Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Podcast review: Patient Zero, ABC Radio National (2020)

This is the second in a new collection of posts; about podcasts (I’ve been listening to them in my new RAV4 Hybrid, so expect more such articles on the blog).

Evidently inspired by the onset of COVID-19, producers and journalists at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation decided to assemble a four-part series about a number of different infectious diseases.

The scope of this fascinating Radio National series is thus wider than just Covid, including episodes on HIV/AIDS as well as the case of a cluster of organ transplant recipients who died of a disease that had never before been described. There’s also a brilliant expose of the United nations’ contribution to a cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

This is solid and entertaining reporting and you stay engaged throughout. And though it comes recommended by me I was a bit annoyed at its brevity. It seemed to me that the makers had used Covid as a capsule into which they could pour other, similar types of phenomena, and I wondered how many other fascinating stories of disease might not’ve sprung up if they’d have spent a bit more time scheduling investigations. 

This kind of journalism obviously takes time and time is money. You have to brainstorm in meetings, do background research, find interview subjects, organise interviews at times suitable to both the subject and the journalist, transcribe interviews and edit them along with narration into a coherent whole, and make sure the legal side of things is watertight – all of this (and more) before you publish. Doing this kind of work is both exhausting and exhilarating, and so the emotions go up and down on a rollercoaster.

A listener is rewarded by persistence and I was therefore disappointed that Radio National appears to have chucked in a few stray ideas to complement Covid, and called it a series of podcasts.

The episode about HIV/AIDS was especially riveting, calling as it did for interviews with people, sometimes, who were investigating illness as far back as the 1980s. And while – for reasons outlined above – the series structure is a bit wobbly the gear that is set up within each episode is sound, and adequately supports the endeavour: to deliver a rich assembly of data to a complete novice in a period of about 30 minutes.

The Haiti episode, which involved talking at length to an investigative journalist, you get to meet a breed of knowledge worker who sometimes risks his or her life merely by going off in pursuit of a good story. A profound aspiration to be the first person to break news to a community with whom he or she shares values drives many such journalists and this part of the job can be, in itself, intriguing to the layperson. ‘Patient Zero’ succeeds in layering this facet of the subject over the question of the disease’s origins and Jonathan Katz, an American on the ground in Haiti in 2010, who Radio National talked with for their series, offers a glimpse into the life of such a person. You get to feel the excitement as well as the anxiety that forms part of his work.

This is compelling journalism. Pleasures are everywhere in this series and it’s a let-down when you perfunctorily get to the end of it and realise that the experience with Radio National is over and you’ll have to go and seek out other sources of entertainment while driving your car in horrendous Sydney traffic. It’s as though, worrying that they might’ve produced something that wouldn’t deliver the figures – in terms of downloads – they hoped for, they’d cut their losses with the Covid episode (there’s no indication anywhere, however, which ep follows which, in terms of the actual work done) and run away from the project before they could be accused of wasting resources. Like Oliver Twist, I wanted more.

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