Miranda Sawyer is one of the UK’s most high profile podcast critics, with a good write up in her weekly “radio and podcasts” column in the Observer being a highly sought-after review spot for newly launched shows. Now, like many of the rest of us, she has found her listening routine completely disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown. I spoke to her on the phone last week and this is what she had to say about the UK podcast scene at the moment and how the “new normal” has changed her listening routine. We’re doing this in the “As Told To” format; it’s more fun that way.
Obviously most people listen while commuting or going to the gym, usually, but I don’t do either. Because I work from home, I tend to listen just when I’m pottering around the house. I put my headphones in, and then I do those boring straightening jobs that I hate, I’m not very domestic.
Audio is about when you’re doing things. You get those weird maps, especially if you’re in the same place a lot. I go to the same park a lot to walk the dog and so the different parts of the park are always associated with revelatory bits in this podcast or an upsetting bit in that podcast, a bit where I cried.
The difficult thing now is that listening to podcasts is essentially a solitary activity. It’s not like radio where it chunters away in the background and everyone can hear it. There are a few podcasts that you blast out to the whole family, but I’m finding — as I think is possibly borne out by the statistics — that my own podcast listening has gone down. Because, you know, I’ve got to look after my nine year old.
There’s four of us in our family at home: me, my husband, our 14 year old son and nine year old daughter. The dog as well. We do tend to separate at points during the day because otherwise we’ll just kill each other, and I think it happens quite naturally. When that happens, I quite often listen to podcasts. I’ve got a fucking rowing machine, so I row and listen because rowing is really boring. And sometimes, actually, I listen in the evenings when the kids are playing Fortnite and my husband’s watching a telly show that I’m not interested in. I quite often do sit in the same room with him, but listen to a podcast.
My natural inclination is no drama or fiction, but I’m finding I need to be a bit more transported. I’m not a fan of sci-fi, but I am a fan of spookiness. I wanted something to take me away. Thanks to a few recommendations I’ve been listening to something that was done a while ago for the BBC called Strata, written by Matthew Broughton. I would never normally listen to something like that, but I’ve been enjoying it while I queue to get into the supermarket.
I’m free to choose what I write about in my column. There’s the main copy, and then I have three little box-outs at the bottom, and they can be anything. In the last three or four weeks, I’ve been trying to pick ones that might soothe people. Helen Zaltzman’s The Tranquillusionist, or a podcast that’s meant to help you go to sleep, that kind of thing. But I really am free to write about whatever I want. Sometimes they tell me there’s something’s happening in The Archers and I’d better cover it… I’m not a natural Archers fan, but I quite like it because I always end up tuning in when there’s a crisis to write about it, so as far as I’m concerned The Archers is just one big mad crisis, I never hear the boring “Sumer Is Icumen In” harvest bits.
What’s happening now in British podcasting is a big push for younger listeners who wouldn’t naturally come [to audio]. There’s a lot more shows about telly, and some that come out of Instagram accounts. Shagged Married Annoyed came out of that, they were successful on Instagram, and actually it’s a great podcast. That’s a gateway podcast, where people who would never usually listen to podcasts will try it, in the same way people will try That Peter Crouch Podcast. The way that podcasts are moving is more relaxed and bantery — I mean, they’ve always been relaxed and bantery, but they’ve been a little less mainstream in what they were bantering about. Now it’s everyday relationships, TV you can see easily, stupid football talk. It’s like the equivalent of pub talk. Remember that?
People just want something nice. Familiar people, having fun. If you get the right celebrities in it, and I don’t think we’ve got the right celebrities in it yet, then that will work more and more. Finding the right British celebrity is really hard, though, especially if you want to be more than just a British hit. If you want to be an American hit — my daughter’s taking the mickey out of me right now — you have to be really famous. It would have to be Tom Holland hanging out with other Marvel stars. My daughter’s saying Stormzy, and I agree, if he did one with people he liked or inspired, that would be a massive hit.
I don’t get particularly anxious, other than at three in the morning like everyone else, so I can listen to coronavirus podcasts. I think if you are anxious or prone to frustration, I wouldn’t listen. The best one I’ve found is the one from BBC Radio 5 Live called The Coronavirus Diaries, where they asked people who are working on the front lines — a GP, an ICU doctor, someone working in a care home — to record audio diaries about what’s happening to them. I also think the one from LBC with Nick Ferarri is good because he’s a really tough interviewer.
Podcasting is at an interesting time, and this will make it even more interesting, because there will be so many mad celebs stuck at home who need to express themselves in certain ways. But I think that if people spend a little time learning their technique while they’re at home, there will be more good shows in the long run.
You can find Sawyer on Twitter here.