In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on Donald Spoto, Helen Lewis on Grace Coddington and Claire Lowdon on Nancy Huston.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Sarah Churchwell reviews The Redgraves: a Family Epic by Donald Spoto. Although the book is billed as a biography of a theatrical dynasty, it is in fact focused almost exclusively on the pater familias, Michael Redgrave. “As seems to have been the case in life,” Churchwell writes, “[Michael Redgrave] is the centre, the rest of the family the orbiting moons.” Spoto pays particular attention to Redgrave’s bisexuality. “Spoto strongly implies that Redgrave’s primary erotic energies were directed toward men.” Though, Churchwell points out, “he also had several long-term sexual relationships with women.” There is a more serious problem with Spoto’s book, however. “By the end,” Churchwell notes, “his generally admiring tone has become positively hagiographic … [I]t is time for celebrity biographies to begin to aspire to something more commensurate with the power of their subjects.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Grace: a Memoir by the creative director of US Vogue, Grace Coddington (“Coddington’s crashing lack of interest in anything non-fashion-related begins to grate”); Claire Lowdon reviews Infrared by Nancy Huston, the novel that this week won Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award (“The sex – there is a lot of sex – is truly terrible, worse than DH Lawrence on a bad day”); Michael Sayeau reviews Travels in China by Roland Barthes (“Barthes took [his trip to China in 1974] as an opportunity to experience a real-life manifestation of the politics that he, at a safe distance, had espoused”); Bryan Appleyard reviews Inside the Centre, Ray Monk’s biography of the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppenheimer’s [career can be seen] as a failure to grasp the way his inner world would be seen by the outside”); and Peter Popham pays tribute to Sir Geoffrey Hill at 80, Britain’s best living poet.

Elsewhere in the Critics: “The Coup”, a short story by Tom Rachman; Ryan Gilbey on Seven Psychopaths, directed by Martin McDonagh; Alexandra Coghlan on English National Opera’s Carmen; Rachel Cooke on Christmas television adverts; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 interview with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Michael Redgrave with his three children Vanessa, Lynn and Corin. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
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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