Look at Life: Podcasts

4th May 2018

An Ear for a Good Series

By Deborah Mulhearn

My gym recently had a refurb. To drown out the uptempo motivational music that’s now blaring out, I jam my earphones in. Most people do, I notice. But while they’re most likely listening to their favourite energising workout playlist, I’m listening to speech podcasts. No wonder I’m not losing any weight. But it’s my opportunity to catch up – and these most portable of programmes make for perfect escapist, if unstrenuous, listening.

Ricky Gervais started it. Back in 2007 he brought podcast technology into the public eye (ear?) with his Office co-writer Stephen Merchant and fellow comedian Karl Pilkington, the pretend peabrain who was post-truth before the concept was invented. Their daft and very funny discussions are still some of the most downloaded podcasts ever.

But podcasts didn’t really catch on in a big way, at least not in the UK, until a few years ago. The Americans did it better, or so it seemed. Now we Brits have taken them to our hearts, with everything from comedy to cookery and politics to the paranormal.

Basically, they are short radio or audio shows that can be downloaded (for example, from iTunes, soundcloud or direct from websites) onto your mobile or iPad and listened to at your convenience – in the gym, on your commute or in the kitchen – a binge listen here, a graze or a snack there. Their beauty is in their portability.

Some are factual, some fictional, and others deliberately blur the lines. Some are glossy and professional; others intimate and roughcut, and they differ from radio shows in the huge variety of subjects and episodes available. As they are cheap and easy to produce, they are also a very democratic form – with many starting up as individual concerns or community podcasts. Sometimes the quality is a bit ropey, but it’s a great way to find or express your passions – stories and topics that would never make it onto mainstream radio.

Football and comedy are the most popular type of podcast downloads, with Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (in which Richard Herring chats with some of the biggest names in comedy) often cited as one of the best. There’s also the wonderfully irreverent The Guilty Feminist with Deborah Frances-White, which starts every episode with “I’m a feminist, but...”

The BBC now has podcast versions of its popular radio shows: Front Row, In Our Time, Desert Island Discs and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review are just a few of the many on offer.

Following on from the British Museum’s successful series A History of the World in 100 Objects, Historic England last year launched A History of England in 100 Places, a podcast looking at the stories behind the places that have formed England’s identity, from the wreck of the Mary Rose to Bletchley Park.

And if you like your conspiracy theories, The Unexplained with Howard Hughes (not that one), explores the paranormal with guest psychics, mediums and occultists, ranging from eccentric to plain dotty.

But some of the most imaginative and addictive podcasts are crime dramas. It’s no coincidence that they are often called serials, tapes, chronicles and so on – forms that hark back to classic radio shows, with their breathless delivery and cliff-hanger endings.

If the naturalistic dialogue and sound effects make them sound like real people out in the world, and not actors in studio settings, it’s because they often are. Sometimes the actors don’t know the outcome of the story themselves until they are about to record it.

Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor develops its fractured structure from his Costa-winning novel Reservoir 13, about a missing girl. Instead of a single narrator, the podcast allows many voices and the subtle back-stories of many different characters to be told.

Rather than avoiding modern technology as plot devices, as many writers do, podcast writers embrace it. Phones and social media are used to drive the plots – in That Was Then, a modern twist on the classic gaslighting story, a nerve-wracked vicar records her thoughts about a murder she was witness to twenty years before.

With radio, it feels like the voices are carried out on the airwaves and fill the room. With the best podcast dramas, possibly because you’re listening with earphones, it feels like you’re being drawn into a claustrophobic, disorientating world. I’m hooked; and while my waistline may not be decreasing, at least I’m expanding my mind.

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