How podcasts have transformed radio

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

As if on cue, Lemn Sissay’s new series for Radio 4 tackles all those questions we would rather ignore in this season of good cheer and overindulgence. He starts out with a programme about homelessness, reminding us that the Christmas story begins with a young unmarried couple, ostracised because she’s pregnant and her current partner is not the father, who are desperately in need of a bed for the night. Cut to 2019 years later.

‘How do you decide how much to give?’ he asks a young woman in his audience who, it turns out, works with a charity for homeless people. ‘Do you ever feel you’ve not given enough?’

‘All the time,’ she replies, to which Sissay responds, quick as a flash, ‘You actually give money and go away and still feel guilty? Why do you give money then?’

Sissay, who grew up in care, was thrown out at 18 and given an empty flat for a home but no furniture, no job and no support, has every right to prick our sensitivities. He’s angry, very angry, at a system that fails so many young people. But he’s also very self-aware. We are not ‘morally better’ when we give, says Sissay. Nor are we morally worse when we don’t give.

He talks to Polly Neate, who heads up the charity Shelter that was set up, Sissay reminds us, in response to Ken Loach’s film Cathy Come Home (which so vividly showed in 1966 how easy it is to cross over into poverty). She admits that walking past people sleeping on the street is a ‘disempowering’ experience. We don’t know what to do. ‘Give to Shelter,’ butts in Sissay.

‘What can we do about the homeless?’ he asks. ‘Use vacant high-street properties,’ comes a reply from the audience. ‘What would that do to the high street?’ Sissay continues. ‘Improve it?’

The intention of Lemn Sissay’s Social Enterprise (produced by Ed Morrish) is to come up with radical (but feasible) solutions. Its format is refreshingly unusual, with Sissay rapping with his audience and also interviewing experts in the field. This frees him up to explore difficult questions with humour and a degree of honesty that’s as sharp as raw lemons, but with enough sugar on hand to soften the astringency.

Thank heavens Sissay hasn’t been tempted away from the networks by podcast mania. Since I began writing this column 13 years ago radio has been transformed into ‘audio’. There’s now a bewilderment of programmes to choose from and any number of ways in which to find them. How do you know what’s worth spending time with? The podcast genre is much looser, more informal, often far less professional; it takes us inside other people’s lives, but often gives away too much information. It can shout rather than whisper with intent.

New styles of programme are appearing on the BBC’s schedules as a result, Radio 4 poaching the brilliant George the Poet, aka George Mpanga (I hope he doesn’t become institutionalised by the experience), while also giving us thrill-a-minute series such as Tunnel 29. Radio 3 has responded with a series of ‘Slow Radio’ experiences, the latest taking us on a trip down the Thames from Tower Bridge to the North Sea (produced by Ian Rawes). In just half an hour we leave behind the extraordinary thumping and groaning of machines to find ourselves in an oasis of bird calls and gently lapping water. It’s not a comfortable listen, there are no words of explanation (although you can find them on the website), and it’s really difficult to identify where the sounds are coming from, what they are. But if you allow yourself to go with the flow, to be immersed in the experience, it becomes almost meditative, an opportunity to stop and tune in to something beyond the everyday and yet created from it.

Since this will be my last-ever column on radio, I must mention the World Service, a godsend for insomniacs and for those who don’t like travelling. Witness History, for instance, in less than ten minutes takes us inside a significant, yet often overlooked story from the past or elsewhere. The most recent episodes gave us the first woman computer programmer (who worked for J. Lyons & Co on their Leo computers), the first person to die of Aids in America, and recordings of Wilfred Thesiger as he crossed the Empty Quarter. Each programme includes an interview with a remarkable if often unknown character — Walburga Habsburg Douglas, for instance, who took us through the summer’s day in August 1989 when a group of Hungarians met close to the border with Austria, ostensibly for a picnic. Her father was the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary. She was (and still is) a member of the Paneuropean Union, working to break down barriers within Europe. That day began with people grilling sausages in a field and ended with more than 600 East Germans finding refuge in Austria; a little-known aspect of the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Keep on listening, and keep paying for that licence — if you enjoy the serendipity of a fixed schedule and don’t want the bother (and expense) of taking out numerous subscriptions to drama, music, sport and comedy channels. Over and out.

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