At it's best, radio is a magical medium which can take the listener into a different world.
Great presenters, well produced and prepared, carry listeners on a journey which will surprise and delight with music, humour, intimacy, insight, and familiar features to punctuate the routine of the day; 'if it's three-in-a-row it's time to get the kids from school'.
The more creative take those listeners to an imaginary world in the theatre of the mind, populating the studio with cartoon characters (Comedy Dave, Old Woman, Bionic Richard) or hold the audience spellbound in their cars as a competition such as Real Radio's 'Risk it for a Biscuit' reaches its climax; stay tuned five more minutes, you'll find out if Pauline has won the car or the custard cream.
Only on radio can Santa land on the station's roof with his sleigh and reindeer, narrowly missing the forest of aerials, enter the studio shaking snow from his boots, share a mince pie with the jock whilst taking last-minute requests from kids on the phone; then slip away, invisible, through a crowded reception. (Memo to all Dec 24 producers - remember the webcam)
The problem comes when presenters start believing the world of their ego is bigger, or more real, than the world outside. They can do anything. They are superman or woman with a great idea for a prank.
It'll be a scream.
Over the years all kinds of things have been done for entertainment.
Bear baiting, for instance, in which a beast is tormented in a pit until it bellows and rages in pain to thrill the audience with its fierceness. Dog fights, in which bystanders bet on which of two animals carefully bred for aggression will kill the other. Not to mention Victorian freak shows, in which human beings with physical or mental abnormalities would be displayed for the amusement of the paying punters.
It's commonplace for women to be paraded in swimsuits, clutching numbers in lieu of anything personal like names, whilst their breasts, legs and backsides are assessed by a panel of judges. All a bit of fun.
When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies TV entertainment presented a chucklesome view of the black people living next door with Love Thy Neighbour, whilst John Inman taught me all I needed to know about gay men as he minced across the floor of Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served? All very entertaining.
Another popular TV show was Candid Camera, the programme which created the 'prank' genre by fooling members of the public with bizarre situations and filming their reaction. That show had its origins in US radio.
Originally innocent (did that man really eat a goldfish he pulled from a tank in the pet shop? No it was a piece of carrot, but did you see that woman's face?) the genre evolved into the cruel deceptions of 'Beadle's About' when a hidden camera was on hand to record to reactions of a woman who thought her family car had just splashed into a harbour.
But she's only a punter. So it's funny.
I've clashed with presenters over the years who genuinely seem to believe that the laws of Libel and Contempt of Court don't apply to them - because they're not doing serious news, which lives in a capsule called a news bulletin. They're just having a bit of fun suggesting this married celebrity is having an affair with that well known model. Or that the TV star up in court on a theft charge is obviously guilty, because don't you remember he played that bad lad once in Corrie?
For the ego-driven it's an easy extension from that to genuinely believe that anyone in the real world is 'game for a laugh' and that anyone who doesn't play along is 'miserable' or a 'sad git'.
They're having a whale of a time in the studio, so anyone out there (often at unsocial hours, as windup shows are usually on post-watershed because of potential 'adult' content) must be too. The little people taking orders at the pizza place, delivering leaflets for the MP or answering the phone in the hospital are just pawns in a game where the presenter is king.
I have no idea yet of the full circumstances surrounding the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who took the call from the Australian radio 'pranksters' at the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated.
What is fact is that she died, apparently taking her own life, within hours of the incident. I'm sickened by the stream of internet comment which implies or directly asserts the victim 'must have' had other reasons for her suicide - if that's what it was.
What is also fact is that this incident has made life more difficult for every radio journalist in the UK from now onwards.
Dealing with hospitals is an important part of the radio journalist's day.
When police sources reveal that 'a man was taken to hospital with serious injuries' following an accident reporters need to know the man's condition. I won't outline the whole procedure online in case it inspires the next joker to copy it when a celebrity is undergoing treatment, but it can be drawn out and time consuming, usually ending with a statement that the subject's condition is 'critical', 'stable' or 'comfortable'.
The fourth option, of the hospital refusing to comment, often carries a tragic meaning frequently betrayed in the tone of the person refusing to comment. Such nuances inform the tone of the subsequent reporting.
When I do media training courses for the NHS, of which I've done probably dozens over the years, I drive home the point that they can trust and work with local media - especially radio and TV, whose activities are regulated by the Broadcasting Act and the BBC Charter.
That message will now be forgotten. The first thought in the mind of any nurse answering any call from any radio station, any journalist, in the foreseeable future will be to tell 'em nowt. Hang up. Get rid of the threat. This will impact on the quality of local journalism in every community.
OFCOM is likely to review its guidelines on the use of covert recording in all circumstances, its journalistic applications as well as its use in (alleged) entertainment. You can be absolutely certain in the current post-Leveson climate the rules won't get any easier. This will impact on the quality and depth of investigative journalism in all radio newsrooms.
There is an argument for the 'prank call' amongst consenting adults. A presenter ringing his mate in the pub 'cos he'll be sloshed, or waking up a fellow presenter who's taking over the morning show, or 'surprising' a celebrity with a funny voice (I wonder how the station got the number to call?) are all conceivably justifiable as B-grade entertainment .
But prank calls involving the unwitting victim, often a low status easy target, are anything but funny.
They have always been a form of bullying, involving an 'in group' (the presenter, their studio cronies and the audience) picking on an outsider for a laugh. The humour comes from the embarrassment, discomfiture or humiliation of another person. That's abuse. If they don't play along they're being 'boring' or 'oversensitive' - the same insults suffered by women or minorities who don't laugh along with sexism or racism.
Now apologists for the genre are squirming, saying 'prank calls' are part of what radio is about.
Not in my name, sport.