Why we’re telling the story of Birmingham’s Smallpox outbreak, 40 years on

Today, BirminghamLive has revealed its most ambitious digital storytelling project yet, marking the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of Smallpox in the city. Andy Richards, the journalist who has spent three years pulling the project together, writes here on why he’s done it and what he’s learnt along the way:

Andy Richards

The story of the 1978 smallpox outbreak in Birmingham has been told before.

With the 40th anniversary in mind, the challenge was to try to turn up something different while telling it again in a fresh way to a new and hopefully wider audience.

The basic ingredients have always been there; Janet Parker, the last person in the world to die from the disease, the unresolved mystery of how she caught it and the suicide tragedy of the boss of the university research lab from which the virus escaped.

So we set ourselves a challenge — a podcast in which we would ask those caught up in the drama to tell their stories and see where this led us.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker is largely composed of their recollections. Many are speaking for the first time.

Inquiries took us as far afield as the USA and Australia and we can now present the most plausible reason yet for how Mrs Parker caught the disease.

There are several surprising and disturbing revelations as the podcast series unfolds but there is some humour in them, too.

Realising the potential calibre of the material were were amassing, we approached the Birmingham City University (BCU) School of Media for help in producing the podcasts.

They have the expertise and the studios and we were delighted when they agreed to work collaboratively with us.

Special thanks go to former student Lucy Ryan, who produced the podcasts, along with executive producer Sam Coley, Degree Leader Radio BCU.

The Lonely Death of Janet Parker has been three years in the making. It doesn’t answer all the questions we would like.

Use the word ‘smallpox’ in medical circles and you soon realise there is an abiding sensitivity over the virus even though it was banished 40 years ago.

For instance, with social media and the issue of fake news in mind, we wanted to ask how health authorities would cope with a real outbreak of something equally nasty nowadays. They weren’t keen to talk.

On the other hand, the World Health Organisation’s top smallpox expert was willing to chat.

His message is a sombre one but transforms the story from a history lesson to one with real relevance today.

If you think smallpox is a thing of the past, think again. The Lonely Death of Janet Parker reveals why.

For a journalist, set in his ways, with a largely traditional print background, podcasting was a daunting new world.

I learned much, not least that I needed huge patience and stamina.

Some of the skills were pretty basic, others less so. Here are some:

* You can have the best story in the world, but if the sound quality if poor and fuzzy you will hack people off.

* Don’t turn over a page of your notebook while someone is responding to a question — it can sound like a wave crashing onto pebbles when you listen to it later.

* If you can, shut all the windows while interviewing — it’s surprising how loud passing traffic can be when you play your recording back.

* You need to phrase questions in a way that your interviewee will open up — ending up with a yes or no response simply doesn’t work.

* Never turn your recorder off until the last possible moment — let people ramble on because they often drop out gold nuggets just when you are thinking it’s time to make tracks.

* Podcast listeners have in-built bullshit detectors — they can sense when you are not being honest, or if things are contrived and artificial.

* Get a thick skin. I wrote five scripts — most ended up on the cutting room floor. And if you are reading from a script people will know.

* Far better to be honest and let things flow. It’s not the easy option, but it is the better one in this medium.

* Have a good, supporting team around you who will put up with your whinging — and coffee on tap.

The podcast can be accessed here.

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