Podcasts have a long way to go to catch up with radio

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

It’s racing up the UK podcast charts, overtaking (as I write) the established favourites such as No Such Thing as a Fish, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review and This American Life, and only just behind the reigning number one, My Dad Wrote a Porno (don’t ask; it’s meant to be funny). Briefly, at the height of Brexit fever last month as phase one came to an end and Theresa May rushed to Brussels for a meeting with President Juncker and co., Brexitcast topped the list, scoring the highest number of downloads. It could well make it to the top again.

I had a listen, out of curiosity, not expecting to last the full half-hour. How could yet more talk about the single market and the Norwegian model attract so many listeners? Surely we’ve all heard quite enough about the interminable wrangling that’s going on to settle the terms of this very messy divorce, dissecting each new twist or turn of the complex negotiations, minute-by-minute, word-for-word, glance-by-glance? But the BBC reporting team behind it — Laura Kuenssberg, Chris Mason, Katya Adler and Adam Fleming — have cracked the format. They totally understand that podcasts are different from mainstream audio and relish that difference.

You can tell they’re enjoying this opportunity to take off the BBC straitjacket, let their hair down, be a bit facetious. But they’re also highly experienced professionals and know that informality can be a trap and that it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will encourage the listener to feel more connected. Quite the reverse. To draw us in and keep our attention amid their sometimes chaotic chit-chat, they need to stay focused on what they want to share with us. Always, after a little light banter, one or other of them will take the lead and put the conversation back on course.

It’s very gossipy, a bit indiscreet, and totally compulsive, because what they’re talking about does matter, and for once it’s made to seem accessible (as opposed to the dry ramblings of Eurocrats or the stiffened-by-concision reports we get on the news). It also takes us inside the official business, or rather underneath it. We discover, for instance, that at the Downing Street Christmas party, held just before that crucial meeting, all the staff (not TM) indulged in a little light karaoke before spending the night, phones on alert, knowing that the call to Brussels might come at any time.

What else did my sortie into podcast world reveal? The very strange Radio Atlas, which sounds like a good idea and has had rave reviews and which I really wanted to like. It describes itself as ‘an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world’; and what better than the chance to listen in to some foreign radio, ‘to open the door into another world’. But, unless you’re a polyglot, to make any sense of what you’re hearing you have to follow the subtitles on your computer screen, which for purists is not really radio. The episode called ‘Wait’, by a Latino documentary artist living in Brooklyn, gave us two Latino men talking very quietly to each other as if lying in bed side-by-side. It was as if we were eavesdroppers, but not in a good way, listening to them whispering about their relationship while their disembodied words appeared on my computer screen. Creepy.

How do you find something worth investing your time in? As yet the best podcasts tend to be made by broadcasting companies such as NPR, CBC and the BBC. But even then many of them don’t adapt enough to the format. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Radio Five Live’s attempt to emulate the huge American hit Serial, takes another true crime story, the murder in North Carolina of a successful businesswoman on a December night in 2001. The chief suspect was her husband, but was he really guilty? It takes Chris Warburton 16 lengthy episodes to weasel out the evidence, a huge investment of time. It is polished, hugely detailed, giving us the personal testimony of many of those involved. But who wants to spend so long on a single story, which in any case remains as mysterious as it was on that December night. A conventional programme could have told us just as much in a single hour; two at most.

Podcasts, too, have yet to master drama; it will surely become established, challenging the corporation to maintain its commitment to what is for many of us the USP of BBC Radio. Roy Williams’s modernisation of John Wyndham’s 1957 sci-fi novel The Midwich Cuckoos, on Radio 4 at New Year, was a chilling reflection of the original. Directed by Polly Thomas with Jenny Sealey and her theatre company Graeae, which is led by disabled actors, the drama suggests a link between the cuckoos of Wyndham’s novel and that sense of being different, ostracised by a society that does not understand you. Some of the cast members are profoundly deaf, which you can hear in their voices, some are black, adding levels of meaning to the text. The sound design (by Eloise Whitmore) and specially composed music by Oliver Vibrans added to the strange atmosphere. This was properly creepy.

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