The recent death of Studs Terkel, whose show on WFMT in Chicago ran for nearly half a century, has left a great big gap in the world of oral history on the radio. But the discipline is thriving as long as Alan Dein plies his trade.
For the past 20 years, Dein has been truffling out the hidden narratives of everyday life; in his regular Radio 4 slot Don't Hang Up, he rings public phone boxes at random and then draws out stories from whomever answers. Monday's episode of his latest project, Lives in a Landscape, saw him exploring a street of industrial units on the somewhat desolate edge of Birmingham's city centre.
From the zen-like Derek alone with his classical music at Precision Component Blasting, to the workaholic Roger running the bustling family firm, Clifton Steel, and Adam and Rashid doing their stuff at Dragon Window Tints – "sunglasses for cars" – this is where British industry has gone into hiding. New money is there, too, in the shape of Armadillo PR, where a brainstorming session is in progress. In Dein's brief sound collage, phrases hang in the air like the steam from a Gaggia: "expertise that could fit in ... a whole new world, a whole new life ... the whole issue around the shopping experience...".
Though the programme has an elegiac feel, it's slightly deceptive: only Derek is nearing the end of the line. As well as blast-cleaning he does repairs, but no one is interested any more. These days, if something breaks, get a new one. Still, as Adam (disconcertingly, a vocal dead ringer for Ringo Starr) says, "You've got to put the past in the past and move on."
In the evening the nocturnal creatures move in, and from their rehearsal room above Derek's workshop, local band Copter's soul-funk-rock weaves in and out of the hymns drifting up from the Celestial Church of Christ. Roger closes up. Derek shuffles off home on his dodgy knees. Adam and Rashid end another day of tinted windscreens and all-round ride-pimping.
There's more to window-tinting than you might imagine. A man once came in having done a DIY job. "People could see in; he couldn't see out," says Rashid. "Turns out he's put the film on the wrong way round. I was in stitches."