On social media, I saw someone had linked to the ‘Desperately Seeking Sperm’ episode of the BBC Radio 4 series, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, and thought I would listen again. Not only was I reminded of just how unsettling and creepy the unliscensed sperm donor community seems to be (what a surprise!), but also what an interesting series of programmes ‘Out of the Ordinary’ is.
Being me, a binge-listener who listens while I work, I went back and listened to the three series of the programme again. It’s not quite as involved as that makes it sound – there are just two episodes in each series, each running at half an hour. They are all available to listen to again, via BBC Iplayer Radio.
In each episode, Jolyon Jenkins investigates a group of people, made distinct by a specific interest or concern, that is often dominating their life. It is could be a problem that they find themselves consumed by, such as hair loss or an inability to chat up women. It could be a role or ability that feels attractive or powerful, such as fathering large numbers of children through illegal sperm donation, healing by prayer, speaking to the dead, or the worrying desire to ‘hack their brain’ and increase its capabilities through electric shocks.
While these communities and experiences feel as if they could be a list of ideas from an overblown, sensationalist, late night tabloid TV programme, somehow Jenkins manages to avoid this, treating the subjects gently, and deftly, and sometimes, as with the hair loss and Pick Up Artist programmes, getting a little involved himself.
It’s very much a programme of Jenkins’ singular voice. He talks you through the introduction of the subject, interspersed with clips of interviewees and his own voice-over thoughts about them. His focus is largely on male groups, and his calm questioning rapport creates some powerful moments, from a sperm donor revealing he has children living just streets from each other, to the brain hacking experimenter who refuses to experiment on himself.
I recommend ‘Out of the Ordinary’, as a very traditional documentary radio programme, produced with a deftness of touch and clear voice. As well as the scary sperm episode (every radio programme should have one!), I found the episode about Aspergers Syndrome and the difficulty, challenges and interest of diagnosis, and about managing digital legacies particularly interesting.