Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: BBC World Service documentaries

Posted by Maximum Fun on 20th September 2009

Despite the fact that flipping on one of the BBC’s televisions will more than likely get you a faceful of EastEnders, Graham Norton and Changing Rooms, BBC radio still produces the some seriously choice content, at least if you go by what they podcast. While BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg remains quite possibly your Podthinker’s favorite thing of any kind, there are plenty of other neat BBC shows out there for the downloading as well. As creepy as the network’s long-standing mission to “inform, educate and entertain” may sound, it must be said that they are indeed informative, educational and entertaining, at least in their higher moments.

The BBC World Service’s archive of documentaries [iTunes] [RSS] contain many such high points. Taking the global, international, multicultural, crosscultural, culturo-cultural perspective one might expect, they report on various issues affecting all sorts of people and places, including the high Chinese saving rate [MP3], a missing Mexican island [MP3] and Obama’s mama [MP3]. In a brief 23-ish minutes — except in the case of multi-part series such as “Why is Africa Poor?” [MP3] [MP3][MP3] — these programs explore their subjects with a mixture of narration, field recordings and interviews from their host/correspondents.

Think This American Life without the plot twists and incidental Yo La Tengo, essentially. While TAL might well be the most popular single outlet for the modern radio documentary, the BBC has been cranking them out for lord knows how long, so there’s definite expertise accrued over the decades here. The interviews also get a little more confrontational; if your Podthinker has learned anything about roving BBC correspondents through this experience, it’s that they aren’t afraid to whip out the “gotcha” questions with striking frequency. (Perhaps they go through some sort of training camp for that.) Like WBEZ’s show, though, the BBC World Service’s documentaries go long on questions and short on answers. (Spoilers: we don’t really find out why Africa is poor.) This can occasionally irritate, though better to hear no answers than fake ones; the spirit is more exploratory, which suits the radio documentary format. (And it’s a format your Podthinker will champion over and over again, if necessary. And it will be.)

While the BBC’s towering historical stature as a producer of radio docs comes with a great deal of skill and professionalism, one can’t help but notice a certain blandness on the other edge of the sword. Too often, the analysis these documentaries provide arrives at “Why doesn’t the goverment do more to help [insert relevant group here]?” and calls it a show. But the variety, reportorial skill, on-location-ness and near-daily (!) release schedule remains all to the good, and the average World Service documentary comes out well ahead of most of the competition. Especially if that competition isn’t This American Life.

Vital stats:
Format: world-newsy documentaries
Duration: ~23m
Frequency: near-daily
Archive available on iTunes: last 300 only

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]