Issue 186,  published November 20, 2018

Decentralising Political Podcasting

Jennifer Tracey was trying to do something different. A longtime podcast observer and veteran BBC producer, she had spent nine years at BBC Radio 4 in London making and hosting the iPM podcast, the weekly digital accompaniment to PM, the drive time radio show. “It was an amazing space to have on Radio 4 tell stories about people’s lives,” Tracey told me over the phone last week. “But I was just a bit frustrated that podcasts weren’t moving faster [in the organization].”

As a result of that frustration, she recently took a sabbatical and moved back to her native Scotland. She had gotten interested in what was going on north of the border, and ended up pitching BBC Scotland the prospect of her getting involved in whatever budding podcast operation they had. Her idea was to produce podcasts in Scotland while feeding in stories from across the UK to the new BBC Sounds app.

The first show Tracey worked on at BBC Scotland was The Doorstep Murder, a true crime podcast that was already in development when she arrived, where she helped to better structure it “like a podcast.” The Doorstep Murder did well upon release, helping to prove the concept to higher-ups, Tracey told me.

In February 2018, she wrote a strategy paper for BBC Scotland about podcasting. Specifically: the tried-and-true genre of political podcasting. The reason for this was straightforward. “Politics was the subject people came back to time and time again,” she noted.

Much has changed in the audio industry over the past few years, but one area where things have stayed relatively static — particularly in the UK — is political podcasting. As even a cursory look around your basic podcast directory will suggest, there hasn’t appeared to be very much innovation in the genre. There are still plenty of professionally-produced roundtable shows and their amateur counterparts, and the strategic thinking appears typically tethered to attacking particular niches within the political spectrum. Brexit, as a major news event, produced a rash of new shows trying to explain what on earth was going on, but I’ve yet to encounter any that are experimenting beyond the customary “some people round a mic chat through the week’s happenings and give their takes” format. (Not for nothing, but most of them could still do with more editing.)

Against this backdrop, Tracey embarked on a process of trying to imagine what a BBC political podcast based in Scotland should sound like. “For me, it was all about working out a process and getting a group of people together who fundamentally understood podcasting,” she said. She made 8 different pilots, trying out numerous BBC journalists from different bureaus to see if they could capture the easy, freewheeling tone she was aiming for. They built scripted and unscripted prototypes, and with various different levels of editorial intervention.

There were some structural frictions to deal with, of course. The on-mic talent Tacey worked with comes from within the BBC ecosystem, so she constantly finds herself negotiating for adequate production time with correspondents and editors that often already have pretty busy jobs. “It’s been quite a fascinating process for me to understand how the BBC works, and to work out how I need to adapt that for a podcast,” she said. “How do we integrate this podcast into their week? How many hours does it need?”

Tracey is a fan of American podcasts that, from her perspective, typically have dedicated time and production runways. She recognises that she can’t command the same kind of dedicated resources. Instead, she’s finding ways to work within the BBC with whatever time and budget she can find. It feels like a realistic model for the future, grounded in the practicalities of the UK scene, as opposed to a lot of the blue sky talk that I’ve seen going around at the moment.

One of Tracey’s political podcast creations is Podlitical, which launched on 20 September. It’s anchored by Lucy Whyte from the BBC Glasgow newsroom, where she’s also joined by Annie McGuire, who does social media for Question Time, Philip Sim, who calls in from the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, and Nick Eardley, who reports from the UK parliament in London. The show is solid: the hosts display good chemistry, and the conversations often feel to the point and backed with preparation. It finds a good balance in letting the hosts cut loose and finding the right allowances for humour and joshing, which bucks against the potential feeling of being directionless, baggy, or self-indulgent — maladies that afflict plenty of other political podcasts on the charts.

“I’ve asked them to do something that’s incredibly difficult,” Tracey said. “I’ve asked them to be chatty about politics and current affairs, and at the same time maintain high editorial standards and impartiality.” It’s actually a bit of a jolt when you realise while listening to Podlitical that it is a BBC show — it sounds so completely unlike the usual formal, methodical tone used elsewhere on current affairs programming across the organization. The hosts tease each other, make mistakes and then correct them, and generally sound… human. The fact that it’s not made in London helps with this too, I think.

Tracey hasn’t reinvented the wheel here — her political podcast is essentially a roundtable of pundits gathering once a week to analyse, dissect, and opine about recent news developments. But there are lots of small decisions she’s made that make it feel like a subtle shift away from the classic, rambling political podcast. The diversity of accents for one thing: I can’t remember the last time I heard a group of mostly Scottish and Northern Irish voices talking politics on the BBC, or any major national outlet for that matter. Then the fact beneath the cheery tone lies a formidable body of research and data is a difference too. No vague “oh I can’t remember exactly, you know, something like that” here: while the hosts might joke about how long it would take to read the 585-page draft Brexit agreement, they have, in fact, read it (or as much of it was still relevant by the time they recorded; our political system is slowly imploding at the moment, idk).

There’s a proper editing for Podlitical too, which you can hear in the final product. Tracey confirmed that there’s a slight touch when it comes to edits, though backed by an additional layer of editorial and fact checking to make the hosts feel comfortable with talking freely while also sticking to BBC standards. The team tries to produce and push the show out as quickly as possible, so that it feels live and current. As for the subject matter, Tracey is placing bets on what she perceives is an under-explored niche. “Lots of people in Scotland are making podcasts about Scotland, and lots of people in Westminster are making podcasts about Westminster, but there’s not much comparison between the two,” she said. “This felt like an opportunity to explore that.”

Like the new local radio podcast feed Multi Story that I wrote about a few weeks ago, Podlitical takes advantage of the BBC’s reach and breadth of talent. I hope all of Tracey’s piloting and strategy work provides a blueprint for others in newsrooms around the country. Hers is a format that is worth replicating.