Directors' cuts

Afternoon tea with Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Jeanne Labrune.

3.40pm: I emerge from Green Park tube station clutching my interview notes and walk down Stratton Street to the May Fair Hotel. I know the way after last week's "Film-maker Afternoon Teas", which I attended hoping to talk to Chadian director Mahamad-Saleh Haroun about his new film A Screaming Man -- one of the highlights at this year's BFI London Film Festival. He never turned up. But I seem to have better luck this time round: having taken the precaution of booking more than one set of interviews, I'm about to get two interviewees for the price of one, not once but twice.

3.50pm: I nibble at a scone and sip pearl-jasmine tea, while waiting for my interview slot in the plush interior of May Fair bar. "This is how they lure them here," a woman sitting next to me says. Last week, she interviewed the Irish director Tom Hall who had just stepped off a plane and was surprised to find cameramen and journalists when he'd only been asked to tea.

4.10pm: The film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are ready to see me at last. They've barely tucked into their tea. It's not often that two people have a hand in writing and directing a film; beyond telling me they like to bounce ideas off each other, Epstein and Friedman are at pains to explain how their double act works in practice. They have jointly researched and written Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem of that title gained notoriety through the obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1955. Epstein and Friedman admit that the nature of poetic inspiration -- a subject that the Cannes winner Lee Changdong turns to in Poetry, also featured at the BFI festival -- interests them less than the poem's social and political charge. One of them claims he doesn't even like poetry.

4.20pm: There's time for one final question as the interview draws to a close. Howl strikes me as a hybrid, generically speaking: its interweaving of colour with black-and-white sequences, of filmed footage with animation, gives the film an experimental edge. To my mind, Howl shares this quality with a number of features shown at the BFI festival this year, notably Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, Errol Morris's Tabloid, and Clio Barnard's award-winning The Arbor (reviewed by the NS's Ryan Gilbey here). Do documentaries lend themselves to experimentation more than other, more straightforwardly narrative films? Epstein and Friedman, though they come to film from a background in documentary film-making, see this distinction as spurious.

4.30pm: I hardly have time to collect my thoughts when someone motions me to another table, where French writer-director Jeanne Labrune is sitting with her interpreter. Tea for two once again gives way to a triangular scenario. We start by musing on the film's English title, Special Treatment, which doesn't carry the sexual allusions of the French original, Sans queue ni tête. But much besides the title may be lost on its new, non-French audience. Special Treatment, somewhat surprisingly billed as a comedy, draws parallels between the professional realms of psychoanalysis and prostitution. The film's basic premise, as well as its reliance on linguistic puns, may strike English-speaking viewers as somewhat heavy-handed, despite wonderful performances by Isabelle Huppert and the Belgian actor Xavier Demestre.

4.45pm: I compare notes with another interviewer who spoke to Jeanne Labrune before me. The idea for the film apparently first came to Labrune by chance when she picked up a book that fell off the shelf and stumbled on the word "la passe" (meaning "trick") used in a psychoanalytical context.

5.10pm: Fortified with more tea, I leave the May Fair bar and drift towards Piccadilly.

5.25pm: My wanderings take me to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard, where Christian Marclay's The Clock is currently displayed. There's no getting away from films, it would seem. Marclay's clever montage of cinematic moments, featuring clocks, watches and the passage of time more generally, is synchronised to show exactly what time it is from the moment you arrive until you leave. Watching countless clock faces makes for nerve-racking, if strangely hypnotic, viewing. Increasingly aware that I should be on my way, seven minutes into a film that goes on for 24 hours, round the clock, I reluctantly pull myself away.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times