Not short of an opinion: Nigel Farage and Nick Ferrari on LBC. © Jamie Wiseman/Daily Mail/Shutterstock, YouTube

Rise of the British shock jock

Right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh softened up America for the Trump era. Could the UK’s own new breed of polarising presenters do the same here?
May 2, 2021

Could we trace a direct line from Rush Limbaugh, America’s most popular talk radio host until his death in February, to Donald Trump, the world’s least qualified leader since Kaiser Wilhelm II and America’s most destructive president? 

We could start this circuitous but plausible journey in 1988, when Limbaugh’s flagship talk show for WABC in New York made its debut, and end in 2020 with Trump’s final State of the Union address, in which he awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the day after the right-wing shock jock revealed that he had lung cancer. Along the way there have been many imitators, including Mike Pence—who before being Trump’s vice president hosted a radio show that he dubbed “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” for WRCR-FM in Indiana. Limbaugh has also served as inspiration for Fox newscasters like Tucker Carlson and the hard-right website Breitbart News, which from 2012 was led by Steve Bannon, who went on to become Trump’s chief strategist.

The first thing to note is that if your plan is to change the radio discourse, migrate that change onto TV, render the unsayable sayable in public, influence a major political party, anoint your chosen leader and finally take charge, it’s going to take a very long time. But it is also eminently possible. Like many US cultural trends, right-wing shock jocks have already arrived on these shores and the fear is that, unless we’re very careful, they could push our politics towards ever- greater polarisation, and a barren sourness in which compromise cannot grow. This is the environment in which GB News hoves onto the horizon, headed by former Sunday Times editor and Spectator chairman Andrew Neil, respected as a BBC interviewer but never short of a strident conservative opinion. He promises an altogether different kind of rolling TV news commentary—more exciting, robust. Ofcom would once have prevented this unfurling into a homegrown Fox News. But will it still? 

article body image New York, N.Y.: Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh at his studio at WABC Radio in New York City on December 14, 1988. (Photo by Bruce Gilbert, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Rush Limbaugh’s incendiary talk show enthralled listeners as much as it divided them. Photo: Bruce Gilbert, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

Some of the conditions that created shock-jockery and amplified its power were distinctively American. None of it would have been possible without President Reagan’s cancellation of the “fairness doctrine” governing radio output in 1987, whereas here—for the moment—we still have Ofcom to cover radio and television and a BBC that maintains strict impartiality rules. (Podcasts, though, are growing and are an unregulated wild west.) To attract listeners and therefore advertising revenue, US radio stations needed a lot of people to be driving long distances—not just for the share-of-ear but also because many of those calling in to vent their spleen were reluctant to do so in front of their families. The rise of the mobile phone was key to Limbaugh’s early success: his network did a deal with the phone companies to make it free to call. Contrast Britain, where taxi drivers still have disproportionate representation on call-ins; nobody else spends enough time in the car. 

Yet the UK copycattery was almost immediate: by 1988, James Whale of the now defunct Radio Aire had—influenced by Howard Stern, a loudmouth of the New York airwaves who regularly hosted Trump—changed his radio-schtick to become much more controversial. That year Whale also got his radio show simulcast on Yorkshire TV, and before long his mix of rage, blokey humour and climate change scepticism were familiar nationwide. 

But while priding themselves on pricking liberal pieties, neither Stern nor his English imitator were movement conservatives like Limbaugh. Nor was Whale quite a slam dunk commercial success. He didn’t have an army of disciples and inevitably fell foul of Ofcom—most expensively when he told listeners to vote for Boris Johnson in the run-up to the 2008 London mayoral election, costing talkSPORT £20,000 in fines. It was not until the run-up to Brexit that controversialists started to proliferate on our airwaves. 

“I once pestered LBC to audition me for a phone-in slot of my own. I didn’t get the gig”

Former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins was given her first regular show on LBC in 2016. A year later she was swiftly removed after calling for a “final solution” on Twitter following the Manchester Arena bombing. Prior to that, her suite of interests was strikingly similar to that of the American right: antipathy towards Islam, a drumbeat of “she-asked-for-it” misogyny and sideswipes at the obese. It is interesting to read her quotes in cold print; they’re so extreme that in a liberal (like me) they stimulate a visceral but excited disgust, like hearing an intruder. Presumably, for those who agree with her, she’s provoking a similar reaction except without the disgust. Such thrilling reactions make sense of what is otherwise puzzling: at its beginning, ultra-conservative speech radio in the US was almost equally popular with Democrats as Republicans. Crucially, though, Hopkins skated too close to literal fascism; a signature of successful shock jocks, both in the US and the UK, is that under the cover of straight-from-the-hip authenticity, they’re always careful not to sound like Hitler. 

