The podcast revolution is the best thing that’s happened to radio since the pirates of the Sixties. And yes I do mean radio. Podcasts aren’t live broadcasting but, like John Peel’s sessions or The Archers, they’re still radio: radio on demand. While TV gave us VHS recorders 30 years ago, it wasn’t until the BBC launched its Listen Again feature and now its Radio iPlayer that we listeners could find programmes we’ve missed and render the schedulers irrelevant.
Now, with the podcast, we can also hear biased, partial, unregulated radio programming and choose from a menu of things we want rather than things the broadcasters or regulators think we want. The effect has been similar to that of fanzines on publishing. That doesn’t mean that they were all good, but from the scene grew some really good writers and designers and they made waves in the established publishing world.
Some of the first generation of podcasts were pretty terrible and involved companies reading out their business reports, thinking that people would actually listen to. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. An SABMiller podcast stuck in my head as being particularly bad; they had just interviewed their chairman. What he had to say was dull, his voice was dull and I can’t imagine anyone listening to it. The best podcasts have to be as good as radio, and our ears will tell us if it’s good or not. Presenters and producers need to stick to all the good radio rules that have been developed over time.
Live radio is fantastic, and while podcasts are essentially the same art form delivered in a different way, there is room for both. Listeners want it and we need live radio to take us to places and events – we like the idea of Nick Robinson standing outside Downing Street telling us what’s happening, but we also like the idea of his blog.
The great flexibility of podcasts means it doesn’t matter how long it is; in radio you have to hit the pips, the news, the weather. Because of the nature of the internet you can make a podcast any length you like – the content decides the duration, whereas with live radio, it’s the other way round and the duration decides what content you can use.
Radio is a healthy medium because it’s personal and portable, and podcasts are a reflection of those two attributes.
Here are my Top 10 podcasts, all available from iTunes.
The Guardian’s unmissable combination of the view from the press box and from the terraces manages to be both authoritative and irreverent. Host James Richardson presides over a panel of Guardianistas who know their stuff (Kevin McCarra, Sid Lowe) or tell a good gag (Barry Glendenning). Without the need to ensure access to players and managers they can (and do) say what they like. Very refreshing in sports journalism.
The Word podcast
David Hepworth, a director of Development Hell, and Mark Ellen, editor of one of their titles, The Word, convene on a sofa in Islington to chew over the latest trivialities in the world of dad rock. They’re old friends and it shows. Their chat is unscripted, knowing, and at once inconsequential and compelling. It would be an asset to any radio station, but several have turned it down claiming it is self-indulgent and self-referential. But that’s exactly why we like it.
A downloadable edit of BBC 5Live’s feisty panel game hosted by the affable and quick-witted Colin Murray. It’s a great listen live on a Saturday morning, but with the podcast you can hear it without the travel news, trails and other broadcasting furniture.
Stephen Fry’s Podgrams
It’s a radio talk. It’s an audio blog. It’s a rambling soliloquy by the most articulate man in the UK (save perhaps Clive James whose own podcasts for the Times last year were brilliant). Top of the iTunes chart and we need more please, Stephen.
Mayo & Kermode
Another extract from BBC Radio 5Live’s schedule, this features the Sony Radio Academy Speech Broadcaster of the Year Simon Mayo and film buff (Doctor) Mark Kermode. Again it’s a pleasure to hear without the live interruptions, but it’s also an example of a programme which works best when you want it, not when the schedulers want to give it you.
Some corporate podcasts are dire examples of the audio press release. But this is different. The Williams team used to have podcasts made about them in a typical radio-journalism style. Now they make their own, with Clare Williams (Frank’s daughter) presenting, and bring fans an intimate look at their week’s highs and lows. It’s homely and it’s revealing, giving remarkable access in a business renowned for spin.
Recorded in Dublin by the mysterious Arseblogger, this gloriously un-PC rant is a weekly homage to Arsenal where no expletive is ever deleted. It makes no pretence to be balanced or fair and it sees all football stories through red-and-white tinted glasses. This is what podcasting can give us. No radio station could possibly broadcast such outrageous fulmination. Fabulous!
The Guardian’s former media correspondent Matt Wells used to have a show on LBC. It was taken off because, in his own words, ‘it had no listeners”. Now he’s ‘head of audio’ at The Guardian, can host a very similar radio magazine and remain untroubled by its lack of popular appeal. With podcasting, radio programmes can superserve small niches and if you want to know what’s going on in UK media, this is the show for you.
From Our Own Correspondent
The BBC is prevented from making special programmes for download. So far it can only offer us internet versions of previously broadcast material, but here’s why we pay our licence fee: Consistently insightful reporting available on demand. I like it on Monday mornings while braving the Victoria Line.
Martin Kelner’s Piss Poor Podcast
Fired by any number of legitimate stations, the acerbic Mr Kelner brings his often unbroadcastable ideas to the net. Unlike the other podcasts in this list, there’s a small payment required for subscribers so I can’t give you a detailed review of anything except the free sample, which is terrific.
The attempt to raise revenue is interesting. With 250 paying customers paying £1 a week, Kelner’s not going to make a fortune, but he’s proving that there’s a market for downloadable radio.