I’m at my parents’ house for a few days. The radio is almost always on. It’s talkback radio. I think it’s Newstalk ZB. New Zealand’s #1 Talk Station. During the day, the talkback radio is overlaid with the tennis commentary from the TV. This, in turn, is overlaid with my parents’ commentary on the tennis, especially if there are female players and there is any suggestion of a tantrum. All of this is occasionally overlaid with the phone ringing. Three different phones ring at different pitches and intensities whenever someone calls the landline. But at night it’s just talkback radio – a tinny, dyspeptic gurgle.
I’d just started writing this when my mum drove up outside, after running errands around town. She opened the door and the car radio blared out. Two men were talking on the radio. ‘What you’ve gotta do when you’re buying new shoes is make sure they fit you and they look good. If you start there then you’ll be fine, but no point in buying shoes that don’t fit and that don’t look good.’ ‘Well, when you put it that way –’
Last night I was trying to read my book and I heard what sounded like a high-pitched, repetitive conversation outside. An argument at the neighbour’s. Then I tuned in properly. It was ‘Roxanne’ by Sting. The neighbour had the radio on outside, at night. Maybe the radio was hanging in a tree. It sounded like it was, because the sound was spilling all through the garden. After ‘Roxanne’, which is close to #1 in terms of all of the worst songs to overhear when you’re trying to concentrate, it was ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I kind of like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for nostalgic reasons and because Tom Petty was in the Wilburys, but when it’s coming from a radio that’s hanging from a tree in a neighbour’s garden when you’re trying to read, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are nearly the worst thing of all, worse than mosquitoes, worse than getting sunburned or covered in burrs or all three. After that, it was Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’. I stood up and stared out the window with a venomous and helpless feeling.
Earlier today I was cleaning the pantry. I try to make myself useful sometimes when at my parents’. I put on a podcast (the Adam Buxton podcast) to listen to while I was cleaning – on my cellphone, which I propped up on the bench. My dad came in, from the garage, and he looked sort of uneasy. ‘There’s a radio somewhere. What’s that radio noise?’
Mum said, ‘It’s Ashleigh’s podcast.’ On the podcast Adam Buxton was talking to the comedian Roisin Conaty and they were talking about restaurant reviews. Adam Buxton was reading out a Trip Advisor review in a silly voice.
No more was said about this but it was clear that the podcast was an uncomfortable deviation.
Sometimes when my mum has come to stay, she has slept with a portable radio next to her head. The talkback is going into her brain all night. I don’t like the idea of sentences such as ‘People who are anti rodeos are insane’ and ‘I think people should be charged to use public toilets, like they do in Europe’ and ‘New Zealand gets nothing in return for housing all these immigrants, we have to house and feed them and we get nothing back’ going into anyone’s head when they’re awake, let alone when they’re sleeping and their defences are down. We know what happened to Homer when he listened to all those vocabulary-building tapes by Dr Marvin Monroe while sleeping.
When we lived in Te Kūiti, it was Radio Waitomo that was on all the time. The main DJ was named Chulu (a name I haven’t heard since; I also can’t find any information online about Chulu to see what became of him). I remember my Dad doing an impression of Chulu once, when we had friends round for dinner. ‘He’s quite incredible. One moment he’ll be reading the weather forecast –’ he did a muttering, horse-racing-like impression of this – ‘then the next minute he’ll be –’ and here Dad leaned over and shouted at his dinner plate – ‘”BIKES BIKES BIKES!” Doing an ad about bikes, you know.’ Everyone nodded.
We were talking about Chulu because my mum was the scriptwriter for a weekly five-minute radio show about the local high school, where she taught. Sometimes I’d help with the scripts, typing out the words on the computer as Mum came up with lines. The show was meant to be an irreverent but informative conversation about high school life and news. A group of high school students would go into the studio each week to record the show, reading from Mum’s script. Mum had also written an ad for the show, which would come on the radio every so often, and we’d all stop what we were doing to listen. ‘Hey everyone,’ the ad went. ‘Get a lifestyle!’ My mum found this phrase hilarious – this was around the time that the word ‘lifestyle’ was everywhere, usually in the context of ‘lifestyle block’ – because she felt that the word ‘lifestyle’ was essentially meaningless. The phrase ‘Get a lifestyle!’ was therefore the perfect slogan for the show. One of my brothers had come up with a little electric guitar riff which played before the show aired – a punky thing, with some edgy drums. It was lo-fi and – in my memory – meant to be ironic. All of this must have been quite subversive at Radio Waitomo, which didn’t do irony. It was a family station with loud sexist ads.
Chulu sounded like a nice guy on the radio, but apparently he had a temper, and would sometimes get annoyed with the students if they had to do multiple takes. There was a story that once, he’d exploded in a fury at everyone and they all had to leave without recording the show properly. I don’t know if that’s true. I never went to the studio, so even though I was proud that Mum was a cool scriptwriter, both Chulu and the station itself remained distant and annoying to me, an ever-present burble, insisting on commenting on everything and talking over everyone.
The tennis commentary has changed to the trivia show that my parents watch every night. Every so often there is a sparkly ‘BREE!’ noise when a contestant gets something right, followed by my parents exclaiming.
In some ways all of this commentary at home is sort of comforting. The talkback burble is an ancient burble. No matter how technology progresses, it is a burble that will go on forever. People lost at sea or falling down cliffs, still queuing up to have their say on plastic bags; phones ringing from freshly buried coffins because there are still things to say about immigrants and climate change. Commentary settling in a thick haze over the planet, with the formic acid smell of a billion ants. But in another way I’ve always found talkback dispiriting. Like being cursed to hear other people’s inner monologues forever, no room left to ask a question, no room for uncertainty, no room to try out your story, no room to let a fact settle and take root before someone’s trying to pull it up and figure out if it can be eaten.
I know this conclusion wasn’t unexpected. Happy new year anyway. On New Year’s Eve I was the person shoving earplugs in my ears at 11pm to block out the fireworks.