ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Adam Willis was hunched around his microphone in the tiny studio at 2IQ. He took a sip of coffee as his listeners endured the eighth minute of a 12-minute advertising break. Musson and Woodburner had joined him in the studio, but he hardly acknowledged their existence. He didn't like to talk to anyone in the real world. He lived in his own radio-world, and only spoke to people when the microphones were on.
The shock jock exerted extraordinary influence. He had a huge audience, although the figures were slightly exaggerated, because many had the show playing on their bedside radios whilst still asleep. This might be why he managed to tap into people's subconscious. His audience would, by and large, do anything he said. He told them how to think, how to vote, what mood they should be in (generally fairly crabby); he basically removed the need for people to engage in any form of free thought. That, of course, made him exceedingly powerful, which is why he was courted by politicians, business leaders and anyone with something substandard for him to spruik.
As powerful as he was in the real world, Willis exerted even more control in his imaginary world. He often thought of himself as a demigod in an alternate universe, where even more people, millions of them, hung on his every word. In this world, even intelligent people listened to him, something he could only ever dream of. It was this other world he lived in as he sat in his radio studio each morning, detached from reality.
He often thought of himself as a demigod in an alternate universe, where even more people, millions of them, hung on his every word.
That's why he ignored people in the studio, his headphones turned up loud and his face stuck into a cup of coffee or staring intently at the computer screen. To the casual observer, he appeared as a nervous, reclusive eccentric who wasn't comfortable with the world. In reality, he had left the world a long time ago. Only when the microphones were live and he was talking to guests would his world and the real world collide.
Eventually, the advertisements finished. Willis placed his coffee cup on the desk beside him, as his signature tune blared over the airwaves.
Across the city, hundreds of thousands of people were waiting; waiting to be told what to think. He'd make them angry, then sad, then angry again. There was no room for subtleties of emotion. And his audience had to be clear what mood he was in if they were to adopt the same disposition. Often, huge swathes of the population would spend their entire day angry because Willis had been angry. Other days they'd be even angrier. Sometimes livid. They were rarely happy.
A university professor once chose to map the relationship between Willis' temperament and productivity in the workplace. He found there was a strong correlation between the two, with people often so angry they were incapable of performing their jobs. Willis was quick to retaliate on-air, saying the findings were crap. His audience agreed with him, and followed his suggestion that they firebomb his house, forcing the professor to assume a new identity and move to Afghanistan, because it was safer there.
'Adam Willis — he decides, you listen,' said a deep voice over the top of the theme music, before the red light switched on and a new persona emerged from inside the timid creature. He smiled briefly at his guests before he started talking.
'We have two guests in the studio today. Sydney Musson, a man convicted of murder for killing a police officer, part of the scum of our society...'
Musson hadn't expected such a harsh introduction. It's true he had killed someone, who just happened to be a police officer, but that, in his book, wasn't enough of an excuse to be disrespectful. And it added to the anger that was welled up inside him. Whimplestein was sitting beside him looking uneasy. He could see that his client was on the verge of some kind of violent outburst, and he needed to control the emotion. If Musson was going to attack anyone, he wanted to ensure the anger was focused on Woodburner.
'Cop killers are one thing; predatory telecommunications companies who squeeze you for every last dollar are another.'
'But cop killers are one thing,' continued Willis, 'predatory telecommunications companies who squeeze you for every last dollar are another.'
Now it was Woodburner's turn for the Willis treatment. Weren't they advertising on this station? he wondered. Apparently not anymore, and this was the sort of treatment you could expect if your dues had lapsed. The advertising department called it hush money, although never outside the confines of the building, of course. As Woodburner listened, a contract was slipped in front of him, with a very intense advertising schedule that would kick off in less than a minute, so long as he signed it there and then. Willis eyed him as he continued his lengthy introduction. The station manager had relented and let Willis in on the deal, and the shock-jock was keen to get hold of his healthy commission.
'I mean, who do they think they are?' said Willis, pausing as Woodburner's pen moved towards the signature line. There was a few seconds dead air as Willis looked over for evidence of a signature. It would determine his next sentence. To the listener, it would be just another of his famous pauses, sprinkled liberally throughout his program. He knew everyone would hang there, waiting for the next insightful words from their guru.
