It’s really fine to be funny

Things to listen to #1

In October 2016, a piece I wrote titled “why it’s time to start writing about podcasts as culture” was published on the New Statesman website. Quite a lot of people read it; it appeared in podcast-related link roundups for a few weeks afterwards and I got a lot of messages expressing approval of the kind of writing I was suggesting that the nascent world of professionalised podcasting required.

As I start this new series of writing about podcasts, this is the part that I wanted to revisit, where I set out what I wanted from proper podcast criticism:

Writing about the business of podcasts seems to have advanced faster than criticism of the shows themselves. Smart commentators are emerging who cover what the podcasting boom means both for the established media, and for those trying to make a living from it. Nick Quah of the Hot Pod newsletter and Ken Doctor at NiemanLab are just two I read regularly.

But none of this comes close to what I want, which is something equivalent to the work of my favourite radio critics Antonia Quirke and Gillian Reynolds, but for podcasts. They write weekly, sometimes focusing in on a significant moment in one particular programme, and sometimes zooming out to see how a topical event was covered across the airwaves. Occasionally, they return to trends or presenters they especially loved or hated to reassess them. What they produce is criticism, not media commentary or a list of recommendations. It takes radio seriously as cultural output, and treats the listeners of radio as serious consumers of art.

As my own involvement with podcasts has transitioned over the past couple of years from personal to professional – I now co-host the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast and have written about radio for the magazine on a number of occasions – I have found myself thinking more and more about the dearth of podcast criticism. Podcasts are starting to make serious money, especially in the United States, and are hiring the most talented people working in audio to do innovative, exciting things. Where are the writers documenting their work, and challenging them to be better?

Fifteen months on, and a lot has changed and a lot hasn’t. My main job is now as head of podcasts for the New Statesman, so the creep of podcasting from personal interest to professional focus has continued for me. My column was discontinued by the website (apparently, apart from that first one, it never really went #viral enough to justify its existence). I still get frustrated by the way podcasts are mostly covered in lists of recommendations or short reviews that can only skim the surface.

Now that I have this space in which to write things about audio for people who actually want to read them, I want to pick up where I left off with the column and take it further. I don’t have much to add to that original mission statement I quoted above, but I do have the following observations that will shape what I’m doing here.

I’m very bored of reading/hearing things about “the importance of storytelling” when it comes to podcasts.

If you are making a narrative work in any form — videogame, play, book, magazine article, board game — the story and the ways in which you choose to tell it are vital to its success. This is no more or less true of audio. I think people say/write it about podcasts as a way of signalling that they are not part of the “90% of podcasts that are still three people at a table talking about something”, as it was put so dismissively at the start of this article, but are rather somehow cooller and better than that. I am not here for this kind of snootiness. Some of the best shows I know either use this cheap, simple, accessible setup or started out that way before morphing into something else. In my experience, the people who are really good at telling stories on podcasts don’t feel the need to bang on about this fact, because it’s at the core of what they do and seems too obvious to keep stating.

There is not, and never will be, a “British This American Life

This American Life is really, really good at what it does. It’s also had some important and positive influences over audio craft. However, its fame has spawned a legion of imitators who think that the way to replicate its success is just to find and replace “American” with “another nationality here”. I have been pitched the UK version of this hypothetical show a number of times, and I continue to think it is a terrible idea and generally emblematic of a really reductive way of thinking about podcasting. “Like this but that” is not usually a great way of creating something fresh and original. In addition, I think there is a peculiarly American flavour to the style of TAL (unsurprising, given what its aims are as a show) that wouldn’t work if ported elsewhere. Plus, their methods and presentational approach are very far from being the final word in audio documentary. There’s plenty of room for everyone.

A voice might have schmaltzy music layered underneath it, but it won’t necessarily be saying anything important or interesting.

A certain kind of narration and a certain kind of music (you know the kind I mean) have become very popular as a way of signalling seriousness or quality. I’ve noticed this especially in quick turnaround true crime shows, but I’m sure it’s prevalent in lots of other genres I don’t delve into so much as well. When you listen to a lot of podcasts, it’s easy to allow the general soundscape of a show to wash over you and give you cues about the content, rather than just focusing on the spoken words themselves. The voice has a nice amount of bass to it, the underscoring is lined up properly, the fades are good. . . but the writing, if you pay attention to it, is dull and the subject matter doesn’t justify this treatment. Do not be fooled by the orchestral soundtrack, my friends.

It’s really fine to be funny.

Related to the above — I feel like there is a general trend towards seriousness of all kinds, as a stand in for “quality”. This is a misconception. The very best podcasts (and other narrative forms) appreciate that humour can colour even the most solemn of stories and bring it to life more vividly for the audience. Something I really liked about S-Town, and one of the many things which made it a far better show than Serial in my opinion, is that Brian Reed allowed his voice to sound like he could see the funny side. The story of John B. McLemore was extremely sad in places, but he was also an amusing, absurd guy with an ear for a funny turn of phrase. It would have been a disservice to him if Reed had flattened all of that out of the podcast and made it deadly serious from start to finish.

A podcast is not a reheated radio show, but lots of people think it is.

I can’t believe we’re still unsure about what a podcast is this far down the road, but it is the case. I’ve been giving a few talks about podcasting at universities recently, and I always ask people to shout out what shows they listen to and why. It’s remarkable how many of them only name what I would consider to be radio shows (ie, made for scheduled broadcast on the network of a public or commercial broadcaster like the BBC or Global). In my opinion, this is the result of an unintentional communication failure on the part of podcasters, and, in the UK at least, because of the BBC getting into the iTunes store early, repackaging lots of their radio shows for download and calling them “podcasts” because they didn’t have a proper catch-up service for live radio yet. For the purposes of this newsletter, this is my working definition of a podcast: an audio production created first and foremost for distribution on the internet via RSS feed or similar system, often with a recurring episodic structure. (I am fine with the fact that some podcasts end up being rebroadcast on conventional radio stations. I just think that to earn the name they need to have been made for the internet first, and thus be free of the time and format constraints that traditional broadcasting imposes.) I hope that’s clear.

So those are my updates to my podcast criticism manifesto, plus a few thinly veiled gripes I feel like airing. I’ll be back next Tuesday with the first proper update in this space — email me on in the meantime if you have any thoughts about what you might like me to cover in future.

I’ll finish up with five links to podcast-related things around the web I’ve come across and which you might find interesting.

  1. The Weird World of Trump-Themed Podcasts at Politico

  2. Arabic-language narrative podcasts connect with a new generation in a region with a rich oral tradition at Nieman Lab

  3. The best of 2017 in podcasts from goodlistener

  4. The London Blitz described by Edward R Murrow:

  5. A child development expert reveals how listening to podcasts could affect your kid at Business Insider

That’s your lot. See you next time.