We live in an age of audio plenty. At last count, there were 700,000 podcasts worldwide competing for our attention; according to the BBC, UK listener numbers alone are expected to quadruple in the next two years.
Amid the genres gaining popularity, culture podcasts go from strength to strength. These are the series offering new perspectives on creativity and highlighting the individuals and ideas that shape how we think and how we see the world. They can range from freewheeling “chatcasts” on pop culture news and releases (NPR’S Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Empire Film podcast and Still Processing from the New York Times) and interview pods (The Adam Buxton Podcast, Distraction Pieces, Rule of Three, Song Exploder) to historical or storytelling series (The Art Detective, You Must Remember This, 99% Invisible).
New to this expanding list is the Financial Times’ own transatlantic podcast Culture Call, co-hosted by FT editors and pop culture junkies Griselda Murray Brown (in London) and Lilah Raptopoulos (in New York). The fortnightly series, a revamped version of the FT’s long-running Everything Else podcast, is interview-based and goes beyond traditional arts genres, hosting wide-ranging conversations about creativity, society, lifestyle, science and food.
It is, explains Raptopoulos, “a personality-driven podcast. What makes something a Culture Call subject is whether it is shifting culture. We want to talk to the person who is changing the way art is made, who is central to a conversation happening on the internet or engaged in something society is clearly grappling with.”
The first episode features an interview with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, profile writer for the New York Times and author of the novel Fleishman Is In Trouble. “We felt she was pushing forward the celebrity profile genre past its reputation as frivolous — she has upped the game, and explores the role that celebrities play in our lives and why we care,” says Raptopoulos.
Upcoming guests include the psychotherapist and podcaster Esther Perel; Jia Tolentino, New Yorker staff writer and author of the acclaimed new essay collection Trick Mirror; and the rapper and podcaster George the Poet. “I think George is a really good example of someone who is shifting culture,” says Murray Brown. “We’re asking: is this person pushing things forward in some way? George the Poet is doing this in audio terms [with his series Have You Heard George’s Podcast?], and in what he’s doing politically, and how he’s managing that with such skill and precision and also passion.”
But what can podcasts bring to the broader cultural conversation? It’s something that I, as the FT’s podcast critic, often ponder: what do they offer that we don’t find in other media? When I put the question to them, both presenters emphasise the importance of multiple voices. “Most written pieces are essentially monologues, but with podcasts you get the collision of different viewpoints,” says Murray Brown.
“The speakers might all be talking about the same thing but coming at it from different directions. What we’re trying to do with Culture Call is get to grips with questions that feel ‘of the moment’ — and there’s something about having multiple points of view that feels quite important right now.”
“What I like about the experience of listening to and creating podcasts,” says Raptopoulos, “is that we don’t have to close the story with a bow. It’s more of an ongoing exploration.”
Naturally, Murray Brown and Raptopoulos are voracious podcast listeners. Murray Brown highlights the literary talk show Literary Friction as an example of a smart, accessible culture series that is elevated by the natural warmth between the two hosts. “They’re constantly letting their guard down in a way that’s lovely because it lets you in as a listener,” she says. “One host is a literary agent and the other’s an academic and they really know what they’re talking about, though they wear it quite lightly.”
Raptopoulos, meanwhile, is a longstanding devotee of WNYC’s Death Sex and Money podcast, the interview show hosted by Anna Sale, which features conversations about everything from parenting and relationships to grief, divorce and careers. “Sale does a good job taking someone at any level of fame. She has an empathetic interviewing style that gets them to discuss things they otherwise wouldn’t be comfortable with, and figure out where their anxieties and inspirations come from.”
The pair are mindful of the podcasting tropes that can potentially prompt listener fatigue, from banjos in the background to the faux-bumbling intros favoured by the likes of This American Life and Radiolab where the hosts ask “Is this recording?”. “The first time you hear these things can be charming, but it quickly gets less so,” notes Murray Brown. They have consciously avoided roundtable conversations in which cultural critics talk loftily about a single piece of art and in which, says Raptopoulos, “they’re taking a hard stand for and against something. It’s not always a nuanced conversation.”
As someone who spends a lot of time listening to podcasts, I can report that other problems specific to culture pods include the scores of specialist music series that seem to be made about and for men, among them Ross Golan’s And The Writer Is . . ., Disgraceland and Rap Radar. Women can nerd out over pop music too, gents. Experience also shows that the majority of shows running over 50 minutes could do with editing. Less is nearly always more.
For Raptopoulos, lengthy small-talk is also a no-no. “Sometimes conversational podcasts can have a lot of off-script chatting that isn’t adding value,” she explains. Murray Brown adds that this extends to the series’ interviewees as well. “We want to get people out of their script. Because we’re both journalists, we know how the PR machine works and we both interact with it every day. What we’re really trying to do is cut through that PR guff. We want to ask the questions that [our listeners] actually want the answers to.”
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