Don't Log Off (Radio 4)

Conversations with strangers in cyberspace put Antonia Quirke in a trance.

The presenter and producer Alan Dein usually comes in around this time of year with a new series of Lives in a Landscape, a set of social history documentary programmes in which he coaxes people to speak in such an intimate, insistent way that each edition turns out epic. But this year he presents Don't Log Off (last broadcast: 9 January, 11am), in which he communicates with strangers all over the world - Mongolia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Australia - on Skype over five late nights. His questions to these strangers (who had all responded to Dein's Facebook
appeal "Please call me") were always simple. "What time is it there?"; "Is it dark?"; "How long have you got left on your batteries?"

You could hear the callers relax into the conversations, happy to be boring ("So today I went to the library, then I came back, then I went to the dorm . . ."), feeling neither harried nor overly concerned about the wider implications of this rather peculiar exchange (who is Dein to them? Did they even care? Did they ask him any questions, or were these cut out in the edit?). In many cases the ambient noise was the most thrilling, unifying thing of all. Children bashing each other boredly in the background. A wedding party taking place in the street outside one caller's house in Cairo. A girl in China kept modulating her lilting tone so as to not wake her room-mates. ("So, you're sharing with two other girls? Are they with you now in the same room?" Only Dein - sincere, seemingly artless, with a keenie's voice that gains immediate sentimental support - could get away with these kinds of questions and not sound remotely lascivious.) And in every case, within a few minutes, people were talking about lost love: "At the airport we hug each others deeply and bery long time"; "Man, this is where the story gets heartbreaking. She has, to put it bluntly, put me through hell . . ."

But the ace up the already winning programme's sleeve (2 January) was Jennifer in remote Nova Scotia, a girl with 5,000 friends on Facebook but nobody to address in person, not merely because of geography, but an overweening mistrust. She has, she told Dein, three small children by three different fathers who failed to stick around. Dein sensed her despair and changed the subject. "I hear there's a huge snowstorm coming your way," he said (at such moments, he always gets people to talk about the weather - instantly calming, a question everyone can answer). "Coming my way?" snorted Jennifer, deeply. "Oh my God, it's been here all friggin day." I lost count of the number of times Dein asked, "Is it still snowing?" and she sighed, "Yeah. Still snowing." Like someone driving hundreds of backhands at an unbeatable wall, this incantation had me in a complete trance.

Holiday publication dates meant I couldn't mention until now the best programme of last month. One in a series of The Essay on Radio 3 marking the centenary of Roald Amundsen's arrival at the South Pole, Antarcticans (14-19 December) contained a monologue called "The last huskies" by a former dog driver, John Sweeny, recounting his husky-hauled sledge trip on Antarctica to find his team of dogs a new home 8,000 miles to the north. At one point, he talked about the incongruity of using a satnav on a dog, and other amusements, but soon returned to "the empty feeling at the end of any journey" and his all-consuming certainty that he had failed his team by not finding them proper homes after they were demobbed.

Many of the dogs were set free by their new owners and expected to fend for themselves - but huskies, however hardy and capable, need and love human attention. There were several moments in this tragic account of a hard, lonely trek that brought to mind Jennifer in Nova Scotia, and all the callers to Alan Dein. Sweeny spoke about the British-made dog food kept in isolated depots miles from base that kept fresh for years because of the intense cold. Often he would find notes long ago inserted into the packets by the factory girls in Lancashire, begging for a penfriend. Reading the notes, he recalled his pack howling and singing in the night, "then quite by sudden they would all stop in unison as if controlled by a celestial choirmaster before settling down to sleep. You're never really alone with the huskies."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama