The Week in Radio: We get the message

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE pastime that's more interesting than listening to your own telephone messages is listening to other people's. Usually this pleasure is confined to rare occasions, for example when you accidentally press the message button while baby-sitting for a friend, and more likely than not you feel guilty afterwards for having trespassed on their privacy.

How nice, then, to hear someone else's messages being broadcast on the wireless. Portraits in Absentia (Radio 3, Saturday) was Jocelyn Pook's contribution to the Between the Ears series, and in the search for entertaining radio she couldn't have done better. The formula was simple: Ms Pook left her answering machine switched on indefinitely, and recorded her friends and relatives' increasingly frustrated messages as they tried to make contact. Then she edited the result into a series of loops and turned it into music.

"I've got a brand new cat-flap that I don't want if you want it," announced a woman called Sarah, "and more importantly I've got a new Greek girlfriend". This startling information was interwoven with the meanderings of Parvin Cox, a Persian buddy who always sings her greetings into the phone. Very handy for someone who is making a programme about answering machines. Then there was the motherly voice pleading gently and repeatedly for Jocelyn to give her a call sometime, "when you've got a mo".

Oh yes, and there was also Trevor. Trevor was apparently travelling round the world, and every time he arrived somewhere interesting he insisted on giving Joss a call. Now, Trevor would probably be a thoroughly agreeable bloke if you met him down the pub, but there was something grating about his enthusiastic appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon and a beach in Australia. "I've spent the day surfing on 6ft boomers!" he bragged insufferably, although, to be fair, he didn't know there were a million people listening.

The potential of the human voice was pursued to its logical conclusion in an accompanying item entitled Grosse Fuge (Radio 3, Saturday). This time the subjects were the great speech-makers of the 20th century, and the theme was not what they said but how they said it. We heard John F Kennedy numbering his demands during the Cuban missile crisis, but the details were lost as Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the light that persists in the midst of darkness. Ronald Reagan seemed to be shouted down by Martin Luther King, who in turned succumbed to the gruff tones of Adolf Hitler. Brian Keenan was there, and Nelson Mandela, as well as Sir Winston Churchill assuring the British that, "while we toil through the dark valley we can see the sunlight on the uplands beyond". All very inspiring stuff, the kind of thing you could tape from the radio and distribute privately among any liberal-Nazi friends you may have.

J Edgar Hoover's idea of sunlit uplands was a Communist-free America, and The Afternoon Play - Red Scare (Friday, Radio 4) began a four-part dramatisation of his life. Whether the stammering young FBI man really discussed international socialism each night with his mother over tea cannot be proved, but William Hootkins' portrayal of Hoover was still effective, as were his circumlocutory verbal duels with Patrick Allen as Louis Post. Are you, or have you ever been, listening?