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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Miranda Sawyer

The week in audio: Gangster: The Story of the Burger Bar Boys; Kids of Rutherford County; Hits Radio Breakfast with AI Fleur East – review

Cheryl Shaw, Charlene Ellis, Sophie Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare standing together by a nightclub crash barrier in white furry jackets.
From left: Cheryl Shaw, 17, twins Charlene Ellis and Sophie Ellis, 18, and Letisha Shakespeare, 17, who were attending a New Year’s Eve party in Birmingham at which Charlene and Letisha were killed in a drive-by shooting in 2003. Photograph: PA

Gangster: The Story of the Burger Bar Boys (BBC Radio 5 Live) | (BBC Sounds)
The Kids of Rutherford County Serial Productions/New York Times
The Hits Radio Breakfast With AI Fleur East, James & Matt |

Gangster- The Story of the Burger Bar Boysg copy

Last week saw the start of the fourth series of Gangster, a successful podcast strand from Radio 5 Live. Thus far, Gangster has covered the stories of drug baron Curtis Warren, Brink’s-Mat criminal John Palmer and the randomness of the US death penalty. It’s a popular podcast: people who drive for a living are fond of it, judging by the amount of times taxi drivers have recommended it to me. It mixes the investigative rigour of the BBC with a to-the-point presenting style. It has zip and heft.

Gangster: The Story of the Burger Bar Boys is the new series, so we know what it’s about: the shocking and widely covered drive-by murders of two young women – Letisha Shakespeare, 17, and best friend Charlene Ellis, 18 – outside a New Year’s Eve party in 2003 in Aston, Birmingham. In later episodes we’ll hear from Charlene’s twin sister, Sophie, who was at the party too, and was shot but survived. But the podcast doesn’t begin with the deaths. It winds back to the Windrush generation and life for black people in Brum from the 1950s to the 90s. It’s nicely done: there’s interviews with people such as Basil Gabbidon, a founder member of Steel Pulse, and the descriptions of blues parties, the police’s excessive use of stop and search and the Handsworth riots are very vivid. Still, this is a familiar story. (Though perhaps that’s the point, right?)

By the end of the first episode, two rival sort-of gangs have been established: the Johnson Crew and the Burger Bar Boys, both named after the cafes they hung out in. Much of what they were up to was petty stuff: street robberies, stealing car stereos. It’s the arrival of the Jamaican Yardies in the late 80s that changes things, and in episode two, we hear how. They bring guns, crack cocaine and a scary nihilism. A local, Mikey, stands on a Yardie’s foot while dancing in a club: the Yardie sees Mikey outside the club and shoots him, without preamble or discussion.

Reporter-presenter Livvy Haydock, who is excellent, interviews a police officer who took on the Yardies in Jamaica and who liaised with police in the UK. This UK-Jamaica collaboration, along with Operation Trident, which aimed to tackle gun crime in black communities, eventually led to the Yardies’ retreat from Birmingham. But they left a lot of drug addicts behind, and the Johnsons and the Burger Bar Boys had an established crack operation to fight over.

Lack of investment, inconsistent policing, no support for young people, plus guns and drugs… as I say, we know this story well. There’s a saddening inevitability to it. But the voices of those involved are likable and engaging, and they lift The Story of the Burger Bar Boys far above the usual gangster cliches. Recommended.

Graphic for the podcast featuring monochrome photographs of adolescents.

Another good podcast that I initially found difficult is The Kids of Rutherford County, from Serial Productions. Two offputting factors: first, the Serial presentation style, right down to presenter Meribah Knight’s vocal fry and the show’s heavy use of music; and second, the story. It’s not a particularly terrifying tale (no murders, no sexual violence), but at first I just couldn’t bear it. In Rutherford County, Tennessee, near Nashville, in 2016, there’s a trivial fight among little children (one eight years old, one about five or six) that is captured on video by other children around them and put online. The local police decide to arrest 11 children – those who were around the fight, but not actually fighting – and take them to juvenile detention to be charged. These aren’t teenagers: these are eight-year-olds, 10-year-olds. Mistakes are made with identification: some weren’t even at the fight, but were removed from their schools in handcuffs. Four boys (two 10-year-olds, an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old) are kept in overnight, in cells alone. God, the US is scary.

Luckily for wimpy me, the story opens out from the individual tales of these children to the system that was putting them away for trivial offences such as stealing a football jersey, for pulling hair. Knight meets two lawyers, Wes Clark and Mark Downton, who represent children in court. They try using legal arguments to stop this awful – and illegal – detention of kids, but the chief judge, then the queen bee of the county’s juvenile system, won’t have it. So, after a child is put in solitary confinement, they decide to take her to court.

As you’d expect from Serial with the New York Times, this is proper investigative reporting, and I’m glad I persevered. Great pacing, excellent interviews and a real cause: anyone can get over an over-Serialised presentation style for that.

Fleur East.
The real Fleur East. Getty Images Photograph: Dave Benett/Alan Chapman/Getty Images

Serial is, of course, easy to imitate; there’s been enough spoof skits to prove it. And on Tuesday, for Halloween, Hits Radio Breakfast conducted a different imitation experiment – replacing regular presenter, the firecracker that is Fleur East, with an AI version. AI Fleur sounded pretty good, for the most part: her voice was spot-on, and she managed to get through all the different hosting jobs, back-announcing tracks, judging listeners’ jokes. Regular co-hosts James and Matt provided cynical asides. Listeners were bemused – AI Fleur really did sound real – but, after a while, the difference became clear. AI Fleur only had one mode of speaking, one sparky but not wild gear that never altered. The real Fleur is far warmer, more off-the-cuff, less scripted, more varied and tons more charismatic. I missed her laugh. So far: irreplaceable.

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