This one turned out to be a longer pause than usual. Woodburner was delaying more than most who had found themselves in this situation. He'd been put in an awkward position. They were asking for a million dollars, which was a lot to spend in a week, and there was the slight question of authority — he was on the board, but he didn't have any executive powers. His role was to turn up for meetings every couple of months, and complain about how badly the company was run, not to make unilateral decisions on how the money is spent or how the performance of the business could be improved. He liked it that way — no accountability.
'Well, whatever they think, let me tell you what I think,' said Willis, buying a few more seconds. There was another pause. The pressure on Woodburner was intense, but he didn't particularly want to ruin his morning with a humiliating grilling from Willis, so he signed the contract.
'They're inspiring,' said Willis, without missing a beat. 'That's what I think. If only more Australian businesses operated this way. And I'll tell you why in just a moment. It's 22 past eight on 2IQ.' And then, another advertising break.
The audience didn't even care that Willis had spoken for less than 30 seconds since the last batch of commercials. His words were like gold to them. They didn't notice that the next thing they heard was a carefully scripted advertisement for VastTel, written and produced without any consultation with the client. In true 2IQ fashion, they knew what their audience wanted to hear, and what the advertiser wanted to convey was of little consequence.
His words were like gold to them.
The Australian national anthem burst across the airwaves; 'Advance Australia Fair', that musical dirge with virtually no recognition outside the country, or even within the country outside the leagues clubs. After a few bars came the voice of a laconic ageing Australian actor, somehow famous, even though no one could ever quite remember what he'd ever been in. Now he had stooped to voice-overs for Radio 2IQ, whose listeners couldn't get enough of a stereotypical larrikin Aussie bloke prattling on about how great their country was.
'We love our VastTel as much as we love our country,' he said, turning the twang up to maximum tilt. 'Those beaut blokes and sheilas who keep us connected in this vast, sunburnt land.'
It was bringing a tear to Willis' eye. He loved this stuff.
'You know they're the best, 'cos they're fair dinkum Aussies doing an honest day's work for their crust. So buy from the proud Australian that keeps us talking. Do that, and you'll make your old dad very proud.'
The script had been quickly pulled together using an Aussie cliché generator — a piece of software that scripted most of the advertisements on the station.
The national anthem reached a crescendo, of sorts, and the red light flicked back on in the studio.
'Good on 'em, indeed,' said Willis, pleased with how well his show was perpetuating Australia's pre-occupation with outdated vernacular.
'So, what's wrong with our VastTel? Not a lot, from where I'm sitting,' he said, looking over at the million-dollar contract Woodburner had just signed, part of his mind now thinking about what he'd order for lunch.
'But let's be balanced. Let's get another view. Let's ask the cop killer what he thinks.'
Musson was a little on the back foot. It's hard to win an argument when you're introduced as a cop killer. He felt he needed to defend his position.
It's hard to win an argument when you're introduced as a cop killer.
'I wasn't responsible for killing anyone. I had a mental condition,' he interjected, his anger festering beneath the surface. Willis laughed dismissively, but said nothing. He knew if he taunted Musson enough, he would reach a tipping point.
'Secondly,' said Musson, surprised he was still allowed to talk, 'anyone who has dealt with this company knows they're incompetent and they are out to rip off the customer.'
'I object,' interrupted Woodburner, standing up quickly and ripping his headphones from the socket. He sat down a little sheepishly before continuing. 'We are not out to rip off the customer.' The first point, about being incompetent, was more difficult to defend.
'Well, we'll take your calls on this,' said Willis, before throwing to a traffic report from a girl who was pretending to be in a traffic helicopter but was actually calling from the office next door. 'Traffic's backed up all down the M2,' she said, with the sound of the helicopter faintly in the background and the less-convincing noise of a photocopier, which had been put to work duplicating the signed VastTel contract for immediate dispatch to the lawyers.
As for the traffic, it was always backed up on the M2, and most other routes into the city in the morning rush. The government could have done something about it, but they were promised slightly more favourable coverage from Willis if they did very little to ease the problem. Congestion kept people in their cars longer in the mornings, and that was good for ratings. In return, he would give them an easy time on more contentious subjects, and agreed not to remind people who the prime minister was.
