The BBC tries to figure out what makes America tick

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 28, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- The British have been explaining America ever since Capt. John Smith first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and stepped ashore to examine the vast, unknown and recalcitrant continent before him.

Almost four centuries later, the United States remains a preoccupation of the guys who once owned the store but now find themselves running a branch office after the big takeover.

This fall, the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service is trying its hand at figuring out America with more than 100 programs on "The State of the States."

Americans -- with shortwave sets or cable connections -- may learn something. The British often have shrewd insights into how the United States works, like Jonathan Raban, floating down the Mississippi along the route of Mark Twain, or Evelyn Waugh sending up Forest Lawn cemetery in "The Loved One," or the BBC's own Alistair Cooke and his generations of letters from America.

But sometimes they're a little askew. Like the fellow writing about the World Series in the Guardian: he said the Phillies were "formally known as the Philadelphia Eagles."

Oh, well. Americans themselves have difficulty in finding the threads that pull them together as a people. Britons can perhaps be excused if they find the United States only slightly less exotic than the Hindu Kush, or the Serengeti plain, or the Argentine pampas.

"We'll be looking beyond Coca-Cola and cowboys," said Ernest Warburton, editor of the BBC's World Service English network. "Today almost everything America is and does affects everyone on the planet.

"So what we're doing [is training] our radio microscope on the world's sole remaining superpower."

BBC will not neglect Coke, or McDonald's, Levi's, Marlboro or Disney. Brand-name America will pop up in a five-part section of "The State of the States" dubbed American Icons -- "essential ingredients of the American dream."

Cowboys, one of America's "more potent images," get their own half-hour program, repeated twice in November. American Indians follow in a program recorded at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the home of the Lakota Sioux.

"The State of the States" started a little over a week ago with a piece from President Bill Clinton's hometown, Hope, Ark., population 10,000, where presenter Judi Swallow looked at grass-roots law enforcement.

It's a compelling piece. The folks in Hope pretty much play their roles as British stereotypes of Americans. Hope has drug, youth gang and teen-age pregnancy problems. The sheriff elected this year spent two years in Vietnam and calls drug raids "search and destroy missions."

"I'm a real patriotic person," he says in an earnest Arkansas accent somewhat thicker than President Clinton's.

The high school principal has spent a $10,000 drug education grant for a German shepherd named Pappy to sniff out drugs in his school.

His school is allegedly a drug- and gun-free zone, but Ms. Swallow meets a "rowdy group" of his students who may or may not be shucking her when they tell her they sell drugs, carry guns, shoot people and have a hit out on a cop.

She learns Hope is in a dry county, and she finds that buying a beer presents a few problems, "but not so buying a gun, except you're spoiled for choice."

The woman at the gun shop ticks them off: "We have handguns, guns, .44s, make a big hole."

The program is done in polished BBC documentary style with lots of audio actualities, but it leaves you with the uneasy feeling that the British found exactly what they wanted to in Hope.

It is probably not the Hope President Clinton remembered and celebrated in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention: "I still believe in a place called Hope" -- the final sound bite in the program.

The BBC scours the United States in the next 100 pieces, turning its "radio microscope" on everything from the Kennedy assassination to country and western music to McSorley's Wonderful Saloon in New York's Bowery section.

The state of the nation, according to the BBC, can be heard in on shortwave radio frequencies 9590, 9515, 5975, among others. Hauser cable system in Montgomery County and Great Southern Communications in Frederick carry the World Service.

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