When radio voices paint vivid pictures of far away places

Having often contributed to 'From Our Own Correspondent' prior to his kidnap, Alan Johnston explains why he's now delighted to present this World Service classic

A ny BBC foreign correspondent will tell you the same thing. In these days of rolling-news channels, when your story hits the headlines, the torrent of demands from London can almost sweep you away.

As you try to get out into the streets and see what's happening, the interview requests pour in: BBC News 24, World TV, World Service, Five Live. You scribble dispatches and try to stitch together telly and radio pieces as your manic day unfolds. In the frenzy, and under the pressure of time, it is sometimes difficult to do more than just put across the hard facts – the bare bones of the events that are changing the world around you.

But there is still one corner of the BBC where there is the space and time for much more. There is From Our Own Correspondent, or FOOC (pronounced "fook"), as we know it for short.

The programme asks for a straight dispatch over four clear minutes, which in our business feels like a lifetime. This is where you really get a chance to reflect and observe a little more, and try to bring alive the extraordinary place in which you find yourself. You get a chance to show the people who you meet there as more than the news stories that they inhabit – more than just refugees, or fighters, or politicians, or demonstrators. By exploring the backgrounds of their lives, their hopes and fears, their ways of seeing, and perhaps even the things they laugh at, you can make their world more vivid, more real.

A quick example. When an Israeli tank rolls down a Palestinian street, parked cars can often be completely crushed under its tracks. And I remember hearing of a few people in Nablus gathering quietly round an old Fiat that had just been flattened into a long strip of metal only a few inches high. Then the car's owner said, "Anyone got some jump leads? Perhaps it'll still start". That sort of black humour is part of the stuff of life in the West Bank, and in its way, it is significant. It helps people cope with the stress. As a correspondent, if you want to highlight this, then FOOC would be the place to do it.

Revealing the memorable, human detail is one of the programme's trademarks. In a Hugh Schofield piece, for example, we heard that France's now-retired last executioner keeps a replica guillotine on his mantelpiece. It is a small detail that says much about Fernand Meyssonnier's attitude to his work.

But perhaps more than anything, the programme is a bastion of good writing and strong storytelling that can conjure a sense of place. My colleague Allan Little captured all of that in a piece he wrote in Kinshasa as he awaited the fall of President Mobutu of Zaire: "We know the rebels are coming to take the city, and we know that when they descend it will be decisive and immediate, but we don't know how far away they are, or how imminent their strike.

We wait in the highly charged city, gripped by rumour and feverish counter-rumour, and we try to separate fact from fancy, legitimate, balanced concern from mounting paranoia. Everyone feels this. Mobutu's soldiers are behaving with more and more brutal abandon. I have seen this ready impulse to violence everywhere in this country; that single heart-stopping moment when a red-eyed, angry soldier holds you at gunpoint and you wait for his bitterness and fury to spill over into physical cruelty."

The personal nature of FOOC allows glimpses of the sometimes terrible emotional pressures of the job. Jim Muir lost his friend and cameraman Kaveh Golestan (pictured below) on a trip to northern Iraq when they strayed into a minefield. "Lives were changed and one ended in much less time than it takes to say these lines. My journey back to Teheran with Kaveh's remains was the saddest of my life," he wrote.

You feel that you can take a FOOC piece off in almost any direction, and as a result, the listener tuning in never knows quite what to expect. Perhaps that helps to explain why the programme has been one of the BBC's longest-running and most popular shows.

Like all correspondents, I loved the freedom that the programme offers. Writing FOOCs was always the best part of the job. In the hours after I was kidnapped in Gaza, as I struggled to stave off rising fear, and in a vain attempt to cheer myself up, I remember thinking, "At least there ought to be a decent FOOC in all this..."

When it was suggested, after my release, that I might become the presenter of the programme's World Service edition, I was delighted to accept. Perhaps the show will benefit from having a regular presenter, one who has both contributed to it and been a fan for many years, although the FOOC formula would be very hard to improve.

One of the programme's many admirers has written that, week after week, it proves that pictures painted in words on the radio can be more vivid than pictures on television. "The invention of radio would have been worthwhile," he wrote, "even if the only programme ever broadcast was From Our Own Correspondent."

Alan Johnston will be presenting 'From Our Own Correspondent' on the BBC World Service from Sunday 27 January, at 11am and 3pm

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Account Executive / Account Manager

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive / Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones