Are phone-ins a valuable public service or a cheap way of filling broadcast time?

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Welcome to Breakfast on Five Live, bringing you discussion and debate on issues important to you

Hello, this is Nicky Campbell, and you are listening to the BBC’s breakfast show on BBC Five Live, on April 1st 2009

Today we will be discussing the importance of phone-in programmes like this one. Do they play a vital role in society, providing you with a voice to express your views? Or are they a cheap way of filling up broadcast time between news bulletins?

On recent programmes we have discussed such topics as banning chips from school dinners, has political correctness gone mad, and whether President Obama is wrong in backing stem cell research. Last week we looked at whether there is ever an excuse for torture. That was as ever hotly debated, and one caller said he would torture the living daylights out of anyone to get information to save the lives of his children. Strong words indeed.

Today we will be looking at the very important and fascinating question of whether we are serving you the listeners in our phone-in programmes. As well as taking your calls, we have with me in the studio Nick Ross, one of the great broadcasters of all time, and pioneer of the phone-in format for a decade, on Radio 4. Welcome Nick.

Thank you Nicky. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

It’s a pleasure to have you with us too, Nick. It’s a special pleasure for me, having taken over from you after the great pioneering work you did on Crime Watch on BBC 1. And also, of course, we owe much to what is now known in the trade as the Nick Ross question which came from the famous Call Nick Ross programme on BBC 4 in the 1990s.

That’s very kind of you Nicky. I remember getting the idea of the Nick Ross question. We were deciding the discussion topic of the day for the programme when I realised that any topic of public interest could be resolved into either-or format.

A beautiful insight indeed. And so influential to a younger generation of broadcasters listening in awe from regional stations around the country.

Indeed Nicky, and I must say you still look as if you yourself might be a member of that younger generation, although ..

[Hurriedly] ..Thank you for mentioning that, Nick. Working with the wonderful team around me, and being in contact with all our callers, as you well know, keeps you young. And regular exercise of course.

Of course.

Nick. Before we ask the viewers to make their valuable contributions, how do you see this important question? I think I know what you might be going to say.

Maybe, Nicky. That’s the beauty of a good Nick Ross question. Everyone knows there are two answers. For any caller you immediately know which answer you are going to get. But that doesn’t exclude the possibilities of nuance.

Careful Nick, this isn’t BBC 4. We don’t do nuance here. But that’s very interesting. You retain the richness of response from the public.

Thank you for that, Nicky. Yes You retain all the diversity, the warmth and honesty. And, of course, from time to time the unexpected mental leap of association.

Beautifully put. That leap, it’s Like a salmon leaping out of the smooth waters of a Scottish river.

But let’s apply the famous Nick Ross approach to phone-ins, yes even to this one. Where are you on phone-ins, Mr Ross. They are just a cheap way of filling air-time aren’t they? A way of keeping former jingle-writers like me in employment? And they are even easier to do now. A few minutes googling is all you need. Surely you believe it’s a con, and a misuse of licence payers’ money. Doesn’t it make your blood boil when you hear people taking the hypocritical patronizing opposite view.

Maybe …

Maybe? That’s the second time you’ve used that word in reply to a question. Surely, maybe can’t be an answer to a proper Nick Ross question? You won’t be hearing may maybes from our callers this morning, I can tell you.

But I must interrupt myself to tell you about an important news item just coming in. After that, it will be your turn to call me, Nick Campbell and our special guest Nicky Ross. Tell us what you think. Are phone-ins a valuable public service or a cheap way of filling broadcast time?

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