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Podcasts will never outclass the impact of Radio 4

That said, podcasting is changing the way radio is made – for the worse, as FutureProofing showed. With Natural Histories and A Good Read we were back in the comfort zone

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

11 June 2016

9:00 AM

Just to prove my esteemed colleague wrong I’ve been out there in podcast space looking for a wireless moment that will outclass the impact, the fascination, the compelling authority of much (though not all) of Radio 4’s daily output. Of course, there’s a lot of good stuff being made but how do you discover what’s worth spending time with? It’s hard to make a serendipitous discovery by surfing the web. There’s no equivalent to the simple switching of a button and that instant connection, our attention held, communication created, imagination fed. You have to work hard to find a podcast that has edge, knowledge, aural style; all you can do is research online, picking up tips on Twitter or Facebook, and listening to a lot of duds.

Love Me, a new podcast from CBC (Canada’s elite broadcasting corporation), launches on Monday and is made by some of the team behind WireTap, which for ten years took us into the mind of Jonathan Goldstein and the quirky people he came across in search of a good story. From a sneak preview, Love Me, ‘a show about the messiness of human connection’, is sharply produced with engaging voices and vivid storytelling, but do we really need yet more first-person narratives about falling in love?

The setting was unusual — a journalist flies out to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the earthquake and meets a French soldier. He speaks only French, she only English. They ‘fall in love’ via Google translate. It was cleverly done and kept me listening. But everything is beginning to sound a bit the same in podcast space. That determinedly cheery delivery, the constant presence of a background beat as if we were in the cinema watching a film, the sense that we are being manipulated to keep on listening by cliffhangers, spoilers, a heightening of the drama. It’s changing the way radio is made even on that bastion of Reithian values, Radio 4.


Take FutureProofing on Wednesday nights, Radio 4’s ‘hypothetical time machine’, attempting to predict what life might be like in 2116 and beyond. I caught it in the car while driving home from yoga and, having been away and radio-free for a fortnight, was struck by how different it sounded from the usual fare on 4 — and not in a good way. Timandra Harkness and Leo Johnson were tackling the prospect of technology being developed to such a sophisticated extent that robotic ‘humans’ could be used to kill actual human soldiers on the battlefield. Their chatty, informal approach was at odds with the horror of the subject matter (Don McCullin was a guest, talking about his experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere as a photographer), as were the production values: atmospheric music, hyped-up tabloid language, and a sense that we were being not simply informed but challenged always to agree.

Brett Westwood’s series on the animals with which we share this planet, Natural Histories, is back on Tuesdays, opening with a programme devoted to the fly. Here we were back in the comfort zone of expert knowledge, clean production and that clever mix of science, literature and personal interaction that only long experience can quite blend together. Our instinctive revulsion for bluebottles is hardly surprising, says Westwood, and not just because in our imaginations we see them buzzing ‘from the nappy bucket to the cream pie’. What is truly revolting about them, but also startlingly clever, is that they vomit their food before eating it. Bluebottles have no jaw and can’t chew their food, so they have to create saliva to break it down. Sicking it up is a brilliant solution to their jawless condition. House flies also defecate every four and a half minutes while eating, which explains why the WHO has declared them the most dangerous animals on the planet. But still you have to admire their natural ingenuity insisted fly enthusiast Erica McAlister, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London. After all, they inhabit every corner of the globe, provide invaluable forensic evidence in murder trials, and, in the case of the fruit fly, may hold the answer to the genetic puzzle of why a rhinoceros is not like a hippopotamus.

Also returning to 4 this week is A Good Read, expertly presided over by Harriet Gilbert. Her guests on Tuesday were Jon Snow and Trevor McDonald, two journalist pros whose choices could not have been more different. Snow’s revelation about his childhood in the 1950s was worth the listen alone, but then McDonald began to explain why he had chosen Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, the volume in his massive biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson that focuses on LBJ’s damascene conversion from voting against an anti-lynching bill to supporting civil rights for black people.

‘It’s not a fun read,’ said McDonald, in defence of choosing a book that weighs in at more than a kilo. ‘But here is the point,’ his voice becoming deeper and more authoritative with every word. ‘This is the beginning. This is what led to where we are now. This is why we have a black man as President…’ It was, most definitely, one of those moments.


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