Letter From London: Podcast as Lodestar

I was always fascinated as a little boy by the notion of Scots culture having retained so many of its wonderful songs, stories, and poetry through its oral traditions. The spoken word effectively saved so much of its day. Talking of the spoken word, the partner of a friend of mine acknowledged recently to me that podcasts might be the answer for struggling writers or journalists. ‘They seem to be the only thing that pays these days,’ she said. I had noticed at the time people bashing into each other down supermarket aisles listening to the damned things. ‘Everyone I know listens to podcasts,’ admitted the artist. Why, I even see there is a brand new Irish comedy about podcasters called Bodkin.

Nor are podcasts all good news. We hear in London quite rightly a lot about the campus protests in the US but little on how they are matched with ever-darkening far-right podcast ecosystems that have included The Right Stuff, Identity Dixie, Nordic Frontier, The Political Cesspool, Mysterium Fasces, and Killstream. (Only last weekend, Russia was accused by a UK broadsheet of recruiting far-right extremists as well as possible gangsters to carry out attacks in the UK and US, not to mention the existence of a playlist with 127 Wagner Group songs on the well known Swedish audio streaming and media service provider.) More middle of the road podcasts in the US still relate over-amiably to stories of people like Rosanne Boyland whose family famously believed she hated politics until she ended up crushed to death on the hijacked steps of the US Capitol. Separately, I see one major multinational corporation and technology company still offers Incel-related podcasts such as Step Your Dick Up. There is plenty elsewhere on ultra-pro-gun groups, making it absurd but necessary to point out at this stage in my Letter that comedy podcasts overtake sport as the most popular. Only after these two busy bedfellows, it is news, society and culture, and true crime. There are still the usual flurries of podcast inanities out there such as Lara Trump being asked by one podcast fan last week if she could get Trump to do a campaign video in which he goes grocery shopping or is pumping gas. (For the record, Lara Trump thought it a great idea and said she would pass it down the line.)

More seriously, though, on the Al Jazeera English podcast front there was pained discussion last week on Israel’s seizure of the Rafah Crossing and how it was worsening what it soberly described as ‘an already dire situation for 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza’. Not to mention another podcast asking unreservedly why Israel had defied the US over Rafeh when it was becoming clear this risked a massive breach in US-Israel relations.

In this country, the podcast world appears led by Goalhanger Podcasts. They own the podcasts We Have Ways of Making You Talk, The Rest Is History, Battleground, The Rest Is Politics, The Rest is Politics: Leading, Empire, The Rest Is Money, The Rest Is Football, and The Rest Is Entertainment (with a second-to-none Marina Hyde). Goalhanger was founded by former footballer and contemporary almsgiver Gary Lineker, who unlike most of our pretty muzzled media said last week, ‘It’s not antisemitic to say what Israel does is wrong. There’s a lot of heavy lobbying on people to be quiet. Its the worse I have seen in my lifetime: the constant images of Palestinian children being killed. I can’t be silent.’ Goalhanger do however represent one of life’s latest ironies by locating a medium inherently independent but colonising it only with celebrities, albeit occasionally interesting and well informed ones. It is as though the same group of people keep moving from one room to another in this culture. If meanwhile after American Jeff Zucker’s UAE-backed UK government-scuppered attempt to buy the Telegraph, he is genuinely interested in buying Goalhanger as one rumour suggests, I suspect they would command a very high price. (Incidentally, Cindy Yu in Zucker’s other former target The Spectator runs a genuinely fascinating podcast called Chinese Whispers.) At the end of the day, however, podcasts were very clever to convince us all that they were not just regular radio shows on regular radio channels with playback — the wheel has been scrupulously reinvented here.

One of the biggest podcasts in the UK remains The Rest is Politics with its bagpipe-playing Alastair Campbell and tree-planting Rory Stewart at the helm. (With its in-depth two-on-one interviews, The Rest is Politics: Leading also racks in the listeners.) The Rest is Politics has become like its own version of the UK — a kind of parallel nation of crisp projections and honest regrets. Alastair Campbell was former Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair while Rory Stewart is an ex-cabinet minister who wanted to be leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister. I have not met Alastair Campbell but feel I know him well through listening to This is Politics and from having read his diaries. Even his continued wrestling over the Iraq war strikes many as sincere, though no less catastrophic for the Iraqi people. Rory Stewart I met at Peter and Hassina Jouvenal’s inimitable Gandamack Lodge in Kabul one night in 2008 after being introduced by a dashing ex-submariner. I remember him peering into my eyes as if eking out what small crumbs might have remained of my brief encounters with the mujahideen in eastern Afghanistan some 25 years earlier.

Three or four times a week, Campbell and Stewart ‘meet’ across their political divide, though there is much common ground between them. They munch through their subjects, graze really, like two rare breeds of cattle, though they do spit it out at times — ‘disagreeing agreeably’ being their thing. Poignantly, Campbell is a huge champion of mental health and says he has always struggled with depression, even admitting last week that one of his worst moments ever was hearing news of the possible suicide of government scientist Dr David Kelly. Stewart in the same podcast reminded listeners that he once not so long ago contemplated hanging himself. These are no two lightweights here. They also carry for me the under-reported melancholy of many anti-Brexiteers. (Lord Patten has just described Brexit on rival LBC radio show and effective podcast Tonight with Andrew Marr as the ‘biggest disaster in British policy making since the Second World War.’) Campbell happens to be editor-in-chief of the New European and is fluent in German and French (Stewart can speak 11 languages). Given the predominantly right-wing press of this country, it is uncommon to hear such consistent attempts at constructive thinking in the face of self-immolation. Campbell and Stewart can fill entire stadiums, suggesting an evangelical undertow to their work, but I suspect they are both far more chilled than that. Will Rory Stewart move to the side of Labour before the next general election?

Podcasts compete with an increasingly polarising social media. Nor does the famous machine learning facilitator by the frosty acronym of AI look particularly inspiring when one of its champions — Sam Altman of OpenAI — recently cited books on startups, speeds of thought, superintelligence, and blitzscaling as must-reads. (AI has also just been outed officially as already deceiving us to get its own way by deliberately presenting us with false information — I immediately wanted to lie down in a darkened room and listen to a podcast of pure silence upon hearing that.) Finally, I suggested here recently that the present dearth of letter writing was because we don’t write anymore. Is it at all possible that all this podcast talk is because we don’t even like to read anymore? If this really is the case, maybe we should be listening to all those wonderful hard-earned songs, stories, and poetry instead.

Peter Bach lives in London.