when it is clear that we aren’t quite informed about many issues. One of the things I’ve always said is that our people must learn to listen more and cogitate before expressing their viewpoints. Above all, some of us need to read more and research the issues to enable us to better participate in constructive discourse.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.