An interesting week for audio in the UK. In a business centre in north London, a collection of podcast people (a chatter of podcasters? A-like-and subscribe of podcasters?) came together for a new two-day conference, The Podcast Show. Sponsored by corporates, all was slick and professional, aimed at media coverage, new deals and networking – a long way from the supportive nerd-gatherings of yore. I hosted a pair of fun live events, attended a couple of excellent talk and can report that, as we know, podcasting is enjoying the time of its still-short life.
It’s not quite the same for radio, though the recent Rajars brought joy for many, including 6 Music, Classic FM, TalkSport and Times Radio. Last week, the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, announced that the corporation’s programme budgets are to be slashed, and that Radio 4 Extra will go (as well as CBBC and BBC Four, sniff), though it boasts a solid, loyal listenership. When it comes to audio, further cuts are likely to be in radio, not podcasting.
Those who work in BBC radio are already frustrated that Sounds (the podcast division) appears able to dole out paid commissions willy-nilly, whereas individual radio stations are limited to specific slots and constrained by programme requirements. (Also, BBC commissioners can’t be talking to one another: Shaun Keaveny left 6 Music, only to be hired as a podcast host by Sounds.)
The one-off documentaries that Radio 4 specialises in – the quirky, the soundscaped, the beautifully produced – seem likely to be squeezed in favour of podcast series: noisy political analysis, jolly interview shows, shocking true crime, celebrity everything.
Ah well. If that’s so, there’s still all to play for. At the Podcast Show, I chatted to someone from a successful American company, and they made the point that UK podcasts haven’t exactly smashed the US market. Only Tortoise’s Sweet Bobby has broken through recently.
Not quite Sweet Bobby, but along the same lines, is Betrayal, an American podcast from production house Glass and iHeartPodcasts that’s riding high in the charts. It’s another “who the eff am I in love with?” show. Jenifer Faison, a successful TV producer, got back with her college sweetheart, Spencer Herron, when they were both in their late 30s. Their love affair was intense, they married and she moved to Georgia so he could see his kids from his first marriage and continue his job. Herron was a much-loved teacher in a local high school; he twice won Teacher of the Year.
All was blissful until one day Faison returned home to find Herron being arrested for the sexual assault of a minor, a teenage girl at the school where he worked. Once he’d gone, a quick search of his emails revealed that he wasn’t only sexually assaulting underage girls, he was also having sex with several other women, including sex workers.
The story progresses rapidly in the podcast, which is very definitely not a whodunnit. Instead Faison, with host Andrea Gunning, embarks on a truth and reconciliation process. She interviews the schoolgirl, now 21, who brought Herron to justice, and a woman with whom he had an affair of several years. This is journalistically and ethically odd, to say the least. It’s good to hear the women reaching sympathetic understanding between themselves. But as Faison is doing the interviews, there’s also a queasy feeling of imbalance.
Episode 3 is worth a listen – and worth playing to teenagers – as the victim carefully describes the ways in which Herron manipulated her. It’s not explicit, but it’s clear from her interview how he was able to create situations in which they would be alone (he’s been convicted of doing the same with another underage schoolgirl). The episode about how he charmed all the other pupils too is chilling. And Faison is set to interview him for the show. This could end in tears. I hope it won’t.
Speaking of one-off Radio 4 documentaries: Sports Star, on the topic of sports stars’ increased political influence, proved rather a limited examination. It looked only at footballers – with a quick mention of former American footballer Colin Kaepernick – and only at male ones. A widening of scope might have moved the programme beyond the interesting to the fascinating.
More gripping were the post-Sue Gray report PMQs on Naga Munchetty’s Wednesday show on 5 live. Starmer’s “you cannot be a law maker and a law breaker” landed; Johnson’s “I take full responsibility” came only after he’d made an awful pun on Starmer’s name (“Severe Korma”) and given a load of blether about us “collectively” wanting to “move on”. Our prime minister sounded rather like he was operating on a blinding hangover. Or maybe he’s still drunk. As ever, the blustering and roaring of all those around him will have made many listeners feel nauseous.