In the past five years, however, voices who used to be more emollient or at least more veiled—Nigel Farage, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Mark Dolan—have become more strident, while counter-shocks from the left arrived. Actually, that shouldn’t be in the plural: it’s basically just LBC’s James O’Brien.

Inspired by O’Brien—it was exhilarating to hear his dramatic style deployed in the service of decency rather than division—I once pestered LBC to audition me for a phone-in slot of my own. I did a role-play with a producer—she pretending to be Helen, a Southampton nativist who wanted to know why immigrants were allowed to come over here and exist. I cannot begin to describe how difficult this conversation was: never mind landing a point, it was hard keeping my voice level enough so that I didn’t sound like a smurf. “Helen” was taking a very recognisable stance, taken straight from the columns of the Daily Mail; but the conversation was also fragile. Like many callers, she didn’t have the rhetorical clout of the average Oxbridge-trained debater. So the presenter has to treat the caller decently, while stoutly rebutting their point of view—all without laughing or swearing. Needless to say, I didn’t get the gig. 

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James O’Brien on his LBC talk show. Photo: LBC

O’Brien, who has been doing an LBC show since 2003, shot to prominence by handling these conversations flawlessly, but also with his pithy, impassioned monologues against Brexit. He notes to me neutrally: “I was the first in the country to use the tactics of the shock jock in the service of the opposite agenda.”

What used to check “campaigning broadcasting” from the right or the left were strict impartiality rules, but technology is breaking down the old certainties. When the majority of under 25s are getting their news from either social media or YouTube, the idea that one regulator can ensure balance is fanciful. In February 2020, it was announced that Ofcom would be put in charge of regulating the internet in the UK. All the discussion was around “harmful content”—inciting violence and self-harm, child pornography and so on—rather than disinformation and fake news, let alone political balance. The internet’s problem is that it sprawls around the world, and there’s so much of it. Ofcom enforcing a fairness doctrine would be like trying to turn the ocean vegan. Plus, with former Mail editor Paul Dacre poised to become the body’s next chair, can the organisation really be relied on to fight its corner as it used to, and cleave to the old principles? 

The appeal of shock jocks has increased at the same time as both the US and UK have become more diverse and their mass media more sensitive to accusations of prejudice. A functioning and inclusive civil sphere requires that certain opinions can no longer be aired out loud. From views on stop-and-search rules to women wearing miniskirts, the lines of taboo are drawn and redrawn. The list of unsayables necessarily has to be exhaustive if it is to be universal. There are always going to be people who think it’s gone a bit far; it’s salutary to note that when Limbaugh first started out, 62 per cent of Republicans but also 48 per cent of Democrats thought the mainstream media had too much liberal bias. So there was definitely a gap in the market. As one radio executive, David Hall, said of Limbaugh, he was “always looking to turn somebody’s sacred cow into some delicious hamburgers and a couple of steaks.”

We haven’t just imported this trend from America: there is a native tradition of railing against “political correctness” as it was once called, or “woke” culture as it has come to be known. O’Brien is insistent on this point: “We were already much further down the road to Fox News than I think
anybody realised because the process was so incremental. Ever since Murdoch bought the Sun in 1969, that tabloid sensibility has been very dominant… I came from a middlebrow tabloid background: I had an ability to use those tactics but I cared what was true. So I could get a big emotional response without lying to people about a refugee who was going to steal their sausages.” 

In other words, the radio shock jock was less shocking to a UK audience than you’d expect because the red tops had been fulminating against various groups for years: it was often migrants, as well as single mothers and other demonised figures. The first week that I started work at the Evening Standard in 1996, one splash was about a refugee from sub-Saharan Africa getting free HIV treatment on the NHS. 

Claiming “it couldn’t happen here” is unsustainable when it already has. Indeed, the Great British media has already crowned a king, only he came from print rather than broadcast: a columnist who never cared much about the truth of what he wrote has become our prime minister. 

Successful media personalities quickly realise there is little to gain from complexity, no incentive to compromise, no requirement to be consistent and nothing to be held accountable for. For the tabloid columnist craving eyeballs or the shock jock needing callers, simple solutions are attractive. When you transfer that sensibility into politics, you might end up promising to make Mexicans pay for a wall to keep Mexicans out of America, or float the idea of building a bridge over the Irish Sea to sort out Brexit. 

The snare, however, on which shock-jockery as governance will unravel, remains the truth. When those unkeepable promises fail to come off, the people who were angry to start with become angrier. Many will stick with their shocker-in-chief but, as Trump learned to his cost last year, many others may be motivated to vote against him. And it is not only in politics, but also in the broadcast market where there could be limits to jockery. While we perceive ourselves to be more and more polarised, the talk radio we listen to—and the expectations and relationships we have with it—tells a different story.

Commercial radio has its largest audience share ever, but in terms of speech output, LBC outstrips talkRADIO by some margin (respective reach is 2.8m against less than 500,000). Most of those who fit the shock jock criteria are now at talkRADIO—Hartley-Brewer, Dolan, Whale, James Max. (Nigel Farage was ditched by LBC last year for comparing Black Lives Matter to the Taliban and so far hasn’t been picked up elsewhere.) And talkRADIO was briefly taken off YouTube last year for spreading coronavirus disinformation. 

LBC, meanwhile, has become much more podcast-like, with intense, intimate conversations. “People imagine that if you’re on speech radio you have to be a zealot or an ideologue to get the numbers,” says Iain Dale, a Conservative who has turned out to be a pluralist behind the mic, “but that is simply not the case. When I was on Drive, I trebled the numbers in three years. If people trust you as a presenter, if you haven’t got a threatening voice, if you don’t shout at people, you will get them to open up in a way that they haven’t done to their own best friends. If you’re doing a phone-in that’s quite delicate, you don’t need a full switchboard. All you need is four or five people who you give time to breathe.” 

“Call-ins are like Victorian fairgrounds: people throw themselves into a boxing ring with a pro. The amateur never wins—and no one’s rooting for them”

Phone-ins are a co-produced drama: the caller arrives with a clear sense of what the host wants. You may not realise how fine that attunement is until the host changes and the callers take a while to catch up. Shelagh Fogarty, who situates her politics thus—“I’m not particularly a leftie or a rightie. I was probably the perfect BBC presenter”—joined LBC from Radio 5 Live in 2014, feeling that as she approached 50 she wanted to express her own opinions more freely. She remembers that “in the first months, some of the callers would be really coming at me. You know that sense of going quite red with shock in a conversation? They’d be ringing to accuse me.” O’Brien calls this a “gladiatorial” format: “the callers I wanted put through were the ones that were convinced that they’d get the better of me.” 

More than gladiators, it reminds me of the Victorian fairground, where people would throw themselves into the ring with a professional boxer. The amateur never wins—and no one’s rooting for them. But there’s also a moral dimension: listeners come to witness hubris being bested and strength celebrated. Like the fervent monologues that have always been a signature of conservative radio but have taken on a new energy and reach since they’ve been filmed, clipped and shared on social media, such moments create communities. People use the phrase “echo chamber” pejoratively despite the fact that it is a deeply human urge to be among people who have the same values and laugh at the same things.

Yet radio is a versatile medium: there are ways besides combat to create communities. Recently the unguarded personal encounter has become a signature of political discussion. There’s a world of difference between frankness and picking fights for their own sake, and even LBC breakfast host Nick Ferrari now sounds mellower, more curious. Meanwhile, O’Brien says: “I’ve had a ton of therapy over the last few years, and I’m very different now to how I was even in 2015. I was a very combative individual, I spent my life with my fists up, thinking that was normal. Then I stopped asking what people think and I started asking why they think it… What I try to provide now is common ground and solace. It’s still going to boil the piss of your average racist, but it’s not going to boil the piss of your average Brexit voter. They’re just going to have to admit that I’m right.”

The dominant mood of commercial radio—not to mention the much more regulated BBC—is moving on from the controversialists. In the US, shock jocks (Limbaugh until his death and Sean Hannity) occupied spots one and three on the most listened-to formats in the country, with around 13m weekly listeners each; public news was at spots two and four. But in the UK, BBC audiences tower over their rivals. Radio 4’s weekly reach was nearly 11m by the period after the 2019 election, and it’s not even as popular as Radio 2. 

So while commercial radio has enjoyed spikes in growth, it’s unsurprising that Mohit Bakaya, controller of Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, sounds sanguine. “We don’t tend to do as well on social media [as commercial] but it’s a mistake to think we have to emulate it, or chase its audience on those terms. We’d lose something that, once we’d lost, we’d never get back.” Even so, “this idea that every programme within itself has to be 100 per cent balanced, that’s just not true,” Bakaya says. Rather, the mission is to create a “public square for civilised, decent conversation, in which the highest value is what’s true and what’s meaningful.” 

Frankly, you could argue the finer points of what the BBC deems meaningful. Not to mention how it arrives at its editorial priorities, including the extent to which it follows the lead of a mostly right-wing print media and—since former Tory council candidate Tim Davie became director-general with major Tory donor Richard Sharp as chair—whether or not it accepts an agenda laid down by the government. 

Yet what you couldn’t do is discern much influence from more controversial speech radio: barring the odd 5 Live presenter such as Stephen Nolan, the BBC hasn’t tried to mimic controversy-seekers. Listener habits and the ecosystem of British speech radio tell a complicated story, one that challenges the assumption that there’s a geyser of unheard rage and division just waiting for its political explosion. Regulation may no longer be able to save us, but empathy is playing bigger at the box office. The shock jock’s moment may have come and gone.