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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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist