The appointment of the BBC’s first podcast editor a few weeks ago is an indicator of how established the form now is, how cultishly feasted on by listeners. Take this (independent) fortnightly series chronicling true UK crimes, with upwards of two million fans, written and produced by “Rosie” and “Benjamin” (no surnames, no details, no seeming affiliation to any station or publication). Each half-hour episode is delivered as a monologue, and all the cases (unlike in the US hit Serial) are closed – solved crimes notable for being “rather more sinister” or hypnagogic than your average.
Here are tales of dead caravanners and jealous hairdressers, murderously miserable honeymooners and pitiless tarot readers. Expect to hear the phrase “dense woodland” a lot. It’s not so much the cases that are interesting – though the one about a man sitting in Wimpole Street of an evening in 1971, reading Ian Fleming and fiddling around on his radio, suddenly coming across bank robbers talking to each other on walkie-talkies in tunnels somewhere under Baker Street is hands-down thrilling, especially when one of the robbers hisses, “Money may be your God, but it’s not mine, and I’m f**king off.” No, the delivery is the thing: peculiarly measured, wholly untheatrical, verging on boring.
So slow is the pace of the narration, so formal the language (many “postulateds” and “purchaseds”), as Benjamin reads out his script pieced together from newspaper reports and court records, a script that runs sometimes to about 9,000 words. The languid, round-the-houses-ness of it all leaves you woozy, continually losing the thread as facts and subsidiary characters mount up – villainous Sadie with her degree in microbiology, two-timing Ian volunteering with the Pendle mountain team, Kenneth doing I forget what but it was horrible in a mock-Tudor cottage in Ascot. Somebody buying something significant at Tesco’s in Haslingden.
Where a radio station has physical form and a semblance of order, an autonomous podcast’s very out-of-the-etherness suits tales of horror or misdeeds particularly well: it is truly the disembodied voice. I slept badly afterwards.
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again