Constricted Conversation

I'm an avid listener of Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra, a radio talk-show that's broadcast every Saturday afternoon at 1pm. It basically serves as my touch-point for local politics; the guests tend to be bigger players from the country's major political parties and the topics usually focus on the latest scandal or crisis rocking Ireland.

I've found myself turning off the radio about 45 minutes into the hour-long show more and more often lately due to a rising feeling of irritation. I think this correlates with the increase in my podcast listening. I'm currently subscribed to various podcasts focused on politics, anime and video games, and the major contrast between these podcasts and Saturday with Cormac is the sense of urgency that pervades the radio show.

It's clear that Cormac is trying to get punchy or controversial quotes out of his guests rather than have a nuanced conversation about the country's challenges. It aligns with contemporary criticism of THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA; the aim is not to inform, but to stoke feelings of outrage or intensify partisanship. In the space of 45 minutes (15 minutes from the hour are dedicated to advertisement segments), Cormac covers at least 3 topics with an average of 4-5 guests. The brevity of the discussion isn't helped by the clear animosity that exists between the guests.

They're each representing their political party or perspective, and seem to think that there's nothing to be gained from agreeing with their peers; even when they're right. For all I know, they're maximizing their chances of popularity and success by acting constantly aggressive. It's also fair to say that 'right' is pretty subjective in politics, so maybe I'm listening to genuine major disagreements.

So you have Cormac on the one hand, fishing for a quote that will embarrass the speaker or make a good headline, along with his guests who are hurling blame at each other for the country's difficulties and proposing either vague or short-sighted solutions, hoping to entice voters to give them a chance to implement them. Throw in a few sprinkles of utterly subjective or anecdotal bullshit from callers and texters and you've got yourself a shitshow.

I find that I enjoy listening to my podcasts a lot more than I enjoy listening to the crude verbal combat that's repeatedly played out on Saturday. Hosts, and their guests, don't tend to have a limit placed on how long they're able to speak. They're usually deeply passionate about the topic, which tends to be a niche thing, and so they have time to elaborate on their thoughts and opinions without being constantly interrupted or outright shouted-down.

If the major political parties had their own podcasts, I think I'd get more out of listening to them than hearing them all crammed together in a recording studio for an insufficient 45 minutes, even if there was no-one on the air disagreeing with the hosts. At least I'd get the chance to hear more than a sentence or two before the conversation was derailed.

It seems clear that television and radio both suffer from this problem. The incentive isn't to explore a topic for as long as it takes to reach a useful or satisfying conclusion, it's to attract as many viewers and listeners as possible. The overheads of running a station are so high that you need to satisfy everyone, so you've got to cram sitcoms, talk-shows, music, movies, and whatever else you can fit into the time you have available. Every piece of content has to be built, or pruned, to fit into a slot that's couched in advertisements, and if any of it can generate controversy then all the better. What's being shown must be built around audience demographics, the time of day, the season, etc.

My hope is that we'll eventually end up with a video version of podcasts. For those who are shouting YouTube right now, I mean video that rivals the quality of television. There are original series appearing on YouTube and other streaming platforms but they're nowhere near good enough to qualify. Recording equipment, editing software and quality tutorials are becoming cheaper and more accessible. Eventually I believe that we'll come to a time where a larger and larger fraction of the video and audio we consume will be produced by passionate creators unencumbered by crushing financial constraints or stifling content requirements.

Rewinding to Saturday with Cormac: I'm not sure whether the content revolution will fundamentally change how political discussion plays out, but it can't be any worse than this!