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22 April 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:43pm

The highs and lows of Covid-era radio

From oblivious advice to moving personal stories.

By Antonia Quirke

Covid-era radio might mostly sound like presenters (literally) hiding under the stairs in makeshift studios, checking their pockets and wearily repeating “I thought YOU had the keys” to a conveyor belt of scientists, but there have been some memorable moments. Chiefly, Gardeners’ Question Time regular Bunny Guinness on BBC Radio 4’s PM, like a dread oracle of the bourgeoisie, suggesting we all take this time to dig out natural swimming ponds in our enormous gardens (“I’m sure you can buy the lining on the internet!”).

But Anton Lesser’s 15-episode reading of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (16 March to 3 April, now on BBC Sounds) was ingenious. The actor slipped and slid into every character so foxily – even minor ones such as Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter, glowering her life away in a nunnery. Such meticulously rehearsed recordings as these only underline how far audiobooks have come, and the fortunate domino effect on radio. 

Another jewel was nature sound recordist Chris Watson on Radio 3’s Private Passions (12 April, now on Sounds). Watson, having worked in the Arctic, chose Sibelius’s 1926 tone poem Tapiola, pointing out how the composer not only fully understood the “almost sinister aspect” of far-northern forests, but even managed to express the aura of a person nervously “looking behind” themselves into shadowed trees. (The kind of detail you’d never hear on Desert Island Discs.) 

Finally, of all the many sobering interviews with carers, doctors, parents, key workers and the grieving, the New York Times podcast The Daily carried one conversation that I’ve found hard to shake. Titled “I Became a Person of Suspicion” (10 April), New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan spoke about the rise in attacks against Asian Americans in NYC, and a recent incident when she was followed down the street. She movingly described herself as a young child newly arrived in the US from China, witnessing her mother’s shame at not being able to form the word “thanks” (saying something closer to “sanks” instead).

Jiayang recalled the powerful, almost drugging, longing she had felt to “bend herself into a shape America could accept”. A shape – now more than ever – beyond her reach. 

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Covid-19 radio programming
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This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb