I’ve just been listening to Studio 360’s piece on the poetry of Mao Zedong. Raised some thoughts.

It started in the menu, where they played a clip of a Mao poem being read in English – by what sounded like a Chinese student. I guess I was pre-disposed to question the piece after it flagged itself as representing Mao with a young, weak voice.

The piece itself followed an item on how tyrants (their term), including Mao, ease themselves into the psyche through graphic and architectural art.

The first interviewee was an American expert on Mao – Willis Barnstone. I’d never heard of him so I was immediately interested in what he had to say. I was happy with that, and happy to hear a new voice on modern Chinese history, even if it’s one of which I have no contextual knowledge – a glance at his bio is well-impressive.

The next guest, though made me feel less comfortable, when she said Yan’an as if it rhymed with Yemen. I reverted to the old habit of doubting the authority of someone who pronounces the names wrong (a habit that was only slightly softened by how most Chinese Olympians were given names with “jeee” in them for much of August on British TV). It led me to question why both their specialists were Westerners. But with a bit of thought: if I were working on a US radio piece about modern Chines poetry, who would be my first port of call? Prof Heather Inwood at Ohio State University. Though at least I could be sure she’d get the pronunciation right.

The arguments for using a westerner could include how clearly the person will speak English. You have to balance that with the practicality of taking who you can get. That said, for a timeless arts piece, you have little excuse for not getting the best person who will speak to you. And then, perhaps the most significant point: the piece was re-versioned from a podcast. As a podcaster myself, I think that’s freaking awesome! But, should that be enough to excuse some weaknesses?

It’s maybe a bit harsh of me to say weaknesses. As an independent, producing for little or no money, arranging quality interviews is very tough – sometimes even a TBU is out of the question, and Skype is your only way of getting an interview. While I feel radio has to move away from phone audio where possible to strengthen itself in the age of diverse digital media, I also accept that there are practical difficulties for the individual.

Back to the point of using Western experts. If you’re an expert, you’re an expert. So it shouldn’t matter where you grew up. Where you grew up may mean your starting point is closer to that of the listener – so that would be an example of an American academic being better for Studio 360 than a PRC academic, for example.

Helping a listener see the PRC understanding may be very valuable, and may be very difficult – a level of difficulty that Radio Lab could take on, better than most, although it can be far less comfortable to talk about another race or culture than about science.

But you know, I could have been being sexist or agest too as the speaker was young and female. I’m not sure I’m equipped to examine that.

Now back to the young weak voice – indeed, Mao wrote poetry in his youth, and it is possibly a good challenge to our presuppositions to have him portrayed by an early-20s Chinese student in the US. That’s likely a fair comparison to who Mao was in his day.

So this has become more of an analysis, than a criticism: and I would hate to think the producers would be in any way put off by some guy writing stuff on his blog.

And a final note, I don’t actually know who read the poetry, how old he is or any of that. Though I know they could have gotten someone pretty good at London Chinese Radio ;-)

UPDATE, Sunday 5 October: With a bit more distance, I’ve been struck by the obvious point that this story comes from a poetry background, while I was hearing it from a Sinology background. If you work on a poetry podcast, and poetry is you field, of course you will find most of your experts from that field. And that’s media – it gets heard by people in all sort of different fields. And to be fair, I was listening to an arts programme, not a history or, um, China Studies programme.