Why you should care
Because it’s possible Sylvain Kahn can make geography thrilling to just about anyone.
Planète Terre opens each week with extraterrestrial electronica and a creaky intonation, in French: I’ve always dreamed of knowing the future, of seeing how the world changes, of seeing humanity’s advances. Hearing that, you might suspect this weekly radio broadcast is beaming to your laptop or iPhone straight from outer space.
This year is the 10th birthday of the world’s most prominent — only? — major radio program about geography. Hosted by the great Sylvain Kahn, the show, which airs every Wednesday online and on public channel France Culture, is a dynamic exploration of geography’s interconnection with damn near everything: borders, Creoles, train stations, how Paris smells, scary viruses, shrinking cities, lions and polar bears, Peter Pan and Tintin. Chocolate as mirror of the world!
But let’s back up for a second. Yes, this is the story of a respected geographer and his drive to educate, but it’s also the story of one man’s starry-eyed rapture for radio. Kahn and I spoke earlier this spring when he was visiting San Francisco from Paris. “There’s an atmosphere, an ambience, that doesn’t exist in the platform of television,” Kahn says. “Radio is much more magical.” He enthuses about the intimate rapport — “It’s sensual, physical” — that radio creates with individuals. “We can imagine that whoever is speaking has a voice that is being carried across the radio waves, a voice that is speaking everywhere in the world, in every house, car, kitchen, boat,” Kahn says. “Listeners accept radio into their intimité.”
Geographer or poet?
Kahn has a hunch that people come to radio for the rhythm or sound or modulation of a voice or voices — for a connection that packs a warm punch. No argument here. One of the first things I did when I moved to Silicon Valley: set up speakers amid the sea of boxes and play recent episodes of Planète Terre. Kahn’s voice has the calm authority of a professor, the warmth of a dad, the curiosity of a detective, the charm of someone you’d take to your favorite bar.
A professor-researcher at Sciences Po, the center for research in contemporary history of the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Kahn has also worked for the French government. PT was born when the Paris native was at a crossroads — navigating a family crisis and realizing he wanted to shift course. “I had a dream, for a number of years, which was to do radio,” he says. He knew someone who knew the director of France Culture, and he decided to try his luck. Kahn got a meeting; FC asked for 30 show ideas. And then the light turned green.
Evolving over the years, the Planète Terre mission is to deliver timely science while expanding listeners’ understanding of the contemporary world. Kahn finds it easy to link geography with global issues: Space is part of the social fabric. “When you look at things through the lens of space, how land functions, how it’s structured, you see things that are otherwise less visible,” he says. His guests include economists, sociologists, political scientists and biologists, and Kahn tries to avoid a purely Western point of view. Two of my favorite episodes: “Les très grandes gares sont elles des non-lieux ou des lieux de vie?”, about massive train stations, and “L’espace des femmes est-il en recul dans le monde?” The latter explores the question of female spaces, and whether or not they’re on the decline. Some geographers, after examining how male and female activities occupy space, realized that certain public places are very much dominated by men. “Research like this allows the explanation of things that you can’t see, that seem banal,” says Kahn.
Planète Terre, envisioned each week by Kahn and a small team, is part of a Monday-through-Friday block of science programming. Last fall, France Culture moved all five shows from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. — rush hour. Three years ago, it expanded PT from 30 minutes to an hour — at the same time, Kahn and FC director Sandrine Treiner reimagined the show as a “magazine of global issues on a planetary scale.” And, according to him, listenership has tripled since the show first began. (France Culture did not reply to requests for comment.) This level of emphasis on science at a national radio station, even one focused on culture, leaves me, an American writer, incredulous.
Jason Dittmer, professor of political geography at University College London and author of Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero, says something similar isn’t out of the question in the U.S., that it all depends on how much the government wants to educate the public via the programming it funds. And more geography on the airwaves would be a good thing. “We like to think we really want to know how the world works,” says Dittmer. “But everything happens somewhere, and that somewhere shapes how global happenings unfold. If you’re ignorant about the somewhere, it’s not possible to understand how the world works.”
I tell Kahn that Planète Terre takes me on journeys.
A reply so swift it almost finishes my sentence: “But it’s not tourism.”