Divided by a Common Language – UK & US Podcasts.
When I lived in Washington D.C., ‘Pod Save America’ was an essential listen for its acerbic, funny, angry take on the sorry state of US politics. It offered a much-needed venting (and listening) space in the time of Trump.
The podcast’s mixture of wit and rage has proved a winner with audiences, attracting a reported 1.5 million listeners to each episode. It is also doing more than just entertaining. It’s responsible for motivating increasingly politically inclined millennials, directing them where to campaign, contribute and get involved in the political fight of their generation.
Compare then, ‘Pod Save America’ to its British podcast relation ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’. This is a podcast hosted by former Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband and radio host Geoff Lloyd. It also has a political bent, taking the sorry state of British public life and putting it under the microscope (or behind the microphone).
But where ‘Pod Save America’ is like a bourbon swigging biker, angrily revving a Harley Davidson on your front lawn, ‘Reasons To be Cheerful’ is akin to a tea sipping academic checking the brakes of an old bicycle on his own (manicured) turf.
This is not to suggest that ‘Reasons To be Cheerful’ is bad. It isn’t. It just expresses the different political and broadcasting cultures in the US and the UK, and the podcast is – as a consequence- less compelling.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that the Britain and America are, ‘two countries divided by a common language’.
In terms of political podcasts that statement is certainly true. The United States is in a state of near permanent turmoil and crisis with a President who seems determined to destroy all political norms in the service of his very limited capabilities and unfettered self-regard. ‘Pod Save America’ is an enraged riposte to the chaos, corruption and dysfunctionality wrought by the White House and Republican leadership in Congress.
The podcast follows in a tradition of partisan broadcasting which – until recently – was the almost exclusive domain of the far-right shock jocks, like Rush Limbaugh. ‘Pod Save America’ has shown that liberals too have a sharp bite and know how to use it. Jon Lovett – one the programme’s hosts dishes out profanity, insights, and calls to action that come with side orders of razor sharp take-downs and hilarious asides.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the political scene is no less chaotic and is potentially even more destructive, as the UK heads over the cliff known as Brexit. Yet ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ doesn’t seem angry. It comes across as measured, resigned and troubled – the podcast equivalent of ‘Keeping Calm and Carrying On’. Miliband and Lloyd start each edition by finding a relevant reason to be cheerful; which seems akin to sitting in an air raid shelter in 1940, discussing the weather. They then go on to dissect the subject of the day with precision, dry wit, and good manners.
Again, this programme follows in a national broadcasting tradition – carefully regulated to ensure fairness, responsibility and sobriety. Partisan shock jocks hurling verbal grenades have little space in the UK, and British political podcasts – to date – aren’t breaking with long established norms.
The US/UK divide in political programmes is reflected more generally across podcasting. American programmes – like the country itself – is less steeped in long established traditions and conventions. Productions excel at innovative story telling (‘S Town‘), and presenters are encouraged to bring their personalities to the fore (‘Heavyweight’). This mirrors a less formal, more forthright, confessional public culture. Additionally, the free-wheeling and less fettered commercial environment has given rise to a slew of independent productions companies (Gimlet, Radiotopia and many others).
By contrast, UK podcasting exists in the shadow of the broadcasting establishment. Most programmes are either online versions of BBC radio programmes or are made by the BBC. They come in the tradition of the UK’s stalwart state broadcaster – heavily produced, tightly structured and hosted by an authoritative presenter. There are some excellent programmes, but they tend to lack that frisson of adventurousness and freshness that characterize American podcasts. There are some notable exceptions including the hilarious, ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’ and ‘Close Encounters’ (from the Guardian), alongside a few others. The BBC’s dominant place on the British airwaves may bring excellent conventional programmes, but it also makes it harder to mimic the creative and commercial success of US podcasts.
So, in short for podcasts, the US is home to the unpredictable, profane, and convention-breaking while the UK is generally more sedate, traditional and safe. And as in podcasts – many would argue – so in life.