Since the Brexit vote I’ve found that LBC talk radio has everything that refugees from the BBC’s boring Radio 4 Today programme could want. Jacob Rees-Mogg is an occasional presenter, beamed in live from his Somerset manor house: “Barry in Woking is on the line: what say you, Barry?”
Once restricted to London, LBC now broadcasts across the country and no doubt the world via the internet. “Leading Britain’s conversation”, as its slogan goes.
It’s a commercial station and the presenters are allowed to have opinions. But there are no US-style “shock jocks” here – unless you count Nigel Farage.
In fact, Farage is polite and measured and chooses his words carefully. He usually has to dial the temperature down – as he did when confronted by an overheated listener demanding that he call Members of Parliament “traitors”.
Like Rees-Mogg, Farage has a huge fan club. Callers are quivering with awe.
For left-of-centre politics you have Old Amplefordian James O’Brien. He goes in for what is called “nut-picking”. Or nut-cracking might be more apt: he ruthlessly tears apart the arguments of poorly informed, nervous callers, leaving them looking silly. It’s unpleasant to listen to, because there is an obvious imbalance of power.
At drive time you have the gentler Eddie Mair, who is one of the few former BBC presenters to have defected to the commercial sector after the row over the gender pay gap.
But you have to get up early to catch the best presenter of all: Steve Allen, who’s been at the station for 40 years (“since the days when we used to have wind-up microphones and the show was broadcast from a tent under the Hammersmith flyover”). He does three hours from 4am, a shorter show from 5am on Sundays, and a recorded package on Saturdays. His is the only show that takes no calls; it’s just chat from the presenter.
Like his friend the late Dale Winton, Allen started out with the United Biscuits Network. With a clear, soft, slightly camp voice, he’s a natural.
The format is simple: he gives a rolling analysis of the stories in the tabloids and their rotating cast of despised minor celebrities from reality TV, whose names you won’t recognise. (“I’m sure her bust has increased”, “I hate talentless people”, “she’s fat”, “there’s a loser if ever there was one”, “boastful”, “he’s not wearing clothes for his age”.)
Some people who are famous for a good reason – such as the chef Jamie Oliver, or actress Bonnie Langford (“she works her socks off”) – he will defend from listeners’ envious sniping.
He’ll read out text messages, tweets, emails (“My tortoise Digby is four today”), but he’s bracingly rude if he disagrees with you.
As Allen says: “I just sit here and talk and get a very healthy audience, which is quite nice.” (“Quite nice” is a favourite description.) Google the audience figures and you can see a graph showing all the night-time radio stations: LBC’s audience leaps upwards like a cliff at 4am when Allen’s show starts.
He reminisces about his childhood, about food – Mr Kipling’s cakes, the delicious frozen mashed potato he buys from Iceland – about his expensive new watch, or what he’s doing after the show. (“I’ve got nothing on today … Oh no, I’m changing bank accounts.”) He’ll check his blood-sugar level live on air (he has diabetes).
“I nearly bought an ice cream the other day. And then I didn’t …”
He talks about people he meets in bus shelters (“you can have an endless conversation”). And he breaks all the rules. He’ll forget to go to the break for the travel news, or for the commercials that keep the station going.
Radio presenters are not supposed to gulp their tea audibly, but Allen does – “just a little slurpy slurp moment”. “Dead air” is a usually a no-no, too, but Allen will suddenly swerve off to chat with the producer, whose replies we can’t hear. “The producer’s sneezing his way through the programme … Attention-seeking of course.”
Over the years, it is true, he has occasionally had his knuckles rapped by the regulator Ofcom for “offensive” remarks – which might have upset blind people, the Portuguese, striking Tube workers. But these slip-ups are best seen as evidence that his programme is genuinely spontaneous. It’s his honesty that makes him worth listening to.
Allen claims his show is “immune to death, disease or natural disaster”. And Ofcom, I hope.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote a famous line in relation to his nervous breakdown: “In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”
One of the chief symptoms of clinical depression is early-morning waking. Ofcom should bear that in mind. Steve Allen has probably saved the lives of countless suicidal depressives. His show is a genuine tonic.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph