WIRELESS devotees have just finished another one of their periodic fistfights over the pros and cons of Stephen Nolan’s morning show on Radio Ulster.
The presenter’s fans defended him with the claim that he gives a voice to the ordinary man and woman, while his detractors rolled out the usual claims about his choice of subjects and the weary familiarity of the pundits and callers he invites on to share their thoughts.
The latest set-to was sparked by the amount of attention that the show paid to the funeral of Bobby Storey and the attendance of deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and then, when the air eventually and inevitably went out of that story, events at Roselawn Cemetery with a particular emphasis on the part played by senior figures at Belfast City Council.
Such was the intensity of the debate that Mr Nolan himself became involved, hitting out at what he described as “trolls” and “bots” and claiming: “There is a coordinated Twitter campaign against me and this programme.”
Squinter’s not a listener to the programme, hasn’t been for a few years now, and so he has no way of knowing what the programme’s coverage of the funeral and the Roselawn aftermath was like, but since he was a republican who said at the time that Sinn Féin had made a mistake in its handling of the matter, it’s not something that Squinter was likely to have been greatly at odds with.
And then, of course, we need to throw in the fact that the DUP are by some distance the biggest critics of his show, in no small part due to the unstinting coverage it gave to the RHI scandal.
So it’s Squinter’s job today to tell you that he didn’t stop listening to Mr Nolan because of any perception of unfairness, but for other, more fundamentally alienating reasons. And it’s his job to tell you why it turned out to be a great decision.
Like so many other radio listeners, Squinter used to start his morning off with the Nolan Show and finish it with Talkback.
And while the midday talk show has been through a number of presenters in the past couple of decades, Mr Nolan has remained unchallenged as the ratings king of local morning radio for 17 years.
Squinter listened to the Nolan Show because he got lots of material for his column and for Twitter. And even when it became clear that confrontation and aggravation were mainstays of the content, he kept listening because, quite simply, hearing two people go at it about bonfires and flags and marches is entertaining, in a downmarket tabloid sort of way. Increasingly, Squinter’s remarks on the show became negative and critical, perhaps in a way he was trying to assuage any guilt he might have felt about listening to the wireless equivalent of The Sun by making it clear that he disapproved.
And when people Squinter respected saw his criticisms, they’d ask why he didn’t just stop listening. And the answer always came back: “But it’s my job.” The truth was that Squinter wasn’t listening to angry people every morning over a cup of tea and a slice of bap because he was getting paid to do so, he was doing it because it had become part of his daily office routine.
The kettle, the cup, the bread, the butter, the radio, the conflict. The “phones going boogaloo” but the same callers every day. Two politicians shrilly disagreeing was the background track to the start of the day’s work; listening to some bloke from the Falls and some bloke from Shankill yell insults at each other was the morning routine; a weird morning routine, in retrospect – like brushing your teeth with tile grout or putting antifreeze on your Sugar Puffs – but a routine nonetheless.
And then Mr Nolan got a Wednesday night TV show and the breakfast fight club was made flesh, with the scrapping politicos at the desk with the host and the phone-in caricatures in the audience to shout their opinions, whether solicited or not. And that became part of the routine too.
The Thursday morning water cooler conversations about the Wednesday evening show weren’t reflections on contributions made on the show about the Health Service, exchanges of thoughts on the interesting ideas on education raised by certain of the guests or a dissection of a fascinating debate on the environment.
Rather, the cooler talk revolved around what we called the “balloons” and “headcases” involved in bitter arguments about matters of culture and identity. Squinter was down the rabbit hole, immersed in the strife, consumed by the antagonisms.
Squinter doesn’t know exactly when it happened, but one morning he decided that this was no way to begin the day, that he was having a daily breakfast of tension and anger when what he needed was tai-chi or yoga. And he stopped. Just like that rare beast, the smoker who one days just stubs out the last cigarette and never lights another, Squinter resolved not to reduce his listening hours or switch off when the shouting started, but to knock the Nolan Show on the head for good.
And that’s what happened. Squinter hasn’t tuned in to the show – radio or TV – for some three years now. He still listens to Mr Nolan on occasion while walking the dog on a Sunday night, because his Radio 5 Live show is as different from his Radio Ulster show as Newsnight is different from Love Island. Salford gets thoughtful, Belfast gets rambunctious.
The difference has been remarkable. Squinter quickly found out that at a time when he should have been setting sail into the blue waters of another day, he had been dropping anchor in a harbour full of broken boats and diesel fumes leaking from noisy engines. And when he realised that every time he came across a comment about the show on social media he was not fighting a temptation to go and have a listen, but breathing a sigh of relief, he knew there’d be no going back.
None of this is to say that you should do the same. It is simply to observe that if you’re continually listening to the programme while simultaneously and furiously railing against it, it’s your problem, not the show’s.
Squinter found that out.
And it’s worthwhile pointing out that Squinter’s only taking the time to write this because he consumes a lot of BBC radio output – and pays for it. If this was SmickFM or U1690 Squinter wouldn’t be showing the vaguest interest.
A final point. Squinter was a bit late driving to work a few months ago and as he turned the key in the ignition and moved off, the radio came on, as usual. Except as it had been tuned to Radio Ulster the previous evening, the deafening Nolan Show intro filled the car.
The biggest show in country.
It tells you what the show is. Brash. Vulgar. Coarse. And it struck Squinter that all this time the raucous music and the loud reality TV voice had never been an intro at all, but a warning: the show does exactly what it says in the din.