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The week in radio and podcasts: Papa, We’re in Syria; The Cameron Years

Eleanor McDowall of Radio Atlas.
Eleanor McDowall of Radio Atlas. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Papa, We’re in Syria | Radio Atlas
The Cameron Years (BBC Radio 4) | iPlayer

Radio Atlas is the intriguing podcast strand curated by producer extraordinaire Eleanor McDowall. I’ve written about it before, but just to recap: McDowall finds excellent audio (documentaries, soundscapes, interviews) from places where English is not the spoken language. She adds a simple translation, which pops up onscreen as you listen. And that’s it. The wonder of the podcast is its unexpectedness. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you press play.

The other wonder is, of course, that you’re not simply listening. Unlike most audio, Radio Atlas requires you to stop doing whatever else you have planned (cooking, driving, walking the dog), because you need to look at the screen as well as listen to the sound. You have to concentrate. This leads to an experience much more akin to reading a book than watching a film. You imagine how people look, where they are. It’s remarkably evocative.

Anyway, I recommend the strand to you as a general good thing, and I also particularly recommend a recent episode: Papa, We’re in Syria. Winner of the 2017 Prix Europa for best European radio documentary, this is a story that seems familiar. An ordinary German family is pulled apart when the two grownup sons convert to Islam, and run away to join IS in Syria. Although we read about such things happening, it’s rare that we hear from all the characters, that we’re allowed inside the conversations. But in this case, the father, Joachim Gerhard, a successful businessman, kept phoning his two boys, Klaus (25) and Mike (18), and leaving them messages. He recorded these, as well as the phone conversations he had with them. In these, the boys sound determined and world-weary. They believe that their course is the only true path; that their father’s way of life, geared, as they see it, towards work and money, is wrong and unholy.

I don’t want to spoil the tale for you, but Gerhard goes to the border in Turkey to try to see his children. This is a touching story, and I’m very glad to have heard it. I salute McDowall’s dedication to championing the best – experimental, out-there – audio.

The Cameron Years isn’t any of these things. Instead, it’s an example of what Radio 4 does well: letting an informed journalist do their job. In this case, Steve Richards examines recent political history to unpick Cameron’s prime ministership. The first episode, as you might expect, focuses on Europe and the Brexit vote. The interviewees have differing opinions. Some saw Cameron as a solid European (Ken Clarke); others saw him as pragmatic – in the EU, but only if it advantaged the UK (George Eustice). It’s interesting that both these supposed Cameron viewpoints were the same as those of the person speaking. He seems to have reflected everyone’s views back at them, so they all thought he was on their side.

You don’t hear from him, or George Osborne. The closest you get to Cameron is Ed Vaizey, who tried to persuade Michael Gove to campaign for Remain; and Oliver Letwin, who tried to do the same with Boris Johnson. The Cameron Years vividly explains the febrile Tory atmosphere that led to the Brexit vote. And it shows just how pie-in-the-sky the idea of going back on that vote is, sadly. Politics moves on. Everything in this programme is already ancient history. We are where we are.

Just time to mention Radio 2’s planned shake-up of its schedules. And what a shake-up it is! Jo Whiley, who’s certainly put in the hours, is allowed on during daylight (summertime) hours (5-8pm), as long as she’s accompanied by a man: Simon Mayo. Mayo, one of the few Radio 2 men able and willing to share airtime equally with a female, is the right person to partner Whiley: the show will be good. Blues expert Paul Jones has been elbowed in favour of Cerys Matthews, and Sara Cox gets a new weeknight 10pm slot. It’s progress, but incremental. I think we’re meant to be grateful.

This article titled "The week in radio and podcasts: Papa, We’re in Syria; The Cameron Years" was written by Miranda Sawyer, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 07.00am

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