23 March 2007

Talkback radio in Australia is one of a few in the world that engages with and wields political power according to new research by a University of Queensland (UQ) academic.

Dr Richard Fitzgerald, a lecturer from UQ’s School of English, Media Studies & History, who is researching the language of talkback, said while talkback radio was a popular medium around the world, in Australia it is marked by its importance as a mainstream political tool.

“Whilst political talkback programs exist in other countries such as the UK, USA and Hong Kong they are not as integrated into mainstream news media as they are in Australia,” Dr Fitzgerald said.

“In Australia, morning talkback plays an important part in the news cycle and its role in forming the day’s political opinion is a significant aspect of its wider media appeal.”

Dr Fitzgerald said he was particularly interested in how two of the top talkback stars – John Laws and Alan Jones – interacted with their audience through different presentation and interactional styles.

“John Laws has this amazing ability to create the sense that his callers are mates just catching up for a chat,” he said

“Laws may be famous and rich, but his callers are comfortable enough with him to talk about their holidays or even put him on hold if they have to attend to something else whilst talking on air”

“This is also part of his political influence where through his easy going interaction with callers he creates an imagined community for his listeners which is then presented as a voting constituency for politicians to address through his program”.

He said Alan Jones’ technique was completely different as he was much more in the mould of delivering an opinion to his audience.

“Whilst Laws tends to use long greeting turns when talking to politicians on his program Alan Jones tends to use the interactional techniques of a news interview with very little personal or social communication,” he said.

“The lack of greetings and other personal communication tokens when talking to politicians gives the impression of an objective news interview whilst not being bound by the journalist code of neutrality.”

Dr Fitzgerald also recently visited Hong Kong and Singapore to examine political talkback radio, which he said was different again to the Australian experience.

“In Singapore it is an emerging platform, where rather than being used as a political forum it is much more about social issues and informing people about government policy,” he said.

“In Hong Kong I talked to a famous former talkback host Albert Cheng, who used to host a show very much focused on corruption and anti-government opinions.

“He was even attacked with a meat cleaver in 1998, so the impact of talkback there can be dangerous and controversial”.

“Examining what happens in Asian talkback is a great way to understand more about these countries and offers a fascinating way to get a sense of a country.”

He said the next stage of his research in Australia would be to continue looking at the idea of “imagined community” created through talkback, by travelling around rural and outback Australia where radio played a vital role in country towns and communities to keep people informed and in touch.

Media inquiries: Dr Richard Fitzgerald (07 3365 3201) or Andrew Dunne at UQ Communications (07 3365 2802 or 0433 364 181).