The present tense is THE powerful first lesson in radio grammar. But so is telling the truth. What happens then, when these two butt up against one another and call each other’s bluff?
‘The Untold’ is a half-hour BBC radio series dedicated to ‘documenting the untold dramas of 21st century Britain’. The episode, Songs of the Bothy Balladeer, like all the stories in this series, is personal. This whole production can only be made with a high degree of cooperation from all its subjects. Indeed some of them nominate themselves. It means that we, the audience, are granted seemingly unimpeded access to a life-changing moment as it happens. We are with the subject behind the scenes. This is reality radio. In real time. Pre-recorded. Throughout the whole series ‘time’ is critical. The untold story must happen in a sort of ‘suspended’ real time. For the idea to work, the audience must feel it is living moment by moment alongside a particular dramatic event in the subject’s life. The idea fits perfectly with our ‘selfie stick’ age.
The second series, Short Cuts, is another BBC Radio 4 production, assembled by an independent company, Falling Tree Productions. The slot is also 28 minutes, but this program is made up of short documentaries and ‘adventures in sound’. Each episode is produced and curated around a particular theme by the inventive Eleanor McDowall. McDowall seeks out and plays documentaries from everywhere, mixing experienced, professional program makers up with student and community radio first-timers. What she is seeking are sound paintings that look at the world in a way you haven’t seen before. She stresses a compositional approach, often with found sound.
‘The End of the Story’ episode is made up of three features about things drawing to a close. The first, by noted Danish producer Rikke Houd, is about ancient Inuit culture in Greenland. The story is told in three different epochs, each cut into fragments and layered over one another. The earliest is an evocative and mysterious archival recording. This sound of a man’s voice from the past desperately shouting to us in the present, so that all it represents – people, culture, language, land, will not be forgotten and destroyed – has huge emotional power. The words are incomprehensible but the meaning is plain. The second, two and a half minutes piece, is called ‘Too Many Miles’. It is an imaginary audio film inspired by a Robert Frost poem. The producer of the third piece, ‘Power of Bare’, is former Third Coast Artistic Director, Sarah Geis. It is an interview with an American artist, Harold Stevenson, from the Warhol generation, who is best known for his paintings of the male nude.
In comparing these shows, it could be said that the program with the more artifice is actually the more honest. Not that it matters, because one program The Untold, simply proceeds by asking us to suspend our disbelief in the idea of real time being real, and the other, Short Cuts, doesn’t.