Heartbreak on the line
30 Jan 2017 1 comment. tbs.pm/10637
From Radio Guide for May 1976
Late at night in the silent, lonely city the radio disc jockey’s voice is often the friendliest sound around and people will air personal problems in a way they might never do otherwise. This report looks at the phone-in phenomenon.
The girl on the telephone was bitter and defeated. “I’ve just rung up to say goodbye,” she told dis jockey Adrian Love.
“I cannot take it any more …” What she had taken was an overdose of drugs and had decided, at one in the morning, to make a public statement of her own suicide bid by calling up a commercial radio disc jockey on an open line.
“It is frightening,” said Love who has recently moved from London Broadcasting to Capital, “that in a city the size of London the only person she had to talk to was a radio announcer.”
Love got the girl talking and dropped a commercial break to allow more time. She was 23 and the story was depressingly familiar: a girl turning from a broken family to drugs.
Love recognised the name of the drug she said she had taken and decided either that the call was from a well-informed hoaxer or the girl’s life was in real danger.
“l have to assume it is for real,” Love decided. He tried to talk her into going to hospital there and then, but she refused. He asked where she was phoning from. She was vague.
Eventually he decided he had enough idea of her whereabouts and left the studio after asking the engineer to put an LP on the turntable to keep the show going.
Love drove his car along London’s Kilburn High Road and saw a girl wearing a topcoat over her nightdress. The nightdress was covered with blood. As well as taking an overdose, the girl had cut herself with a knife.
Adrian pulled up beside her, seconds ahead of another car whose driver had heard the dramatic conversation on his own radio.
Together the two men — broadcaster and listener – tried to persuade the girl to go to hospital and a police Panda car seeing two men apparently accosting a young girl in the middle of the night, came alongside to investigate.
The policeman called for an ambulance and the girl, now very ill, was taken to hospital, while that LP finally came to an end back in the studio and his show had to close without him, Love waited on through the night and talked to the girl when she recovered and was finally allowed to go home. For a while they kept in touch until Love managed to persuade her to have psychiatric treatment.
This is one highly unusual, though far from isolated example, of someone desperately lonely turning to the disembodied voice on late-night radio. “I think a lot of people,” said Love, “regard us as confessors. With radio they know that whatever they talk about they can, if they wish, remain completely anonymous. Nothing, not even the parish priest, is as private.”
A psychiatrist who regularly takes part in phone-in programmes in which listeners ask for advice about personal problems, pointed to one apparent contradiction.
“The Samaritans’ telephone service is just as confidential, of course, but some lonely people choose radio to expose their problem to a mass of strangers at the same time — and an element of exhibitionism must be regarded as a factor here.
“Some people may really be desperate and have to ring at that particular moment. It is very difficult for some people to go along to a social and welfare organisation and say ‘My life is in a mess’ so it is easier for them to pick up a telephone and call a disc jockey whose voice is so familiar. It is instant.
“Of the girl in the example you have quoted, some psychiatrists would say she is being hysterical and seeking attention and others would say she is desperate and taking the only way out that she knows. This sort of thing is always a cry for help and although there is not a great deal a disc jockey can do for the person who has called, the fact that they have made the call might help move them a little further along the line of getting a bit of real help so it is a step in the right direction. It takes quite a lot of courage to make the phone call anyway, so that at least is a fairly hopeful sign.
“The disc jockey should never attempt to give advice. Advice is probably more dangerous than helpful. But he can give information about what sort of help is available. He should suggest an organisation like the Samaritans who can spend more time on a person than a few minutes’ chat on radio.”
Nonetheless, it is more than possible that the few minutes’ chat on radio with Adrian Love saved a young girl’s life.
Not all “live” late-night calls are as dramatic and a very high proportion of callers actually do want to hear a record – or maybe just hear themselves on radio! Some phone-in programmes offer help of a practical as well as an emotional kind – like the caller who wanted to borrow an elephant for a charity parade and within 15 minutes had received two separate offers!
Unhappily, some calls are not so agreeable. Adrian Love, son of coloured bandleader Geoff Love, is familiar with the caller who launches into a racialist tirade. “Sometimes you feel like walking out of the studio,” he told me. “I think they are part of a team from Rent-a-Bigot and people like us are all things to all bigots. I have been accused of being everything from a Marxist to a Fascist or from a Zionist to an anti-Semitic.”
