‘Podcasts, somebody should have told me, is like having your own book festival’
I don’t know how you are about new technology, but me, I’m a late adapter. So late, in fact, that I still don’t want a smartphone and have only now, about eight years after everyone else, discovered podcasts.
Why did nobody ever tell me about them? Why did no-one ever shake me by the lapels and insist that I listen the New Yorker’s Fiction podcast? That I really ought to download John Lanchester’s exquisite exposition of the Brexit bungle – still the best I’ve heard – on the London Review of Books? That on no account should I miss the podcast of Melvyn Bragg and his assorted professors on Radio 4’s In Our Time distilling several lifetimes of learning into a 40-minute scintillating discussion of Orwell’s Animal Farm?
You think these are rhetorical questions? They’re not. I read books all the time, discuss them, go to book festivals. Professionally and personally, books and talking about books frame my life. So why have literary podcasts passed me by? Do they pass most people by too? Do people talk about them, recommend them to friends the way they do books? If so, why did that never happen to me?
I only wish it had. An iPod loaded with podcasts, somebody should have told me, is like having your own book festival, the only difference being that it’s one for which you can get all the tickets you want and they’re all free. But because nobody ever did tell me that, I’ve become that person instead. The kind who, eyes evangelically bright, will insist that you try trawling through the backlists of Backlisted, Literary Friction, Longform, Slate’s Audio Book Club, The Book Show from RTE, or Guardian Books. Whose recommendations will be simplicity itself: type Andrew O’Hagan, Ali Smith or Amos Oz into your iPod, lie back and listen.
So let me do you a favour. It’s nearly Christmas, and I bet there are still a whole load of chores you’ve still got to do. If it isn’t the seasonal shopping and queuing, it’ll be the usual cleaning and the ironing and walking the dog. This is all what we podguys call “dead time”. So: out with the iPod, in with the earbuds, click on (say) the New Yorker Fiction site and all of a sudden you’re listening to Margaret Atwood read a short story by Mavis Gallant and explain the roots of her fandom. Or Roger Angell, still writing immaculately at 96, reading John Updike’s late story “Playing With Dynamite” and remembering editing him. Or Allan Gurganus reading Grace Paley’s “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” and explaining just how much her mentoring meant to him. Or …. But you get the drift.
You’re probably wondering where the Scots are in all of this, and so am I. Yes, of course, you’ll find Damian Barr hosting The Literary Salon in London, and over the last five years a handful of fellow-Scots such as Maggie O’Farrell, Kirsty Wark, and Janice Galloway have joined him. And which literary podcast host can possibly compare to Jim Naughtie, who has been at the helm of Bookclub since 1998? The programme started off with Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, and there have been well over 200 since – all downloadable – with guests including Elmore Leonard, JK Rowling, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and Muriel Spark (talking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: check it out). When BBC Scotland complain that the audience for a dedicated radio book programme just isn’t there, perhaps Naughtie could enlighten them: even on a late Sunday afternoon, Bookclub still manages to pull over more than a million listeners.
The BBC is, of course, a cultural powerhouse like nothing else in the language. Across its radio network alone, it offers no fewer than 513 podcast series, covering everything from pop to philosophy. And although Bookclub and Open Book on Radio 4 and the Arts & Ideas strand on Radio 3 might seem to be a small proportion of that, books and authors figure prominently in other programmes. In the last couple of months, for example, both Jackie Kay and Ali Smith have appeared on Desert Island Discs. I’ve read scores of print interviews with both of them (and written a few myself) but I’ve never come across ones that mirrored Jackie and Ali’s openness and generosity of spirit as clearly as their interviews with Kirsty Young – proof, if it be needed, that she is at least as good as anyone who has sat in the interviewer’s chair in the programme’s history. (Talking of which, because there are so many programmes in the Desert Island Discs podcast archive, if you started listening to 24/7 on 1 January, it would mid-May 2017 before you needed to find something else).
Apart from the BBC, Scotland doesn’t do as well as it ought to on the literary podcast front. The Herald attempted a few before giving up, the Scotsman never really did – both papers being too small and under-resourced to try properly – and Scottish Book Trust’s series of fortnightly alternating interviews and book group discussions, which started in October 2012 lasted for two and a half years before being abandoned.
When I think about it, perhaps this points to one of the reasons nobody has ever talked to me about podcasts. Maybe this very uncertainty about how something provided for nothing can ever make enough money to survive undermines our faith in podcasts’ viability, so instead of including them in cultural discussions they start to look like add-on, easily discarded extras. The contrast with audiobooks – where we all understand how publishers make money from their product – couldn’t be stronger. Over almost exactly the same period that Scottish Book Trust experimented with its own podcast series, national sales of audiobooks more than doubled.
Hats off, then, to two Scottish organisations that are out to prove me wrong. For the last seven years, the Scottish Poetry Library has been steadily building up an impressive (and well produced) pile of podcast interviews with and readings by some of the finest poets around. Again, because I have interviewed some of them of them, I can compare and contrast, and I must reluctantly concede that the SPL’s interviewers have often done a better job. There are nearly 240 to choose from, and as I have only just started listening to them on my daily dogwalk, I can’t yet give you a definitive report on which is the best. But if you try the ones with JO Morgan, Ian Bell, Niall Campbell, and Andrew Greig talking about Norman MacCaig, you’ll at least want to start off on your own poetry podcast pathway.
As I attend practically every Edinburgh book festival event it is humanly possible for one person to do, I have been in the audience at quite a few of the events from this year’s programme to have been given a podcast afterlife and can recommend the ones with Chris Packham, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Michel Faber. On my next dogwalks, I’ll start listening to the ones I missed out on at Charlotte Square in August, then do the same working backwards through the years. Then it’s back to the New Yorker Fiction, for another of Deborah Treisman’s elegant interviews, another classic short story, another discussion. By then it will probably be Christmas again. In the meanwhile, season’s greetings!
David Robinson is a freelance journalist and editor and from 2000-2015 he was books editor of The Scotsman.