Going radio gaga

The brief for the new series sounded simple: find six radio DJs from around the world to play their country's music. As Dan Shepherd recalls, it was anything but
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The Independent Culture

Six top radio DJs from different stations around the world will soon be broadcasting to 150 million people for a new series called Don't Touch That Dial. They're from a mixed bag of countries – Venezuela, France, Uganda, the USA, Hungary and Japan – and were given just one brief: to play 30 minutes of some of the best music, old and new, from their respective countries. No disrespect to that new flagbearer of "world music", Radio 3, but I wanted indigenous presenters, people on-the-ground with a thorough, diverse knowledge of the local music scene.

My job was to find these DJs and to travel to some of these countries to record their shows. "Shouldn't take you long," my editor in London announced at the project's outset. "Simple formula. It's just a DJ in a studio with a pile of records." He should know – he's spent over 30 years making music shows. And his stance might have been quite persuasive if only it had been a case of asking a Peel or a Kershaw into a Bush House studio for half an hour.

"Gregorio, why did you just drive straight through that red light?"

"Look, it's just not a very good idea to stop there... it's dangerous, y'know... some crazy people hang out there on that junction..."

We were in the middle of downtown Caracas, Venezuela. It's a city with one of the highest incidences of street crime in the world, where knives and guns are used with alacrity. Anything with four wheels seems to be a legitimate target. So are the people inside.

I felt safe though. I had faith in the man behind the wheel. Gregorio was more than familiar with the danger spots of Caracas. He was street-wise, he'd spent too many early mornings staggering home from live gigs, from parties, from music bars to feel threatened by what Caracas could throw at him.

Music is his lifeline, his saviour. Gregorio is an authentic "muso", a veritable Venezuelan music compendium. He can banter about the career of the country's greatest salsa singer, Oscar D'Leon. He'll tell you how during the late 19th century calypso music slowly infiltrated Venezuela's musical heritage from the Caribbean islands. From Afro-Venezuelan jazz to Venezuelan punk, he's a genuine aficionado.

He's also a radio DJ who happens to speak fluent English – perfect for the Venezuelan edition of my series.

We needed a bank to pay for the studio hire and technician after our recording session that evening. I had the necessary card, but ATMs in Caracas seemed not to give up their precious contents very easily. After trying numerous machines, I still had no cash. "Sorry," they all insisted. "This bank is unable to process your transaction."

As we drove to yet another ATM, Gregorio remarked "This is why I do not have a bank card here in Venezuela. I do not trust the banks." We arrived in front of another screen in the wall. "In fact," Gregorio continued, "I have heard some terrible stories from friends..." The machine began making encouraging whirring sounds, and the card reappeared, then a receipt stating the amount I'd requested...

But no cash came with it. Gregorio and I exchanged glances. "This is exactly what my friends say happens a lot in Caracas." He was staring blankly at the machine.

The Andean gods appeared to be in a similarly frivolous mood when we arrived at the radio studio. Ushered in to the office of the station's director of programming, we were informed: "Bad news I'm afraid – our computer's kaput. We're on a back-up system at the moment, and the studio you've booked is already being used. I'm really very sorry..." His announcement procured expletives and sweat from me, and a nonchalant shrug from Gregorio.

My flight out of Venezuela left the next morning. The show had to be recorded that evening. It was only Gregorio's diligent efforts that found us another studio elsewhere in town. We were still recording two hours before I had to leave for the airport.

In time, of course, such misadventures simply become the stuff of half-smiles over the dinner table. But the journey to record such programmes "in the field" is merely the culmination of countless calls and e-mails, of protracted "setting up" time, trying to second guess every eventuality that could go wrong. Be prepared for the worst, and still some things will be way beyond your control.

For the African edition of Don't Touch That Dial I had found two young DJs, Chris and Angie. Very much part of the recent FM explosion in the Ugandan capital Kampala, they were typically Westernised in their musical preferences. But for this programme they'd selected a handful of storming tunes from around the African continent.

In a phone call from London, I'd enquired about the state of the studio we were to record in. I was told it had just been constructed, and that the equipment we'd be using was top of the range. Everything was going to be "very fine".

On the day of our recording session, I thought it sensible to turn up to the studio a little early. I was impressed. All systems were looking good. The engineer and I checked the mics, the desk, the recording equipment, and my two young DJs arrived on time and were all set.

Then the power went.

The engineer appeared unfazed. "Don't worry, it's just load shedding," he explained. That's the official term for the daily power cut in Kampala that occurs around that time of day. It's not a problem for most people – they simply switch on their generators. Thankfully, the radio station's generator, situated in the courtyard, had come on.

As the studio equipment started to glow once again, I realised something was awry. I could hear an odd sound that hadn't been there before. I couldn't immediately ascertain its source, but soon realised; it was the hum of the station generator... inside the studio. The process of sound-proofing the studio clearly hadn't quite been completed.

Recording was now an impossibility. The technician was unable to do anything. I was finding it hard to concentrate on what to do next, my sense of impotence amplified by the faint din of the generator as it seeped into the studio. Worse still, I looked through the glass – both my DJs had disappeared.

The studio door then opened and Chris strolled back in, putting away his mobile phone. "Problem solved. One of the bosses at the Electricity Board is a friend of my mother. I told him we were recording a programme for the BBC, and that the producer has to fly out tomorrow..."

And as the street lights began to flicker again over the whole of Kampala, the recording of the show could at last begin.

So when you tune in to Don't Touch That Dial over the next six weeks to hear "just a DJ and a pile of records", please remember – there's more there than meets the ear.

'DTTD' can be heard at various times on the BBC World Service on 648MW starting 18 February, and on Radio 4 FM at 01.30 from Tuesday 19 February