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Pearl Diving with radio maker Stef Visjager - Pearl Radio is the Canon of the Lower Belgium podcast

We are approaching episode 200 of Pearl Radio, a series of audio material that matters. Face of the cultural podcast is independent radio producer Stefanie Visjager. Diving into listening archives, interviewing creators and carrying the audience along in calm narrator's voice are all part of her remit. Since the birth of the term podcast In a Guardian article from 2004, things are running out of steam with online audio. By 2022, there are expected to be 125 million regular podcast listeners worldwide. That makes Pearl - with its promise of reviving valuable radio plays and radio programmes, relevant. It is a canon-like signpost. "A haven where beautiful documentaries come together," Visjager said.

Weird American outgrowth

The podcast success formula in a nutshell according to Visjager: "They open up worlds I didn't know about and I'm totally taken in, which makes me understand the world a little better". Visjager started Pearl Radio because NPO "didn't do podcasts". That was some kind of "weird outgrowth from America that would never come here". Besides, too much hassle. Being an experienced radio play and documentary maker herself, this frustrated her quite a bit. After all, always putting your soul into a project that is only seen once, there must be another way, right?

After years of begging and hand-holding ("within twenty-four hours I'll have a podcast"; "I want to do it for free"), NPO let her off the hook in 2015. Then Pearl suddenly became one of the biggest podcasts in the Netherlands, the legal department also woke up. Because surely you can't just do that, post someone else's programmes? That turned out to be a matter of formality.

A lot comes from independent makers like the Correspondent or a VRT (right, that's Belgium). "Take the guys from Lub Tropiana. They don't belong to anyone, they belong to themselves and both just work at a bank." According to Visjager, those kinds of Radio makers are quite often surprised: can we participate too?

No chat radio

The selected Lower Belgium radio documentaries go beyond the average cast. They really screw with your world view. "Chatter radio, I don't like that. Two guests with a microphone and then just babble," says Visjager. Exceptions aside. Pearl #147 Can you stop by is basically two people talking, but strongly narrative and excitingly constructed. In Pearl #165 The Birdspotcast two childhood friends go chatting in search of birds, but the bluethroat suddenly fascinates immensely. Before you know it, you are two hours on and googling the white-cheeked tern. "You hear the sound from outside, how funny they are, and are they going to find that bird now?"

A similar atmosphere is created by the Forestry Commission with Green Ears. In it, Chris Bajema interviews animals such as the fragile gentian bluebird (Lies Visschedijk) and the arrogant sand lizard (Leopold Witte) - and in it, Chris Bajema interviews animals such as the fragile gentian bluebird (Lies Visschedijk) and the arrogant sand lizard (Leopold Witte) -. Pearl #150. Incredibly dry, but informative, hilarious, slightly philosophical, again good radio. According to Visjager, this is different from "nattering away in a studio: What did that Dutch celebrity say this week?"

Drama and senses

What are Fish Hunter's own gems? Pearl #19 about the Omerovic family has been remembered. Family flees from Bosnia to the Netherlands. They don't want one thing: support from the government. Doing everything themselves. "Aren't they stubborn? Should you do this to your children? Will they go back?" questions from Visjager himself. They have to be up at four o'clock to earn extra money in the meat factory, live in a bad neighbourhood, but they manage. It is the authorities who do not know their way around, a family unwilling to accept help. "A story like this provides an opening to feel drama that you are normally far away from. Facets of our society that I think: everyone should know this, because then you understand our country and the world better."

Also Pearl #59 Strong is such a story. Well-known Dutch athlete scores gold, shines, and then suddenly he's gone. Nobody knows where he is. The maker investigates, ends up with his childhood. Mother mentally ill, neglects her children. The newspaper would say: this happened, why, what time, when? Such a cast doesn't 'say' anything at all. It starts with some sounds, the creator releases the first details. These were the colours in the sky and this is how the house smelt. A second character walks in. Only then come those questions. Where has the strongest man in the Netherlands gone and what on earth has he done with...? You hear the answer only after 45 minutes of continuous suspense. Handsome radio work. And in Pearl you will find only such stories, according to Visjager.

Timeless listening

Audio from the past prompts reflection on relevance. Pearl Radio casts are "independent of time". #156 The urban astronaut, a travelogue of a do-it-yourself spaceman in search of future prospects, takes this very literally. The assignment: think a bit more often in the 'long time', like a tree outliving man. With such an astronaut's view, you won't see a 24-hour economy, but unity, and then we can finally solve the climate crisis.

In a cultural sector ruled by clickbait and SEO, the ingredients of the successful podcast are still conservative: depth and understanding. "They are often tragic stories. As in #170 From Two Sides, in which a great love is transcended by a ditto gambling addiction. You suddenly really understand that someone has done something," says Visjager, "you start asking all these questions: how can we fix this, how can society let this happen?"

Learning from the stories of strangers is timeless. NPO can prove it, because every gem - not just the latest, is listened to more or less equally often. A competitive atmosphere even develops around the listening rate, according to Visjager: "I sometimes get emails saying 'I started two months ago and now I'm already at 100'."

More intimate than the docu

In terms of connecting with the listener, the podcast is also unique. "He or she is telling this especially for me". When Visjager only made documentaries, she never heard anything. Since Pearl she gets letters from listeners "that suddenly lying awake at night is no longer a problem, or that an excerpt has provided comfort".

That has implications for a host's behaviour, Visjager knows. "When I present something for radio I talk differently than in a podcast. There is more room for intimacy there. Why I like it, what I have doubts about." According to her, you don't have to like everything either. But sometimes you have to persevere. "I prefer to only like things that I think are 100% genius, but sometimes a piece is not as good and something brilliant comes later." That follow-through with the listener apparently creates a kind of Cast Away feeling. Stranded together on a deserted story island. A leap of faith in search of a pearl.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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