The story about the radio producer Charles Parker, who made the radio ballads in the 1950s and 1960s, is that he wanted to hear the voices of ordinary people on the radio, and the invention of the portable Uher tape recorder gave him the chance. His politics collided with new technology to create a new way of working – a way of working that included the songs of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. For each of the radio ballads he would vanish from Broadcasting House for weeks on end, recording scores of hours of tape, to the chagrin of his employers at the BBC. They eventually fired him, despite his winning hatfuls of prizes for his innovative and radical work.
As Parker later recalled, in the days before the tape recorder arrived, the producer would drive into the country in a “bloody great Humber,” record people talking onto disc, transcribe their words, and hand the resulting scripts to actors. Well, lawdy luv-a-ducks, what a lark!
I came across Parker’s work, which was then out of print, while working as a current affairs producer for Radio Four. I’d read about it in one of the many critiques of media that were current in the 1980s, and promptly borrowed the recordings from the BBC Library. (They’ve since been re-released by Topic Records.)
After I left the BBC I wrote my own critique of the dominant discourse of Radio 4 News and Current Affairs, which if I recall correctly was headlined “London calling.” And the notion that “this is London” runs deep through Britain’s news and current affairs culture. It’s telling that sport and music can move to the BBC’s new centre in Salford, but news and current affairs is located more centrally than ever, TV and radio reunited in a back-to-the-future kind of a way at Broadcasting House, W1A, 1AA.
And this whole stream of personal history, long-repressed personal and media history was triggered by listening to James Robertson perform his monologue, “The News Where You Are.” No, it’s not a coincidence that he’s a Scot. The world just looks different from the far away towns.