Playing the Markets: the BBC tackles business issues in radio drama

In the last few weeks, I have listened to three plays the BBC has broadcast about business and economics. (They may have broadcast more which I didn’t hear!) The first was the Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble by Julian Gough. Then, yesterday and today were two plays about the collapse of Enron, Power Play 1 and Power Play 2 – Wilful Blindness, both by Margaret Heffernan.

The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which you can read as a short story on Gough’s website, is a parable of markets – in this case, goats in (you guessed it) Hargeisa – the evolution of derivatives and a bubble, leading to a crash. It was told in a surreal fashion, was simultaneous humorous and educational – a pretty successful combination. It is rare that economics makes one laugh.

The two pieces about Enron were very different. The first was a complex sound collage, with the narrative about a trader joining the trading desk following deregulation of the Californian energy market being played out besides excerpts from Enron’s annual reports, statements to Congressional committees and news reports. This complex structure made it quite hard to follow the issues – this may have been deliberate, since the Enron story was complex and hard to follow itself. The second had a more linear narrative, imagining a meeting between former CEO Kenneth Lay and a former Enron employee on 4 July 2005 – the day before Lay’s death, after he had been found guilty of fraud but before he had been sentenced. Neither of the plays about Enron worked well for me – the first because it seemed to elide complicated issues in a simplistic fashion, the second because it painted Lay as wilfully naïve.

Both the Enron and the goat bubble plays investigate the sometimes absurd ways in which financial markets can operate, and all three plays tackle difficult, complex subjects – the economics of markets, the creation and use of derivatives, the ability to rig markets, the importance of regulation and the ethics of business abuse. It is interesting – and commendable – that the BBC is using the medium of plays to broadcast about these topics. The breadth of Power Play 1 made it the more difficult play; in contrast, the simplicity of Power Play 2 – a three-handed, “typical” radio drama, concentrating on the ethical dimension – enabled it to explore more. But I think the Hargeisa Goat Bubble worked best – distilling a complex field with great humour and warmth.

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