It can be even worse for a girl. Doreen Jenkins of Swansea Sound, as well as getting perfectly pleasant late night calls from lonely lighthouse keepers and the like, has experienced the heavy breather more than once.
“I try to make light of it,” she said. “I give him 15 seconds of time and then I say goodbye. Usually they never say a word; they just sit on the other end of the line breathing heavily. The whole object, I suppose, is to get your attention. It is rather sad really. One man rang me every night for weeks. It boiled down to 15 seconds of silence from him with me chattering away at my end.
“They get all sorts of ideas about you when you are on radio — fantasy ideas, really.”
To make it easier for such callers to check their fantasies with the facts – Doreen is 5ft. 4in.tall with shoulder length brunette hair. She is 27 and single.
Not all broadcasters are as tolerant. Brian Savin of BRMB Radio, Birmingham, takes phone-ins between 1 and 2 in the morning but discourages calls from what he calls the looney fringe.
“I get fed up with people phoning up with their moans and groans. Some people ring up night after night. Some call up just to say something like ‘nice to talk to you’ but the only reason I want to put phone calls on the air is when something concrete is happening.
“I had Frankie Vaughan on the show the other night and a woman rang up to speak to him and spent the whole time talking about her agrophobia. I know it sounds terribly dictatorial but I think I can ask better questions than the average listener when I’ve got a celebrity in the studio. I suppose I will come out of this as the really awkward one.”
A little harsh, perhaps, but all disc jockeys agree that the important thing is not to bore the listener with a ’phone call that is too long and too self-indulgent.
Peter Young whose show on Capital goes out between 2a.m. and 6a.m. said: “You have to try to end conversations if they are becoming bad radio. You must consider not only the person on the ’phone, no matter how lonely he or she may be. You have to think of the listeners as well.
“So many lonely people think of us as being tremendously extrovert whereas we may be just as shy and find it just as hard to make friends. Often our job is just a way of making up for our own shyness. It is often no easier for us to make friends than it is for anyone else.”
Although there are plenty of nightworkers who call up for a chat and a piece of music, for many people ringing a disc jockey in the middle of the night the record request is merely an excuse.
Chris Jones of Radio City, said: “You have to recognise when a person is really lonely. You find they have rung up a radio station as a last resort. And, of course, there are moments when you feel lonely yourself. You are sitting there all on your own late at night and you think it would be nice to talk to someone. There have been times when I have wondered if there really were people out there listening and you ask a question about a record and, sure enough, someone calls you up for a chat. You do need that sort of reassurance sometimes.
“I have had one caller threatening suicide. It was a lady who said she couldn’t afford to buy toys for her children at Christmas time. Within a few minutes another listener rang up and offered her toys. At that time you feel very good but it is surprising how many people just like to hear another voice in the middle of the night.”
Calls can often be disconcerting. Richard Park of Radio Clyde in Glasgow, recently took a 1a.m. call from a girl who said: “There’s three of us girls all alone in a flat here; how about finding three young men to come round and have a good time?” The girl had given the address of the flat “off air” and Park decided not to repeat it publicly in case, as he put it, the girl was joking.
“But that is not an isolated case. I sometimes get a woman ringing up to say ‘My husband’s nae good’ and she clearly means no good in bed. She’s downstairs making herself a cup of cocoa while he’s upstairs. For all I know he might be listening to the show on a transistor radio under the bedclothes so I have to be careful what I say. My replies usually range from ‘You can’t be serious’ to ‘I’m sorry but I cannot come round at the moment.’
“I have had as many as 36 calls in two hours and although my show deals with music over the past 15 years so plenty of the callers are nostalgia freaks, many of them are lonely people who just want to speak to a friendly voice.
We have all always known that a city is the loneliest place in the world but this job underlies it in a really frightening way.”
Help and advice
- In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Samaritans can be reached for free by calling 116 123.
- In the United States, The Lifeline can be reached toll-free on 1-800-273-8255.
- In Canada, helplines are available in each province. For a list, visit suicideprevention.ca
- In Australia, Lifeline is on 13 11 14.
- In New Zealand, Lifeline Aotearoa can be reached on 0800 543 354.