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The week in audio: Sonic Fields; Buried: The Last Witness; The Vaping Wars – review
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The week in audio: Sonic Fields; Buried: The Last Witness; The Vaping Wars – review

Sonic Fields | Apple Podcasts
Buried: The Last Witness | BBC Sounds
Backfired: The Vaping Wars | Audible

Here’s a lovely series for a Glastonbury weekend: Sonic Fields, an intimate, welcoming set of shows about the history of UK festivals. It’s made by the independent podcast maker Sam Tyler, who made the endearing There Are No Greater Heroes five-parter about the obscure psych-folk trio Tony, Caro and John. I loved it, and I love this series, too.

Tyler takes a personal as well as an inquiring approach. In the first episode, he talks to his mum, who went to Glastonbury and the Elephant Fayre in the 1980s, when it still had a strong element of the “free festival” crowd, and there were people just wandering around festival sites, shouting out the drugs they had for sale (I remember this, too). “It was alternative in a way it isn’t now,” she recalled, pointing out that festivals are entirely mainstream today, which is one of the reasons why the tickets are so expensive.

In the second show, Tyler gets the story of the original Isle of Wight festivals from people who were there, and from Ray Foulk, one of the organisers. We hear how Foulk got Bob Dylan to play in 1969, even though Dylan wouldn’t play Woodstock; plus the inside story of the notorious 1970 IoW festival, which attracted a crowd of around 700,000 people. The third episode, about festivals from 1972 to 1985, came out on Thursday and is centred around Stonehenge, where a legendary free music festival was held in 1974.

It’s all beautifully done: Tyler gets something special out of his interviewees, simply because he’s gentle as well as curious. He’s expanded his use of sound in this series, layering bird song and atmosphere to gorgeous effect. And I like his idea of using the seasons to anchor the episodes: episodes 1 and 2 are Winter, and came out a little while ago, last week’s and next week’s episodes are Spring. Then there’ll be a break before the Summer and Autumn shows are released in August. The shows are themed around the seasons because, as he points out, the old festivals used to be themed similarly, with great emphasis on the solstices. So put aside your capitalist breadhead cynicism and join Tyler in exploring what festivals are all about. Get your mind boggled.

Also mind-boggling, but for different reasons, are two investigative shows that launched last week. The first, Buried: The Last Witness, drip-releasing in 15-minute episodes on Radio 4 after World at One, but also bingeable on Sounds, is completely terrifying though it involves no ghosts, poltergeists or anything spooky. Instead, it has the BBC’s Buried investigative team of Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor taking a look at some toxic waste-dumping, specifically PCBs in Wales (PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls – are used for paint or to make things fire-resistant).

Douglas Gowan, photographed in 2017View image in fullscreen

Monsanto is the company that made the PCBs there in the 1970s, though it always insisted that it disposed of waste products properly. Turns out, it didn’t. Ashby and Taylor are given all the files of a man named Douglas Gowan, who’s now dead. Gowan spent much of his adult life pulling together evidence that: a) PCBs can be transferred to humans via the food chain; and b) Monsanto was dumping too much of the stuff in Wales. An unusual character, described by Ashby as “a blue-blood high-society Tory and a trained lawyer who could out-Mozart anyone”, Gowan also gave a seven-hour taped interview about everything that he knew before he died. And who did he give that interview to? Of all people, the actor Michael Sheen.

So Sheen pops in and out of this series, too, and is with Ashby near a toxic reservoir when a posh local comes up and asks them what they’re doing. When they tell him, the local says: oh, yes, I think you’re right re the toxic waste but we keep it quiet because we don’t want it to affect the house prices. British people are mad!

There is so much that is terrifying about this series, but it’s when Ashby and Taylor get proper scientists involved that you really start to feel sick. The scientists test the soil at various places for banned chemicals and take a reading that is the highest they’ve ever found in the world. That’s how much of a scandal this is. Listen, and try to stop yourself panicking…

Designed to appeal: colourful packets of disposable vapes on sale below children’s sweets.View image in fullscreen

The other investigative series is also about something many of us would also consider entirely toxic: vapes. Backfired: The Vaping Wars sees two US journalists – one who vapes, one who doesn’t – trace the origins of these plastic nicotine delivery systems, and it, too, is quite scary. It’s also enraging: Juul, one of the most popular early vapes, was designed by two Stanford product design graduates, the type that come out of their degree and look for “high value” “angel investors”. They say, from the start, that they’re trying to make a cleaner, more socially acceptable version of a cigarette, and keep repeating that they want to help people stop smoking.

But it’s hard to believe this when they pivot, for a while, to a version that means that people can smoke weed more easily (a “compromise that they were willing to make in order to keep the company afloat”). And it’s even harder when they find out, very early on, that ex-cigarette smokers can get even more addicted to vapes. This is an extremely interesting series, scrupulously investigated and presented by Leon Neyfakh and Arielle Pardes. It’s hard to find a single likable person in it, especially when people are given thumbnail descriptions such as “the kind of person who religiously attended Burning Man and spent his vacations surfing in Bali” or the office is described as a place where everyone had “a habit of dressing up in suits and ties on Fridays since every other day people wore T-shirts and jeans”. Hmm. Never trust a corporate hippy.

Source: theguardian.com