Radio presenter Alan Dein opens our conversation by asking: “So where are you and what are you doing?” I wonder if I should remind him that it is me who should be asking the questions. But then Dein, who fronts Radio 4’s Don’t Log Off, does it so nicely that I’m tempted to let him continue.
The show is what Dein calls a “concept in random communication”. More prosaically, he spends hours contacting strangers all over the world for a chat via Skype. The results are captivating.
Each episode has sections from different calls meshed together. Gunshots on a Cairo street are followed by a nervous young French woman about to see her estranged father. Another of his new found friends is Daria, a severly disabled interpreter from Ukraine.
“She was the sole breadwinner in her family, despite being considered almost a worthless member, tragically, of society. She was a very dynamic person and, of course, the internet has been a godsend. She manages to have a job as an interpreter while never leaving her bedroom.”
The programme has its roots in a 2007 show, Don’t Hang Up, in which Dein and a colleague rang pay phones in the hope of someone picking up the receiver. A reworking of the show for the social media age, Don’t Log Off is now in its third series.
Dein says he often thinks of those from previous episodes. “We had Jennifer in Nova Scotia who was in two programmes. She was a single mum with three children, struggling with living in a place she wasn’t happy in. She had three exes — one was in prison, two were no longer on the radar. She was looking towards meeting someone on the internet but she was also very wary of other men. I do wonder ‘How is Jennifer now? Has she moved? How are her children?’ They were having problems at school.”
The latest episode features a single subject, Jenny from the Australian outback, who pours out her painful story over 30 minutes. As Dein puts it: “I suspect most of the conversations may be different to the kind of conversations they are having with other people. I’d like to think that it is a form of therapy, but going back to the old Maureen Lipman BT advert, it is just good to talk.”
Married with three children, Dein grew up in Hendon and now lives in Temple Fortune. It was his early work for the Jewish Museum that led to an interest in oral history turning into a profession. The 51-year-old explains that even after many years as an oral historian, people can still surprise him — and cites Israeli Druze Rami as an example.
“I didn’t realise the Druze, who are Arabic, are in the Israeli army. Rami spoke about one of his friends from his village who died in combat and how the Druze believe in the afterlife, that your soul will live on in another person. It was very spiritual.”
Above all the show has reinforced one belief: “Everyone has a story.”