Vegan Life talks to BBC-trained radio producer Ian McDonald on his podcast ‘The Vegan Option’ about bringing veganism to the radio.
“Our lifetimes may turn out to be the biggest step forward for animal ethics for centuries. One day, someone will produce our history too.” So says Ian McDonald, BBC-trained radio producer and creator of The Vegan Option podcast. The presenter has created an ambitious new series called Vegetarianism: The Story So Far: (A Radio History), which is broadcast on award-winning station Resonance 104.4FM. The series looks at what he describes as the generation-by-generation struggle for animals’ right to life. It’s his most ambitious project to date.
“This is the biggest story I’ve ever done” says Ian. “Ours.”
Vegan Life sat down to chat to Ian about why he’s chosen to tell this story.
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal history with veganism, what inspired you to become vegan?
Like most teenagers, I questioned the values I was brought up with. I idled into vegetarianism because, mulling over various arguments ranging from Peter Singer and MK Gandhi, I decided I ought to give other animals the benefit of the doubt. My mother and her mother wasted no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of still eating dairy. None of us knew any vegans back then, so I think they hoped I would regain my lost consistency by going back to eating animals. They jokingly blamed each other for the result.
You create a podcast – could you outline what exactly that is, and why/how people can tune in?
‘Podcasts’ are a way of getting hold of radio programmes (usually) on your smartphone (or other device) for free, and as soon as they come out. The word is a portmanteau of ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’.
To listen you need a podcast app, such as ‘Pocket Cast’, ‘Stitcher’, or Apple’s own app just called ‘Podcasts’. There are useful links about particular apps in the ‘help’ menu of theveganoption.org. Use your app to search for the programmes that you are most interested in. A Broadcaster like the BBC will release its most popular speech radio shows as podcasts. And there are dozens of vegan podcasts (see veganfeed.com), ranging from community radio to friends chatting round a microphone. So you can be informed and entertained whilst (for example) commuting, doing chores, or exercising.
What is your podcast all about?
The Vegan Option is my attempt to do really interesting radio that just happens to be vegan. I’d take a topic and try to find the most expert and interesting guests – such as food scientists working on vegan cheese for the ‘cheese’ show, or the UK’s vegan MPs for a show about politics.
This season, Vegetarianism: The Story So Far, is the epic 15-part tale of people arguing that other animals do not exist for us to eat, starting in the bronze age, and bringing the story right up to the present.
Help from over 100 generous backers means I’ve been able to travel to interview experts, hire actors, and record atmosphere at some of the places the story unfolded – from the birthplace of organised western vegetarianism in northwest England, to the vegan commune in Massachusetts that inspired the novel Little Women, to the birthplace of Buddhism and Jainism in India. So it’s a really epic production.
Who is the project aimed at? Who would enjoy it?
If you like history programmes on radio or TV, or want to know where we come from as a movement, you’ll love this. It’s full of fascinating characters and amazing stories.
A project of such scale must involve huge amounts of research – where do you start with something like this? Is it overwhelming?
I started by reading the leading published histories of vegetarianism, like Rod Preece’s Sins of the Flesh. Then I got a British Library membership, and started digging through the references. I quickly discovered that not all claims checked out, and that some books are more rigorous than others. Alas, even in biographies of major historical figures like da Vinci, there was relatively little written on their animal ethics.
So there’s been a lot of digging. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the kind of primary research that casually quotes Sanskrit or Greek; and a great many subject specialists have been really helpful in explaining what some ancient text really means. Some vegetarians and vegans are very keen to read anything as opposing eating animals, when they might have been opposing, say, a particular ritual practice.
It’s been particularly fascinating to dig into two lost religious movements – the probably-vegetarian Âjîvikas of India and the vegan order of the ‘elect’ of the Manichaeans. But that’s been a big challenge, not just because there are fewer experts to interview about them, but because scriptures tend to die out with their believers.
But that’s getting a lot easier for me now, as the series moves past the eighteenth century – there are more sources, and more experts.
One side-effect is that I’m now used to ‘meat’ meaning any solid food (which is how people used the word up before the eighteenth century), and it rankles to hear the modern usage!
What kind of reaction have you had so far?
Folk have had some really lovely things to say about the series. There have been some positive iTunes reviews – ‘this is required listening for vegans. Just wonderful’ and ‘on par with BBC documentaries’ (which I don’t know is true, but was my goal, so is great to hear). And there’s been a bit of interest from vegan media.
Do you have plans for any other projects in the future?
I have a few ideas of how else I could present the research, without simply duplicating the books that have already been written. I also think we need a sampler vegan podcast that lets people hear the best of the various vegan podcasts, as well as mentions of veganism on more mainstream media, perhaps with different presenters taking turns. But I’m hoping someone else will do it so that I don’t have to.
Anything you’d like to add to that?
The show has brought home to me how important it is for us to remember our own history. The beginnings of organised veganism in the 1940s have passed out of living memory without all the pioneers recording their stories for posterity. These are the people who had to work out a vegan lifestyle in a world that barely understood vegetarianism. Knowing how much is missing from the historical record reminds me how important it is to record eyewitnesses to history, and to make sure our own records are kept safe.
And finally, how can people listen to your programme?
It’s broadcast on London’s award-winning radio art station Resonance 104.4FM at 5pm on the first Tuesday of every month (broadcasts started in February). But most readers will find it more easily as a podcast. Search for The Vegan Option in your app, or, if that doesn’t work, go to theveganoption.org and choose one of the links under ‘Get Free Shows’. To listen to the history of vegetarianism from the beginning, make sure you tell your app to download enough old shows to reach episode one.