Most radio broadcasters have someone in mind they are talking to. Mine is usually Auntie Jean – my octogenarian radio-loving godmother – who is witty, down-to-earth and politically engaged, but also wants to be entertained.
At the start of my broadcasting career, it used to be a toy monkey. Curious George would join me in my LBC studio and sit on my mic stand. I found talking to something, even a stuffed toy, directed my voice and altered my tone accordingly.
But the greatest treat about radio is that you never know who is listening. I relish this part of my Radio 5 Live programme as, apart from breaking news, it’s the only truly unpredictable element – and I thrive on the adrenaline a spirited or emotional exchange with a listener yields.
A few days ago we were debating the public perception of obesity, and specifically if the NHS is prejudiced against the severely overweight. This was off the back of a call by bariatric surgeons and doctors for our health service to boost the number of obesity operations (ie gastric bands) it offers per year.
Not only would this offer a lifeline to those too encumbered by their weight to exercise, but it could stop them getting type 2 diabetes and other illnesses – saving the NHS a lot of money.
Professor Francesco Rubino, chair of metabolic and bariatric surgery at King’s College Hospital, London, came on to argue this case, pointing out that severe obesity is a disease, not a lifestyle choice, and that it remains one of the only illnesses we believe people should be left to sort out themselves (hardly how we treat lung cancer patients who smoked themselves ill).
Cue an onslaught of listener responses. I found myself arguing with an angry woman who said that people in her area just drink milky coffees in Starbucks all day, chugging about on their mobility scooters – so why should we have to foot their surgery bill?
But there were others who had sympathy with Professor Rubino. Then we received this tweet from someone called Shaun who opened up about his own battles: “Very emotive topic this. I’ve been bullied all my life in one way or another for being overweight. Eat less and move more doesn’t work for all.”
Little did I know that the Shaun blowing his cover on some painful personal issues was Shaun Murphy, the former world snooker champion. He agreed to come on air and, softly spoken, said: “People who don’t have these issues don’t understand them. Someone who does not drink cannot understand why an alcoholic cannot leave it. In the same way, somebody who does not overeat cannot understand what goes on in the mind of someone who does.
“A couple of years ago I lost in the final of the World Championship, which was difficult enough to take, but the comments on social media – ‘you look terrible’, ‘you need to lose weight’, ‘you lost the match because you’re fat’ – meant I didn’t leave the house for two weeks.
“I don’t need educating on which foods are healthy and which foods aren’t. There is a deep-rooted mental problem behind why people like me are unable to make other choices.”
And just like that, Shaun Murphy turned the whole debate on its head. You really never know who’s listening to the radio.
Emma Barnett presents 5 Live Daily, Wed—Fri 10am Radio 5 Live