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Why it’s time to start writing about podcasts as culture

Introducing our new weekly podcast column.

How do you write about podcasts? This is a question that has been vexing me for almost as long as I have been listening to them. To be more precise: for nine years, because that is how long it is since I first pressed play on one.

It was October 2007, and I was a student. Like this autumn, the season that year – replete with all its associations of fresh starts and notebooks waiting to be filled – seemed to be lasting longer than usual. I remember waking up one morning and feeling anxiety about the future flood me. Some day soon, I needed to get a grown-up job that would pay me enough money to eat. So far all university had taught me was how to win arguments about the novels of Charles Dickens.

The way to fix this, I decided, was to go and buy a copy of the Times. If I started reading a serious newspaper every day, I would soon transform into an employable individual. Going to the newsagent’s involved changing out of pyjamas, though, so I only made it as far as my desk. I powered up my laptop, plugged in my ethernet cable (2007 was a long time ago) and logged onto timesonline.co.uk.

There, instead of spending time reading yet more stories about why the England rugby team had lost the World Cup final to South Africa despite being obviously the superior team, I chanced across something called “The Bugle Podcast”. The very page is actually still there: it seems to have survived through various website redesigns. I followed the instructions at the top and right-clicked. Once the audio file had downloaded, I opened it and clicked play.

Perhaps it’s fitting that The Bugle was my first podcast, given that the comedy show – created and at that point hosted by the comedy duo of Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver – is a deliberate parody of a newspaper’s structure. I never did become a daily Times reader, but I was soon a weekly downloader of a podcast that mocked the conventions of print media (the show had parts titled “news” and “sport”, its very own cryptic crossword, and even a “section in the bin”).

I didn’t come to podcasts especially early. The official coining of the word, and what is considered to be the birth of internet on-demand radio as a form, happened in 2004. But by the time of my first experience with the format, it wasn’t yet the case that everyone had smartphones automatically downloading their favourite shows. I hunted around for a magazine about my new enthusiasm I could subscribe to, but failed to find one. Instead, I bored my podcast-indifferent friends with anecdotes about what I had been listening to. I kept searching for somewhere to read quality writing about podcasts, though.

I’m still looking.

***

Last month, the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago published a post that made a succinct case for why it’s absurd that podcasting is missing from media coverage of the arts. The article pointed out that despite the much-heralded “podcasting renaissance” that supposedly began with the first series of US true crime show Serial in October 2014, podcast live events are still missing from listings and previews. It’s difficult to find any article about the form that isn’t either claiming to have identified a new trend (“Have you heard? History podcasts are the latest big thing”) or listing shows the reader might not have tried yet (“The top 50 podcasts of 2015”; “The 50 podcasts you need to hear”).

It’s often said that podcasts have a “discovery” problem. The barrier to entry for a new listener is fairly high: after they find out about a show’s existence, they have to search for it in whatever podcast app they use, plug in some headphones and then devote at least 20 minutes to finding out if they like it enough to become a regular listener. It’s difficult to share audio in an easily-consumable way on Twitter and Facebook (although there are people working on fixing that), so new podcasts often have to rely on word-of-mouth to find listeners. Data on who listens to what podcasts and for how long is relatively imprecise and hard to come by.

Despite little evidence that Apple is very interested in the form, iTunes is still the primary distributor of podcasts – about 70 per cent of listeners come via the podcast store or the Apple iOS app, we’re told. For all their problems, the iTunes podcast charts are a key part of how people find things to listen to. As a result, shows that are already big get bigger, and the process of trying to build an audience for a small or independent show can feel a bit like you are knocking on the doors of individual houses and asking the occupants “would you like to listen to my podcast?” and hoping they don’t slam it shut in your face. In short: on many fronts, podcasts are still maturing – the way we write about them is just one.

Johanna Zorn and her team at Third Coast declared their interest in “thoughtful reviews, criticism, and a deeper examination of styles and trends”. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, too. There are people attempting this, for sure: until its recent closure, the Timbre was an excellent resource for interviews and essays; the Bello Collective is a new outfit blending recommendations with more thoughtful reflections; and podcasts like the Podcast Digest and the soon-to-be-defunct Sampler use interviews with podcasters to explore how and why the form is being used as it is. But I’m not aware that any major media outlet has a “podcast critic” who gets equal billing with their counterparts covering television, film or radio.

Writing about the business of podcasts seems to have advanced faster than criticism of the shows themselves. Smart commentators are emerging who cover what the podcasting boom means both for the established media, and for those trying to make a living from it. Nick Quah of the Hot Pod newsletter and Ken Doctor at NiemanLab are just two I read regularly.

But none of this comes close to what I want, which is something equivalent to the work of my favourite radio critics Antonia Quirke and Gillian Reynolds, but for podcasts. They write weekly, sometimes focusing in on a significant moment in one particular programme, and sometimes zooming out to see how a topical event was covered across the airwaves. Occasionally, they return to trends or presenters they especially loved or hated to reassess them. What they produce is criticism, not media commentary or a list of recommendations. It takes radio seriously as cultural output, and treats the listeners of radio as serious consumers of art.

As my own involvement with podcasts has transitioned over the past couple of years from personal to professional – I now co-host the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast and have written about radio for the magazine on a number of occasions – I have found myself thinking more and more about the dearth of podcast criticism. Podcasts are starting to make serious money, especially in the United States, and are hiring the most talented people working in audio to do innovative, exciting things. Where are the writers documenting their work, and challenging them to be better?

Sod it, I finally thought. I’ll do it.

***

That’s what this is then – an extended introduction to what will be my weekly podcast column for the New Statesman, appearing on Thursdays. I’ll be reviewing new shows, checking in on old favourites, interviewing the people doing exciting things with internet-based audio, and writing about the emerging trends and styles as I see them. If you’d like to get a sense of my taste in podcasts beyond The Bugle (which has just announced it will be returning from an extended hiatus as a member of US podcast collective Radiotopia, by the way) meanwhile, take a look at the archive of the personal newsletter I send on Friday afternoons, which often includes podcast recommendations.  

If you make a show and think I should listen to it, or believe there’s a big trend in podcasting that everyone else has missed, email me or talk to me on Twitter. As the New Statesman is a UK magazine, I’ll be slanting my coverage towards British shows, although I won’t be excluding what is happening abroad by any means. The podcast scene, if there is such a thing, can often feel dominated by what is happening in the US, and I would like to offer something of a corrective to that. Your tips, thoughts and recommendations will always be welcome – I look forward to hearing from you. Check newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday for the next instalment. And no, I won’t be illustrating every piece with a picture of a microphone.

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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder