The Man Who Made Radio Viral
How James O'Brien's monologues broke the internet.
One of the defining online news trends of 2016 has been the takeover of people's Facebook News Feeds by pictures of James O'Brien with his head in his hands.
When this is put to the radio presenter himself, in a meeting at LBC’s central London studios, he responds by putting his head in his hands.
The images on Facebook are screengrabs from the massively viral videos of monologues from his radio show, which runs for three hours every weekday.
His most-watched clip, comparing home secretary Amber Rudd’s Tory conference speech to Mein Kampf, was viewed 3.9 million times on LBC’s Facebook page, followed by 3.3 million who watched O'Brien say anti-immigration sentiment had contributed to the murder of MP Jo Cox.
Videos of him accusing The Sun of hypocrisy over Brexit and his take on the High Court’s Article 50 ruling have also attracted over a million views. Because other websites and Facebook pages aggregate the clips into their own players, or use LBC’s non-Facebook player to embed the videos, it means clips of O’Brien have been watched tens of millions of times this year, putting him way ahead of competition from his own radio station or even any other in Britain.
The latest official radio figures show him attracting 810,000 listeners a week, including 166,000 people aged 15 to 34, both of which are personal highs – but this is dwarfed by his online reach. It’s thought the success of the clips is attracting a new younger audience, which flies in the face of most talk radio demographics.
A former showbiz editor at the Daily Express, O'Brien moved into TV as co-presenter of The Wright Stuff on Channel 5 and worked on a late-night chat show for ITV. He is also now an occasional main presenter on Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship political programme. He has been a regular presenter at LBC for almost 15 years.
But it is really in the last year or so that his monologues have become a viral success story, both on Facebook and in being written up by websites – something that almost never happens to other radio presenters. How did a phone-in show take over the internet? What is he doing that nobody else is?
“We didn’t set out to achieve it. I’m not doing anything different from what I’ve been doing for the best part of a decade. It’s just the technology, the planets have sort of aligned with the technology being available,” the 44-year-old tells BuzzFeed News. “We’ve got HD-quality broadcast now, so although it’s radio clips that are going viral, they’re TV quality to all intents and purposes.”
Arguably the first clip to “truly go bonkers” was of a caller named Richard who rang in to argue all Muslims should apologise for the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. O’Brien asked him why he hadn’t said sorry for the actions of all Richards, including the shoe bomber Richard Reid. It was his most listened-to clip of 2015, but there weren't even any cameras in the studio at the time.
LBC has since invested in a dedicated video team – as well as a revamped studio – whose job it is to look out for sections of his show that could work online as standalone clips, a model that has now been replicated for all the station's presenters.
“What I’ve had to try very hard not to do is to try to tailor-make them, so if I ever even find myself contemplating the thought of going, Right, I’m going into full monologue mode now, I slam the brakes on as quickly as I can,” O'Brien says.
“The people who want to tell you what they think but can’t tell you why, they’ve set the scene for post-truth politics.”
“There’s a great story about Harold Wilson in the early days of TV news, where it was all live, so he’d be in the middle of a speech to the Worksop working man’s club or Sheffield town hall, and then you’d get the sign the cameras had come on for the 9 o’clock news and he’d just completely change, turn to camera, put his pipe in his mouth, and start talking – there’s none of that, I promise you. You’d tell it a mile off if we did.”
He adds: “If it wasn’t natural – audiences are very sophisticated, you’ve got a million clips popping up in your feeds – you can tell when someone is just talking honestly and naturally or when someone has adopted a contrived position and is trying to pursue it. I hope that the part of the reason for the popularity is because that natural sincerity comes through. I might be wrong, but I mean what I’m saying all the time.”
O'Brien is almost reluctant at first to try to explain why he thinks his videos are so successful, joking that he does not want to give away his secrets. He's also conscious of the difficulty of discussing why 4 million people want to watch a clip of him talking about something, without sounding conceited.
But he does see himself as something of a lone voice in what he calls “speaking truth to power”.
“I think what’s possibly missing from the world of the polemic is people picking on the powerful rather than the vulnerable. All the polemics at the moment are about picking on the vulnerable, the less fortunate, the children who are drowning in the Mediterranean, or some bloke from Syria who might be 20 instead of 17, or Lily Allen, or Gary Lineker. Gary Lineker’s not vulnerable, but he is a very easy target.”
“There aren’t many voices slagging off what the rest of the media is doing, and what 80% of the media is doing is encouraging us to punch ourselves in the face on a daily basis. And we are.”
Is it any surprise that the success of O’Brien’s clips and monologues coincides with Brexit, Donald Trump, and the post-truth political era?
The tension between evidence and opinion is at “breaking point”, he says.
“I think the radio show as a whole makes this point quite frequently, and it’s where I get quite a lot of hate as well because people hate having it pointed out. Mark Twain said it: It’s a hell of a lot easier to fool people than it is to convince people that they have been fooled. The traditional talk radio listener is quite right-wing so I have historically been in the business of explaining to people why they are wrong, and they don’t often thank you for it. One of my favourites was a guy who said, ‘Well, my daughter’s school has got a prayer room,’ and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but I didn’t believe him because he’d kind of come on with all these anti-immigration memes that were straight out of the comments section of the Daily Mail, and I just smelled a rat.
"So I said, ‘The school have just rung in,’ because I asked him to name the school, ‘We’ve got them on the other line; they say there isn’t a prayer room.’ It was a complete punt, that, [I] didn’t have them on the other line. I could just tell, and that was three years ago, so post-truth isn’t new to me. I think the people who want to tell you what they think but can’t tell you why, they’ve set the scene for post-truth politics.
"Passionately held opinions that don’t stand up to the barest scrutiny kind of sums up a lot of Brexit supporters and a lot of austerity deniers, a lot of people who still somehow can be persuaded that doctors are against them, doctors are the enemy, firefighters are the enemy, teachers are their enemy. I think what I do, if I’m going to be self-aggrandising for one moment, is [taking on the fact that] in what they call the mainstream media, there aren’t many voices slagging off what the rest of the media is doing, and what 80% of the media is doing is encouraging us to punch ourselves in the face on a daily basis. And we are.”
As O'Brien himself says, talk radio traditionally attracts right-wing listeners, while for many years LBC was regarded as the station of racist taxi drivers. That may no longer be true, but the station's roster of presenters is still dominated by voices on the right. O'Brien, however, rejects the label of being a left-wing cuckoo.
“I would characterise my own politics – and if I was interviewing you and you said this I would laugh at you – but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, I think my politics are essentially Christian, actually,” he says.
“I was brought up to believe you should help people less fortunate than yourself, that you should treat other people as you want to be treated yourself, and that you should not be sort of greedy and exploitative and mean. I loosely describe that as Christian. I’m not for a minute suggesting you have to have been brought up in a faith, any faith, to hold those values, but if I had to find a single word, centrist doesn’t mean anything, liberal doesn’t mean anything, left-wing and right-wing are increasingly meaningless concepts.
“I try to define myself by the people who seem to think I’m against them. The thing that seems to upset them the most is the suggestion that we should be helping people who need help rather than just encouraging each other to help ourselves all the time. That’s probably the nearest thing I’ve got to a particular credo. And it means that I don’t, for example, toe a party line on anything from grammar schools through to fox hunting; I can have a completely fresh idea whatever the subject may be. I’d like to think it’s quite hard to think what I’m going to think about something – you’re not going to be able to predict it according to quite lazy, two-dimensional party politics.”
While adamant that he is not doing anything different in 2016 to what he was doing in 2006, O'Brien concedes Brexit has opened up new possibilities.
“What Brexit has done is frightened people. I don’t want to necessarily suggest that the country has made a terrible mistake but I think the conflict, the tension between evidence and opinion, has never been more acute and that possibly lends itself to a phone-in show more than it does to other things.”
"UKIP people have been told since not to come on, but that’s just because they end up looking so stupid, it’s not that anybody’s particularly frightened of me."
One hugely popular recent clip featured Leave voter Ashley from Pinner, northwest London, who said he was willing to risk his electrician business to free Britain from EU laws. O’Brien responded by asking him to name a European law he was looking forward to getting rid of, and Ashley could only laugh “the shape of your bananas”.
“I’ve been doing that ever since I’ve been a phone-in host, whenever it’s the EU... I was never pro or anti. They’d ring in and they’d say all our laws are made in Brussels and you’d say ‘name one’ and they couldn’t. I’ve been doing that for years, but because of the way the planets have aligned it’s suddenly touched a nerve recently because I think that poor fellow in Pinner, a lot of people realised that actually they can’t name a law either, and that gives the other side the suspicion that the vote has been slightly skewed.”
Is the success of this approach, and the monologues, simply of their time?
“I think so,” O’Brien says. “Again, I can talk about myself endlessly on the radio for three hours, but I’m a little uncomfortable in a one-on-one scenario doing the same thing. But yeah, look, you know what the numbers are like. Massive, household-name shows are happy with 200,000 views on some of these things that they put out… and us getting 2 million doesn’t even make our top five, so yeah, something’s happened.
“It seems to be a combination of honest polemic to power, rather than all the other prominent commentators who seem to be putting the boot into people with… I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, I don’t even want to overanalyse it in case it slips out of reach, or in case it’s wrong. But I think everyone’s on Facebook now, everyone is sharing clips, everyone is looking for content, and that simply wasn’t true five years ago or even one year ago in quite the same way.
“And it’s a credit to our online team, and partly luck actually, I don’t think any of them would’ve predicted things would have gone as well as they’ve gone this year that we were just in the right place at the right time. And the company’s invested a lot of money in that studio; when you look back at the interview I did with Nigel Farage a couple of years ago that also went viral, the studio looks like a broom cupboard. If it looks like a broom cupboard the numbers are not going to be anything like they are if it looks genuine. It looks like the X Factor set now, our studio, it’s like stepping on to the flight deck of a jumbo jet, it’s magnificent. And that helps, it all helps, all these little things that have sort of come together at the same time.”
That Farage interview was one of the first clips that brought O’Brien to wider online attention, in one of the first instances of the studio cameras being turned on.
In what seems like a very long time ago, in 2014, O’Brien succeeded where many other interviewers had failed, in making the UKIP leader appear genuinely uncomfortable to the point where his press spokesperson intervened on live radio.
“Farage challenged me. He’s a great rewriter of history, as everybody knows," O'Brien says. "But he challenged me to a debate about racism and whether or not UKIP was racist. UKIP people have been told since not to come on, but that’s just because they end up looking so stupid, it’s not that anybody’s particularly frightened of me.
“Boris Johnson’s a better example, actually. The Evening Standard reported he’d been banned from coming on my programme, because of the firefighters dispute. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from firefighters – that was a real journalistic milestone for me just in terms of the experience of firefighters, and what they were telling me about closures and removals of appliances from service. I did an interview – this would’ve gone viral – with an odious little man who was on the fire and emergency committee at City Hall, and he sat in the studio and when the microphone went off he said to me, ‘Do you really think Boris Johnson doesn’t know exactly what’s going on?’ Because he’d said ‘Boris doesn’t do this’ and ‘that’s not true,’ and as soon as the microphones went off he effectively said, ‘You naive little journalist, thinking that’s how the business worked.’ He thought when the microphones go off people can suddenly start telling each other the truth. And he was saying Boris knows exactly what’s going on; he knows exactly that there are going to be closures. And I’m sitting there thinking, This is what my job is, to stand up to these people.
“So I said to the studio producer, ‘We’ve got all this on tape, haven’t we?’ And I’ve never seen a man actually go white before. He started chasing the producer round the studio, shouting, ‘You can’t possibly broadcast that!’ We don’t have tapes, there are no tapes when we’re off air, genuinely there’s nothing there, but the producer knew what I was doing. And so when we came back I said, ‘Why don’t you just tell the listeners what you told me?’ And he just went apoplectic. It was brilliant radio, and that would have gone nuts. So that’s what I mean by saying I’ve been doing this stuff for years – it just felt sometimes that nobody was noticing.”
Another thing that O’Brien believes sets him apart from his competitors is his ability to cut through the media bubble – he says he speaks to "real people” who phone in – and the fact his show isn’t afraid to confront guests on the very rare occasion they are booked.
“I think that’s the big problem with our profession at the moment, that you say, ‘We can’t do that, we can’t do this, because [guests] might not come back again.’ The beautiful thing about phone-in shows, if they don’t come back again, you’ve got 800,000 people waiting to ring in and I'm just as happy, if not happier, talking to them than I am the political editor of the Daily Bugle, or the self-appointed spokesperson for victims of crime.”
In fact, a feature of O’Brien’s shows has been people who would normally be booked as guests on other shows ringing in to talk to him: recently singer Lily Allen and one of the drivers who took Uber to court, but most famously former England midfielder Frank Lampard.
The irony is that O’Brien now counts Farage as a colleague, as he is a regular stand-in host for Katie Hopkins’ Sunday morning LBC show.
“I don’t enjoy Nigel Farage having any platform for the lies and the racism that he spouts. I don’t feel differently about the platform that I’m on than any other. I am only responsible for what goes on between 10 and 1, Monday to Friday, and the rest is a commercial operation,” O'Brien says. “[Farage] is box office. We’re in the business of pursuing listeners, we’ve got our biggest audience ever, and that’s what they have to do. That’s why I’m not in management, that’s why I do what I do.”
Doubly ironic is that since that 2014 interview, Farage’s fortunes have soared. After being a major figure in the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, he has been touted by US president-elect Donald Trump as a potential ambassador to the country. But O’Brien does not feel any frustration over that fact.
“I’m not invested on that level. As I’ve said, it’s a lot easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled. And also I think what we’ve learned in America and Britain in the last year or two is that what they called political correctness worked: People didn’t feel they could stand up in public and object to people speaking 'foreign' or object to people’s ethnicity or choose their neighbours according to their nationality, or make vile comments about homosexuals or ethnic minorities or whatever. Political correctness meant you couldn’t do all of those things. The louder the voices complaining about political correctness, I think history’s taught us the keener they were to return to the days when you could be publicly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, and god knows that’s where we are at the moment.”
His monologues aside, the other strand of O’Brien's clips that go viral – the ones in which he takes down callers such as Richard or Ashley – could be seen as taking advantage of people’s ignorance.
“If there’s an aggressive tone to an exchange it’s not being set by me,” he says. “So when people ring in I generally mirror the mood, so I can have a very good-natured, measured exchange with someone who passionately disagrees with me, but if someone’s coming in looking for a scrap, I’m your man. So I don’t feel bad about them. I love it actually, when they end up crawling away with their tail between their legs, like a whipped mule,” he says. “Because they started it, not to be too childish about it.
“With the lad in Pinner recently who couldn’t name an EU law, I don’t think I did anything mean to him, because he wasn’t being aggressive or rude to me, he just very slowly unravelled as not really having any reason at all that stood up to logic or scrutiny for having voted in the way that he had. So I was proud of that in the sense that I took him to the place where usually it involves a bit of aggression on my part.
“It’s the silence I love... the moment when they realise they can’t answer the question.”
"But no, I think if someone is confident enough to ring me with their view, if that falls apart like a cheap suit and they end up feeling humiliated, that’s not my fault. That’s what I find fascinating, how people can be so wrong and yet so confident about being right. I like to think of it as pulling thread: You find that one little thread and you just keep tugging it. The same question, quite often, you keep returning to the same question: ‘But you live in Bishop’s Stortford – how does immigration affect you?’ A bloke a couple of months ago ended up saying with regards to immigration, ‘I can’t get to the till at my local shop because of all the immigrants.’ And you laugh, and he hopefully does feel stupid, but that’s because he is stupid, that’s not because of anything I’ve done. And, you know, the conversation usually ends shortly after that.
“It’s the silence, I love the silence. People like to think when you get the better of someone on the radio that it’s because you’re in charge of the switchboard, or you’re choosing your callers, which is a wonderfully reassuring way of hanging on to your prejudices, if you listen to someone on the radio in the business of exploding them. But actually it’s the silence I love. I love the moment when they realise they can’t answer the question.
“This is part of the reason, perhaps, why the clips work so well – because it is live. Even though you’re not watching it live, you know this is all happening in real time, there are no scripts, there’s no pre-production. Those moments are the reason why I don’t feel bad if people end up looking stupid, because it’s not my fault. And the silence proves it. The silence is when you hear the penny drop and they don’t. And that brings the listener into the radio in a way that very, very few other moments do.”
Why then, do people continue to ring in?
“I’m not claiming to win every encounter. I think I don’t know. Why would people keep ringing in... most of them don’t ring in for a fight. Ones that do, I think, are just possessed of – to a slightly higher level than everybody else – that belief that they’ll be able to back up their views because, as they’ve said themselves, ‘Everybody I know agrees with me,’ so they think they’ve got strong arguments. The Brussels one is the best: ‘Seventy-five per cent of our laws are made in Brussels’; ‘What’s the one you’re really looking forward to not having to obey any more?’ And people might start talking about fishing quotas, to which you say, ‘Are you a fisherman?’ And that’s a silence moment, there’ll be a silence because they’ll go ‘No, I’m not a fisherman, why the hell have I just said on the radio fishing quotas are going to change? I’ve got nothing.’ They think they’ve got a lot, that’s why they keep on ringing, they think they’ve got loads.”
But O'Brien rejects comparisons between his style and that of US shock jocks such as Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh: “I set out to excite an emotional reaction, which I guess the shock jock does. But I would distinguish myself from most shock jocks in America by saying I do it by a telling the truth, speaking up for the people who don’t have a voice, rather than the kind of traditional shock jock, which is pretending that you’re speaking up for the people who haven’t got a voice whereas in fact you’re endorsing the loudest, most privileged voices – usually angry white men, isn’t it – claiming that they are somehow victims of circumstances when it’s never been a better time in history to be an angry white man.”
“I’m giving away all my best tactics here.”
Not all calls end in a confrontation. Another recurring theme is the apologetic listener, such as the tearful Leave voter who rang in to say he regretted his decision and wanted to apologise to his son.
