On the line to Uncle Ralph
RADIO 3's Saturday morning phone-in programme, Open Line, hosted by Ralph Pixton OBE, has been an institution, in one slot or another, for 25 years. Love it or hate it, the show is addictive and provocative, with a mixture of outrageous opinions, petty complaints and occasionaly tragic tales.
At the helm is Uncle Ralph, Hong Kong's broadcasting legend, offering kind words and, apparently, hope to dozens of callers each week.
'We'll see what we can do,' he promises. 'I'll talk to someone in Social Welfare about that.' 'It has been noted, we'll get on to that.' 'Leave it with me and let me see what I can do. If the traffic police are listening, they can help us out.' This is not just a whine line, Ralph suggests, Open Line means action! But does it? Does Uncle Ralph follow through on his promises? For some, the lack of on-air follow-up means it is hard to judge how effective Open Line really is. Just what happened to the man worrying about bits of metal falling on his head? Did the little girl who had her way home from school blocked by double parking and trucks find her way cleared? Will the shopkeeper who was being charged huge management fees get any satisfaction? 'This programme helps people to help themselves,' says Pixton. 'We don't wave a flag, they come on, we listen and nine out of 10 times someone responds.' But, he says, he and producer Stuart Clarkson do make careful notes throughout the show and spend several days a week trying to get things sorted out. If listeners get the impression that problems are left unsolved, often it is because of the lack of air time to mention every result, or else they are sorted out off-air.
'I know quite often if you call Open Line, things get done a little quicker than just writing a letter as a member of the public,' says one expat caller, hoping for satisfaction about unsafe air-conditioners.
Many of the problems the show brings up are the minor inconveniences of modern living. The mainly expatriate and well-heeled contributors are not pathetic victims turning to Ralph for help in their final hour. They range from drivers bemoaning the lack of parking space or traffic lights to home owners demanding adequate refuse facilities to businessmen tracing a mislaid business card, or consumers complaining that their supermarket doesn't stock cheese.
Sometimes the tale is rather more serious, a sick man unable to pay hospital bills or a disabled person who has lost his mobility allowance on the whim of a new doctor. But these are the minority. Pixton himself is confident the programme 'has helped a lot of people, a lot more than it has hindered'.
'Government departments listen, quite a lot of them record the programme. The police are usually very quick and respond the same day,' he adds.
After 25 years, the programme has expanded from 10 minutes to two hours, but the formula is unchanged. About the only real change is the nature of the complaints. As costs rise, increasingly, calls are about how expensive Hong Kong has become.
Says Clarkson: 'It is just a bitching post sometimes, but some things do need following up.' Pixton is the 'first-stage agony aunt', the voice who first answers the phone when callers respond to Pixton's entreaties to call - 'Double 3, double 8, 236 is our number if you have any comments, we will see what we can do.' Clarkson is bilingual, which could explain why the audience is becoming more local, and filters calls through to Pixton live on air.
He has addresses and 'relationships' with officials in many departments whom he contacts on behalf of callers. 'It's often not that they don't want to do anything, they just have a different agenda. Sometimes we can make them change their priorities,' says Clarkson, citing the example of the Kam Tin village bin crisis raised week after week by one expat.
Even after they have done their stuff off-air, 'there's no magic just because me and Ralph call up. Sometimes we still have to fight'.
Clarkson thinks Open Line could easily be a full-time job, and occasionally he is pleased when other media, the papers and the newsroom at RTHK, take up an issue that has been raised on Open Line.
'We do get our stories taken over, since we don't have the resources to follow them indefinitely, it's good. But sometimes it would be nice to be credited; that does cheese us off.' After 25 years, the format may be showing its age and the same hardy core of callers may be ringing up, but there are no plans by new head of Radio Three, Martin Clarke to pull the plug. In fact, Pixton is planning a CD of the highlights - 'the humorous moments' - to follow-up an audio tape and a book he has written about the show.