France, multiculturalism, and the radio…

…these are three of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Lately I seem to be to be learning even more about the places I travelled to last year by just being here in Sydney. During a cigarette break last week, I had an in-depth and funny two hour conversation with a visiting Parisian (he actively smoked, I passively). The conversation was the highlight of my week and I found myself repeating the main points of what we talked about to a lot of people afterwards. In our frank discussion he provided me with the kind of access to French culture that was impossible for me to have by being a random foreigner in Paris doing mostly foreigner things last year. In exchange, I gave him a slant on Sydney life that he would not have heard from anyone else he met that week.

The person I spoke to was a man named Silvain, who runs an internet-based radio station in Paris. It’s not just any radio station though; ARTE Radio is government-funded and tackles a wide range of topics of interest in France – politics, education, sex etc. It sits on the artistic end of the radio spectrum and has a particular aesthetic – no experts, just voices telling stories. Also occasional soundscapes, like this short piece that was a cheeky response to the introduction of smoking restrictions in public spaces in France: Fumée Clandestine.

The reason why Silvain and I started talking was that I was really interested in finding out how they handled multiculturalism on ARTE – did they have a lot of programs that directly dealt with French multiculturalism? Absolutely. In fact, representation was core to their mission. He managed a wide range of radio producers from diverse backgrounds who found the kind of stories that a lot of the mainstream media wouldn’t even go near. And for their efforts they have won some of the most prestigious radio awards in the world. Actually, I heard one of the winning documentaries last year, Who Killed Lolita?, following along to the French program with an English language translation of the script. The radio doco explores the mysterious death of a woman in Marseilles, living in the heart of an immigrant community.

It was so helpful hearing his take on things because my impression from spending time in France is that even though it’s incredibly culturally diverse, it’s also really struggling with multiculturalism. Just like many places in Europe, France’s old culture had stiffened up in response to the influx of new culture. But from what Silvain said, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and I was glad to hear it.

Delicious Ethiopian food in multicultural Belleville in Paris
Delicious Ethiopian food in multicultural Belleville in Paris

We talked about how Europe often focused on the failures of multiculturalism and didn’t talk enough about how often it has worked in spite of itself; how there was now a concept of French Culture that was in many ways an artificial construct (like how here there’s this idea of the 1950s being this golden age of Australian culture); and we also talked about many painful truths that aren’t usually explored for fear of causing greater disharmony in society.

Our conversation gave me a lot to think about, especially as race relations has taken up a lot of my headspace this year. I’ve become very self-conscious of my minority status since coming to work in a large organisation with limited cultural diversity – at least, compared to many other places I’ve worked.

But the cultural diversity issue aside, because of my job, I’m making all kinds of awesome connections with people in the creative industries. In particular, I’ve met and seen an awful lot of radio stars. As it turns out, video didn’t kill them after all.

Silvain was out here for a work-hosted conference. Another radio star who came out last week was Francesca Panetta from The Guardian, who is also an independent sound artist and radio producer. Her work explores a whole new world of audio via mobile phones. Earlier this year I saw Ira Glass from This American Life speak at Sydney Town Hall, and attended a workshop by Davina Nelson from The Kitchen Sisters. I’ve loved everything I’ve learned about the world of radio so far…even though I don’t think it’s necessarily my path in life.

Though having just said that…I’m currently finalising my short radio play that is being performed at the Sydney Fringe Festival in two weeks. I’ve been back in Sydney exactly a year now and if you told me last September that in 12 months’ time I would have a radio play being performed by professional actors in front of an audience, I would have found it hard to believe you.

While I was living away from Sydney in Thailand, I somehow started to fantasise about writing a radio play, even though I didn’t know the first thing about writing one. I even seriously looked into interning with the BBC’s radio drama department in London to learn more about the craft. Six months ago I heard about a free radio playwriting course and decided to enrol for fun with a friend. And now it’s all come together for two performances – the first performance in front of an audience, the second performance in front of an audience and going straight to air on community radio. Life’s full of surprising twists.

Hearing Voices at Sydney Fringe Festival
Hearing Voices at Sydney Fringe Festival
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