Housing officer Brian features in Channel 4's How To Get a Council House. Photo: Channel 4
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Channel 4's How to Get a Council House is infuriating and compassionate by turns

Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham?

Not Safe for Work; How to Get a Council House
Channel 4

Two episodes in and the jury is still out on Not Safe for Work (Tuesdays, 10pm), Channel 4’s new comedy-drama in which a clever, sardonic and mildly despairing civil servant called Katherine (Zawe Ashton) is sent by her bosses from London to Northampton to work in what looks like an out-of-town branch of Staples on a futile project known as “the Immigration Pathway”. The cast is great and I do like the “austerity Kafka” vibe: its emotionally and financially precarious characters are stymied by management-speak as if by shackles.

But the writing: it’s so uneven. Katherine’s loser colleagues – the coke-head Danny (Sacha Dhawan), the super-square Jenny (Sophie Rundle) – are so cartoonish that her lowly new position among them seems utterly implausible. Then there’s the question of tone. One minute, she’s taking the mickey. “Did they not have any Calippos?” she asks the infantile Danny, finding him in the car park with two ice creams in his hands. The next, she’s having a flashback to the baby she lost before her divorce. The sadness and the clowning seem sometimes to belong to different shows entirely.

Still, I will keep watching. I approve mightily of Katherine, who isn’t entirely adorable; my crusade on behalf on unlikeable female characters, whether on TV or in books, is ongoing, despite some fairly hairy experiences at recent literary festivals (oh, how the lady readers out there want women characters only to be “nice”). I love the way she calls her Joe Root-lookalike ex Anthony (Tom Weston-Jones) a “total bell-end” to his face and in front of the entire office. It pleases me no end that she loves her job (Northampton posting aside) and is good at it. When she demolishes Danny’s crummy ideas – he has suggested that the Home Office buys a lot of tents for new immigrants, what with camping being such a very British pastime – it’s like watching a stoat swallowing a vole. She’s magnificent.

There’s something else going on here, too, which is that while I watch Not Safe for Work, I experience a kind of retrospective Schadenfreude. The series reminds me forcefully of my twenties, when I, too, was at the mercy of human resources (or, as we used to call them in journalism, that “bitch/bastard on the news desk”). Thanks to this, I’m filled with gleeful relief whenever Katherine and the others gather at some half-empty taco place to toast God knows what. Oh, the misery of office drinks with your rivals, your boss and your office crush. Oh, the loneliness of your first job: the boredom, the fear, the penury. If Katherine doesn’t sleep with someone highly inappropriate soon – my money’s on Nathaniel (Samuel Barnett), who looks about 12 and wears his political correctness like a neon sign – I’ll eat my novelty pencil sharpener.

Channel 4’s specialities right now are comedy-dramas and the kind of documentaries about the poor and dispossessed that make some cross and others roll their eyes and wonder why IDS, George and Dave don’t hurry up. How to Get a Council House (Mondays, 9pm) is its latest offering in the latter vein and, yes, it’ll make lots of people boil with rage. Me? Let’s see. Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham? (I’d rather not be Andy Burnham.)

In Portsmouth, Britain’s most crowded city, a couple complained to their housing officer, Billy, that their landlord had threatened them with eviction. When Billy, having spoken to the landlord, who was unhappy with the state of the property, came round to tell them that if they’d only clean up the dog shit in the yard and apply a little elbow grease to the bathroom and kitchen, all would be well, what he got was abuse and indignation. These two followed a racist – “Muslims, Pakis . . . If you’re white, English [like us], you should be first in line!” – and a woman who said she would rather make her children homeless than live in a second-floor flat. Truly, the only thing to do in such moments, left-liberal-wise, was to focus on the saintly Billy and his long-suffering colleagues, who treated everyone the same way: kindly and with great patience. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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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