Alan Dein: ‘I like to think I’m an educator, not an entertainer’

Alan Dein, 60, is an oral historian who makes unmissable documentaries for Radio 4 and the World Service. In 2007, his series Don’t Hang Up, where he cold-called public phone boxes across the world late at night, earned him the Prix Italia, the Prix Europa, a silver Sony award and a gold Third Coast award. The programme that grew out of it, Don’t Log Off, where he interviews strangers via the internet, is now in its 13th series. Dein also makes Radio 4’s Lives in a Landscape, about British people and their lives, and has compiled an LP of East End Yiddisher jazz 1920-1950. “I don’t make shows about ordinary people,” he has said. “I make programmes about people who aren’t usually interviewed.”

Did you know that Don’t Hang Up would be a massive success?
Not at all. I mean, you’re literally fishing. You’re sitting there at 3am, with your hook and line, hoping someone’s going to pick up. And actually, me and producer Mark Berman ended up on [Radio 4 complaints programme] Feedback, with listeners saying they paid for the BBC licence, and they don’t want to hear from these kinds of people, they shouldn’t be on the radio. Even within the BBC, some people loved it, some absolutely loathed it. But they let us continue working on it, and one of the episodes won lots and lots of awards.

What was the idea behind it?
We were really interested in the idea of random. If you make radio programmes, you’re used to finding interviewees by phone-bashing, trying to get academics, politicians, and so forth. Experts. We were keen to get people who aren’t normally interviewed. And we thought telephone boxes would be good. Because someone who is inquisitive enough to pick up a ringing phone is likely to stay on the phone when you’re talking to them. It was amazing how many older people picked up. And we got our fair share of people on drugs. It was a bit rough and ready.

How did you come to radio?
My background is in oral history. I grew up through the 1980s and I found a lot of the culture quite vapid: it was the height of Thatcher and greedy culture. Oral history felt important. To be able to discover people’s stories, and to be a conduit for telling stories was really exciting. I’ve lived all my life in London and I got this job interviewing steelworkers for the British Library. I was travelling to places like Workington and Scunthorpe, and Teesside and Motherwell, interviewing as many people as I could, as well as their families. I learned an awful lot.

Oral history has a few pioneers. Who are your inspirations?
I was very inspired by Studs Terkel, the great Chicago-based oral historian, especially Hard Times (1970), which he wrote about the great American depression. Also people like Tony Parker: his area was disfranchised people like prisoners. He wrote a book called The People of Providence, published in 1983, where he spent a year and a half on a council estate, just interviewing everybody who lived there.

But it’s also very different to radio…
At first, I really struggled with radio. I remember my first programme for Radio 4, I recorded something like 45 hours!

All art is editing, Alan…
You’re right, and juxtaposition. On Don’t Log Offwe go from one voice to another, and somehow their experiences align in some way. One thing you learn is to try to make people feel up, even when they’re down, because that’s what you want to hear on radio. Perhaps it’s weird, like you’re making people’s lives into entertainment. But I don’t call myself an entertainer. I’d like to think I’m an educator.

Alan Dein on air.
Alan Dein on air. Photograph: BBC

How do you find your internet interviewees?
I started with a Facebook page that just said “talk to me”, and I do still stumble on people through Facebook. But also there’s a great pen pals site for people around the world who want to improve their English. I just say: “Hi, I’m Alan, I do this programme, would you be interested in chatting?” And it goes from there.

Do you have an interview technique?
I just start talking. I want to keep the speaker in control, so I’m trying to follow people as they talk, using them as a guide. I’m listening all the time. It can help being from somewhere else, because people are talking to someone who has no idea of their world. I like to get a sense of their backgrounds, where their parents grew up, their childhood, whether they’re from a wandering background.

OK, so what’s your background then?
I’m of Jewish background, my families on both sides came from eastern Europe, arrived at the beginning of the 20th century in the East End. My young childhood was based around Shepherd’s Bush market – my family had a shop stall there specialising in Afro-Caribbean foods, just post-Windrush. And what better place to be on a Saturday, than a market with all that bustle, the cultural mix, the music blaring out. Two doors down there was a music shop, playing Desmond Dekker. I’d be sitting on a chair propped up against our family’s shop front. Just a little fixture and fitting.

You did an amazing programme for Lives in a Landscape that I still think about, concerning a squatter who took over the Roman Way pub in Luton. How did it come about?
It started off as something completely different. The reason why we made it initially was because the pub was closing down. The couple that ran it were from Ireland and had been there for years, and we were following them in their last week. But then we met Biggs [the squatter] and it was obvious where we had to go. It’s happened a lot, where a programme starts off one thing and goes somewhere completely different. It reminds me of a Luis Buñuel film called The Phantom of Liberty, where you start with one character in a room, and the film will continue with another character, but we don’t know which. The idea that you can follow a story and you don’t know where it’s going to end up.

What do you think of Zoom?
I’m so glad you asked this question, because when I do online interviews, I always have the camera off. One of the things that I believed in right away was that the visuals distracted. And we only ever give first names. The significance of anonymity. It’s the microphone that matters. I’m making a programme about the microphone, actually. The thing about it is that it is the beating heart of everything we do. A guy called Tony Schwartz, a great sound person, he said to me: “An eye has an eyelid, where we can close our eyes. The microphone does not have ear lids. The microphone hears all.” Unless you physically switch it off, it’s picking up everything. I like that.

All episodes of Don’t Log Off are available on BBC Sounds. The last in the present series airs on Monday 30 May on Radio 4 at 11.30am

The Guardian