Punching the radio

Sometimes, you have no choice but to go it alone.

Hello and welcome back to another Tuesday podcast newsletter. I’m still evolving the format of this, so hit reply and let me know if you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see me do in future.

A head’s up before we get into it properly: this Sunday I sent the first of a weekly series of paying subscriber-only messages containing a themed podcast playlist for the week. If you’d like to receive this, plus all the other extra writing I do in the membership area, sign up here.

The podcast column

It’s now over a year since fiction podcasts were “having a moment”, as Amanda Hess put it in a November 2016 article in the New York Times. The prompt for her statement was the fact that Gimlet Media, the venture capital-backed podcast network based in Brooklyn, New York, was recording their first scripted audio drama, Homecoming. That show received some glowing reviews, and the rights to it were subsequently snapped up by Amazon in a two-series deal (their TV version starring Julia Roberts is on the way).

In that same article, Hess made a brief comparison between the dearth of innovative audio storytelling in the US and what she seemed to suggest was the reverse situation in the UK. She pointed to the likes of longrunning British radio soap The Archers (which has been broadcast by the BBC since 1950, god help us) as an example of how fiction is baked into radio culture here. Yet for those of us who have grown up punching the radio off as soon as the distinctive “dum-tee-dum” theme tune begins*, The Archers and most of the BBC’s other quite narrow and formulaic audio fiction output actually just reveals that, like the US, Britain also has a lot of gaps in this area.

Bogged down by a long and sometimes tortuous commissioning process as well as an audience with an average age of 56, BBC Radio 4 (where most of the UK’s fictional audio content is broadcast) is by and large not the home of innovation or experimentation. It makes sense, therefore, that alternatives would emerge as independent podcasts — and indeed they have, with the likes of The Beef and Dairy Network, Victoriocity and Wooden Overcoats perhaps the break-out British stars in this scene. When the latter debuted, the Telegraph said that it marked “a quietly significant moment in British radio comedy, when the BBC networks stopped being the only conduit by which top-rank young writers and actors got their wares to market”.

David K Barnes, creator and head writer of Wooden Overcoats, confirmed to me when we spoke on the phone last week that he and his collaborators felt that they had no choice but to make their show independently. “In the UK, you have two options,” he said. “You go through the BBC commissioning process, which can take absolutely ages from someone saying ‘yes, you can do this’ to it actually appearing, or you do it yourself.”

The first series of Wooden Overcoats debuted in 2015, and slowly picked up an audience as it was noted and reviewed in various newspapers and magazines, Barnes explained. The show is unusual in a number of respects — for starters, it’s a gently absurdist sitcom, centred around a pair of disastrous undertakers who live on a fictional island called “Piffling” in the English Channel. It’s funny and clever and very well acted, and there isn’t a zombie or a spooky military base in sight.

This last bit is relevant because the vast majority of fiction podcasts that I’ve ever come across are what you would loosely categorise as “genre” rather than comedy: some blend of horror, thriller and science fiction is normal (as in the case of the biggest hitters from America like Welcome to Night Vale, The Bright Sessions, Limetown and The Black Tapes). In this space, Wooden Overcoats is almost unique just for being funny.

Barnes, who is a big Doctor Who fan, told me that he thinks that the fact that so many fiction podcasts cluster around these tropes is partly self-perpetuating, as new creators imitate what has been successful before. “I think it’s also because those people are more used to consuming their things alone, and then gathering at conventions or online to discuss it in lots of detail,” he said. “With comedy, there isn’t so much a custom of that. You either find it funny or you don’t, there isn’t a lot of analysis afterwards.”

Another stand out aspect of Barnes’ show is the scope and quality of it: its cast comprises dozens of voice actors, it uses specially composed original music, and it is professionally recorded and mixed. From the outset, “we wanted to make a BBC Radio 4 sitcom except not on BBC Radio 4”, Barnes explained, but the project has always blurred the line between professional endeavour and hobby. Many of those involved are now self-employed, so they can fit it around other work, and they do get paid. It takes about nine months to put together an eight-episode series, Barnes told me.

Barnes and his team used Kickstarter to fund a second series, and they just about hit their goal within the time frame. Live shows, sponsorships and merchandise brought in additional funds, and they were shocked that when they launched their series three fundraising campaign on Kickstarter in August 2017, they hit their £8,000 target within a few days.

Wooden Overcoats seems like an obvious candidate to be picked up for syndication by a mainstream radio station — although the episodes have got longer as the series have gone by, the show largely still conforms to the 30-minute format used by BBC Radio 4. Yet Barnes says that aside from a one-off request by a show in the US, they’ve never really been offered that sort of chance. “People at big networks like the BBC get so bogged down,” he said. “They can’t keep up with this kind of nimbleness, and perhaps it’s just easier for them not to engage with it at all.” Reflecting further on the relationship between independent companies and established networks, Barnes told me later via email: “I also know plenty of people developing new content on BBC networks, who sadly haven't the time and resources to monitor podcasts on top of that. I hope that established bodies like the BBC are able to engage with us more in the future, as we'd certainly like to engage with them!”

Wooden Overcoats has stayed as an independent enterprise because nobody has ever really offered its creators an alternative. It’s certainly a labour of love for those involved, and you can hear how much they care about making it good in the show itself. Yet what they’ve managed to do will remain the exception unless the existing structures change. In the UK, this means the BBC becoming more nimble, open and accessible, which this far into the podcasting revolution, I see little sign of. Until they do, I’ll just be here, punching the radio whenever I hear The Archers theme.

You can follow David K Barnes on Twitter as @VelvetBarnes. The third series of Wooden Overcoats started on 22 February. It runs for eight episodes, and there are fortnightly live shows in London as well. See woodenovercoats.com for more details and to book tickets.

*NB: I don't hate The Archers, or even think that it is bad. It’s had some important moments in recent years. It’s just. . . always there, reminding me of endless childhood car journeys and long Sunday afternoons. It is what it is, plenty of people enjoy it, and that’s fine. It’s just never going to be the answer to improving the diversity of audio storytelling we get in Britain.

The podcast recommend

Brian Jordan writes:

“These are three local NPR stations that are taking completely different approaches to local issues that are presented in a way that’s of interest to a national audience. Below the 10 is a series of profiles on an area of LA. The Promise is a deep dive into the issues around Nashville’s larger public housing project. Making Obama profiles his formative, Chicago years. I love the depth and nuance of coverage that the local station offers and their ability to present in a way that is interesting to listeners that live locally or are several time zones away. This makes me excited for what local NPR stations can produce. . . Now, if only there were a better way to discover these podcasts.”

Do you have a podcast you’ve been listening to that you’re burning to recommend to someone? Tell me about it! I’ve set up an easy submission form here where you can do that. With your permission, I’ll include the best recommendations in a future edition of the newsletter.

The podcast links

  1. Could A Very Fatal Murder kill off the true-crime podcast?Guardian

  2. “Yes, I Charge My Podcast Guests.” A Honest and Open Letter

  3. I've just started listening to podcasts at workReddit

  4. Brave + Bold Movement in 21st Century Audio FictionBello Collective

  5. Ozzy Osbourne and Family Announce New Weekly PodcastUltimate Classic Rock