Several advertisements followed the traffic, then it was back to Willis, who took a call from a listener. 'Why is my phone bill so complicated?' asked Rheinholt from Bondi.
It was an excellent question. No one ever understood their phone bill. To most people, it was just a random jumble of numbers with your address written at the top.
'Why are there so many different charges?' asked Willis, hoping that paraphrasing the question would make it easier for Woodburner. It didn't. Woodburner knew nothing about phone bills; he'd never seen one.
'The call is dependent on a number of factors,' he said.
'Yes, I understand that,' said the caller, a little agitated.
'Can you be more specific?' said Willis, hoping to move it along.
Research had shown that his audience had only a 20-second attention span, so it was crucial that he changed the topic several times each minute.
'Well, certain words are more expensive than others, for example,' explained Woodburner.
'Really?' said Willis. 'You charge according to the words we use?'
Woodburner didn't have a clue. It seemed logical, but the revelation seemed to have surprised everyone. Everyone, that is, except Musson, who was starting to feel a little drowsy. He had come off the adrenalin high of a lunatic about to commit a murder, and was starting to feel his eyelids get heavier and heavier. The tedium of the broadcast wasn't helping. He didn't want to, but he feared he was about to drift off and miss the opportunity to kill. The maniac inside him was pestering him to stay awake, but his brain was wanting to lie down and have a nap.
The maniac inside him was pestering him to stay awake, but his brain was wanting to lie down and have a nap.
He decided if he was going to do something, now was the time. Whimplestein saw him reach for something in his bag. 'This is it,' the psychiatrist thought excitedly.
'Look, I can sort out your phone bill,' said Musson, talking over the caller. He stood up, pulled out his pistol and pointed it across the desk at Woodburner. 'The more VastTel people I kill, the easier life will be for all of us,' he said, looking as demonic as ever.
Willis motioned Musson to sit down. This was exactly what he had been hoping for, an armed combatant in the studio, but he didn't want him standing up. All the threats were off-mic and barely audible to his ageing, hearing-impaired audience.
'Look, hang on to your gun,' said Willis, 'but please move closer to the microphone.'
'Sorry,' said Musson, returning to his seat, but keeping his gun focused on Woodburner's forehead.
'Perfect,' said Willis. He knew no one would be turning off their radio at this point, or switching over to the equally successful HIT-FM's 'Jed and Josie in the Morning', where they were taking listener's calls on the subject 'if you were going to have sex with an animal, which animal would it be and why?'
The show had panned out exactly as Willis had hoped, but he didn't want Musson to do anything too hasty.
'Don't shoot,' he pleaded to Musson. 'Not yet, anyway. We've got to take a break. Back after this.'
'Don't shoot! Not yet, anyway. We've got to take a break. Back after this.'
The red light in the studio turned off and the 2IQ audience, left wondering what was happening in the studio, where fed a 60-second commercial about a breakthrough technology to make them more active in the bedroom. Most of his audience hadn't been active in the bedroom since 1974, and half of them could no longer manage the stairs to get up there.
In the studio, Woodburner was staring down the barrel of the gun, his life flashing before him, intermixed with the horrific visions of two 90-year-olds thrashing about on a queen-sized mattress. 'It's the way to go,' came the advertising slogan, implying that this marvellous new technology might finish you off, but at least you'd die with a smile on your face. If you had your teeth in.
Jimi Jones was watching the proceedings through a large window in the control room. After sharing the ride to the studio with Woodburner, he had decided to hang around and watch the morning's proceedings. He seemed to be the only one who didn't want to witness a cold-blooded murder, particularly when it involved a man who had promised a significant promotion for him. Even though he didn't particularly like the man, a career opportunity like this didn't come too often. He needed to get the police round quickly, but when he tried the nearest station, the number rang out. Little did he know, there were only three people on duty, all arguing whether it was best to have sex with a pig, horse or giraffe. A giraffe seemed to be the general consensus, because, even though they're not particularly good looking, you wouldn't have to look at the face.
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.