“That’s why I come into work every day – not really Brexit because that’s politics, but on things like homophobia. I’ve had messages saying things like ‘My son’s come out, and I don’t think I would’ve coped with it if I hadn’t listened to your programme for the last few years.’ When a homophobe comes on and says it’s a lifestyle choice, I say, ‘When did you choose to be straight, then?’ And you have that little moment of silence – I’m giving away all my best tactics here. A caller about two years ago, he described himself as a plasterer, he said his 17-year-old son had just come out and a family member – I think his brother – said, ‘It’s a lifestyle choice, he’ll grow out of it’, and he said to his brother ‘When did you choose to be straight, then?’ I get messages saying, ‘Thank you, I was wrong, you’ve changed my mind.’ And that’s not to sound too self-important, but that’s the stuff that really makes me proud.
“Immigration as well. We’ve had a few callers on immigration saying, ‘I was one of those people who, you know, thought this and thought that, and then I stopped and thought about it and I realised the nurse looking after my mum, the midwife that helped my wife give birth [were immigrants], none of my problems are caused by immigrants.’ We used to get a lot of those actually. But the mood has changed a bit.”
O’Brien believes his “silly lead” in numbers over LBC colleagues and other radio presenters will gradually close, but warned that trying to imitate him, or deliberately trying to go viral, would be the “kiss of death”. Is there a competitive element at LBC? “There was when it was close," he says, before pausing, "which was about a week. It sounds incredibly conceited but there hasn’t really been any point at which I felt competitive. Every single week we’re way ahead; there might be the occasional week where someone else has the top clip and frankly that’s a relief to me because it is going to stop at some point, and that could be tomorrow.”
Despite the success of his clips, he’s unsure whether his approach would translate to TV or an online-only show, on a platform like Facebook Live.
“I left newspapers to do daytime television for a year, which was a sort of mixed experience, and ended up here entirely by accident and achieved what I wanted to achieve in newspapers. I’ve done some fairly high-end television presenting with Newsnight and some fairly low-end television presenting with Channel 5. I just love this, I just love it. There’s no earthly way I could get the exact same pleasure out of a television show as I get out of my radio show. I did an interesting two-week experiment with ITV just before the last election, which was a bit of a bear pit, it was more heat than light – that was fun, a studio-based debate show. There’s probably room for that. But exactly what I do on the radio wouldn’t work on television, because no producer would let you. They’d say to me at 10 o’clock in the morning, ‘What are you going to talk about today?’, and I’d say, ‘I just go on air, the light goes on, and I start talking.’ There’s no way you could do that in television, you’d be too frightened, and rightly so. I wouldn’t put that out on television.
“We’ve got a couple of things that we’re looking at that may attempt to kind of rewrite it, but it’s taken me 10 years to do what we’re doing now on the radio. No one’s going to give you a 10-year bedding-in period on television, ever, nor perhaps should they.”
Another reason the Wild West approach of online-only might not work is the company that O’Brien would be keeping there, the regulation-free shows like Alex Jones’ Info Wars. There’s an inherent credibility in being on the radio, which contributes to the success of the clips online. “You have to be rooted in reality if you’re regulated, so you get that here, you are rooted in reality, and if you say something that’s not true you’re going to get picked up on it and if you tell an outright lie you’re going to get picked up on it. If you’re running your own little operation there’s no police at all is there. Light touch regulators, I wouldn’t want to work without them actually, because otherwise I could just have 24 hours a day of people agreeing with me which would be very boring for everybody.”
What then, ultimately, is the reason the clips go viral?
“You’ve lead me to this appalling conclusion but the only thing that all the clips have in common is me. There you go, that’s a bit more modest. This is a big company with lots of famous people working here, and they are all trying to get clips, and when you look at how the company performs we’re ahead of everybody by miles and miles and miles, and it’s an accident. That’s the point. A very, very happy accident.”
When we conduct our interview the US presidential election has yet to pass, and as it ends O’Brien considers a prediction from the statistics site FiveThirtyEight – borne out by the eventual results – that Trump would win in a crushing landslide if only men could vote. What does that tell us?
“I know exactly what it tells us: It tells us we’re living in a world where white men hate the fact that their accident of birth doesn’t deliver the privilege it used to, and they think that’s horribly unfair, and now there are all these women who are getting positions of power and all these women who are doing jobs, and exercising autonomy, and all these blooming brown people who are being treated with the same respect as white people and one of them is bloody president. You can, when you think about it, understand Trump’s appeal but you are reluctant to conclude that it’s all about white supremacism, even though it probably is.”
This, O'Brien agrees, would probably go viral as well.