Robert Redford turns his hand to radio

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

11 August 2018

9:00 AM

Much ado is being made of the latest listening figures, which have suggested that the percentage of those aged between 15 and 44 who turn on the radio at least once a week has fallen still further, down now to 13.8 million, or just 21 per cent of the population. Are we losing the listening habit? How worried should BBC Radio be, asked Roger Bolton on Radio 4’s Feedback (produced by Will Yates). He pointed out that while BBC Radio 5 Live is suffering a loss of audience, as is Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, other non-BBC talk-radio stations such as LBC are booming.

Roger Mosey, a former editor of the Today programme, replied that the BBC can’t compete with the opinion-led talk-shows, as hosted by characters like Nigel Farage and broadcast on LBC, and their headline-hungry attitude. At the same time, stations like Radio 1 now have to face off the massive appeal of Love Island on TV and the new ubiquity of Spotify. He wondered whether the BBC is producing enough ‘compelling’ programming. The ‘creative challenge’, he says, is just as significant as the threat posed by streaming and podcasting to linear programming (i.e. the schedules).

One such creative response could be the BBC’s World Service collaboration with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Who would have thought back in the 1970s (when Redford was at the peak of his film career and radio was very much a poor relation of TV) that almost 50 years later Redford would be hosting a radio series? And that it would be dedicated to finding out what neighbourhood means to people in five places across the world, as if in recognition of the power of radio as a communicator. His plummy American voice introduced Wednesday’s documentary We Might As Well Be Finnish in which Kavita Pillay tried to find out the origin of the Finns’ strange expression, ‘We can’t be Swedish. We don’t want to be Russian. We might as well…’

Poised between Sweden and Russia, for centuries Finland was subject to one or other of these larger and more powerful nations. But after the Russian revolution it seized the chance to claim its independence. What does neighbourhood now mean to the Finns, these inbetweeners, as they celebrate 100 years as a free country? Their country is often cited as the best educated, least corrupt, most stable and happiest nation in the world. Why, then, do they still envy and admire Sweden, and fear the Goliath next door, Russia?

Or perhaps they don’t. One of Pillay’s guests growled at the microphone: ‘When the wind is horizontal and we go to the sauna and sit there sweating, and then go outside and chop a hole in the ice, and go swimming there. Yeeeaaah,’ he said, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Not many people can do this, but I’m doing it because I’m Finnish.’

There was a refreshingly bright, inquiring tone to this programme but it was difficult sometimes to follow the thread or know who was talking, as if it were made with a camera in mind rather than a microphone. The same was true of another intriguing documentary on Radio 4, Still Here: A Polish Odyssey (produced by Frances Byrnes), which told the story of the Poles who arrived in the UK not via Germany and the Nazis but from Tanganyika, Iran, India, and other far-distant places.

Byrnes talked to those who had made this lesser-known journey as children, exiled first by the Russians to Siberia as their homes in the borderlands were overrun by the Soviets, and then, when the Russians joined the western alliance against Hitler, evacuated overseas and housed in refugee camps in Africa and beyond. After the war they were uprooted again and brought back to Europe, many ending up in former RAF camps in the UK. At that time the Polish community numbered 200,000; now, said Byrnes, they are the largest foreign community in the UK.

We heard some vivid, compelling stories: arriving in Dar es Salaam and being offered neat little sandwiches by the English ladies in hats and gloves; the woman who remembers how jealous she was when her sister, who was dying in agony from fever and starvation, was given some precious sugar lumps. ‘I dreamed that I was ill so I could get that sugar. It was pathetic.’ There should, though, have been longer interviews with fewer people, the focus on just one or two families, to create more narrative coherence.

Over on 6 Music, David Sedaris this week launched a new series of Paperback Writers (produced by Anna Richards), the station’s own version of Desert Island Discs. Sedaris didn’t disappoint, subverting the genre with his stream-of-consciousness delivery. Most of his records featured jazz singers or soloists, beginning with John Coltrane’s ‘I Wish I Knew’ followed by Betty Carter, not to be confused with Ella Fitzgerald, insists Sedaris, and her sultry, sexy, funny ‘Why Him?’

‘I imagine myself singing that song,’ said Sedaris. Not just that. He imagines himself walking out on stage, singing like Carter, and astounding all his friends and family with his unexpected talent. ‘Nobody knew I had that in me.’ Who else does that? Who else would confess to it?

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