The New Statesman’s deputy editor, Helen Lewis on the renaissance in political podcasting
The changing political landscape has also been one of the major factors in the growth in popularity of the podcast. On both sides of the Atlantic publications have picked their sharpest minds, given them an agenda and let them loose in front of a microphone. Which brings us neatly on to the New Statesman Podcast, which is a superb example of how publishers can harness the format to bring their journalists and handed the brand itself, closer to their readers.
Here NS’s deputy editor and podcast co-host Helen Lewis explains why the NS began the podcast, what makes it unique and how she and her colleague Stephen Bush are on a mission to combat news fatigue.
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Political podcasts are now on offer from all the major publications, including the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Spectator, and others. What was the motivation for setting up the New Statesman Podcast? What do you think makes yours unique?
We set the podcast up first, as a way of showcasing the breadth of our content – politics, culture, current affairs – and as a way of building a more direct connection with our audience. There’s a kind of intimacy about podcasts, where you build up a great relationship with your community. I’ve had podcast listeners send me books they think I would like!
I hope what my co-host Stephen Bush and I offer is expertise in our chosen areas (including the Labour party) and a friendly, discursive way of approaching them. We’re trying to create a friendly space where you might learn something interesting.
Could you tell us a bit about the listenership of the NS Podcast? Does the audience differ to the print magazine or website?
Our listeners are terrifyingly high-powered: MPs, think tankers, senior journalists, commissioning editors in TV and radio, civil servants… basically, experts in their field. So that does keep us on our toes – you can’t offer a half-baked thought because someone who knows the subject will write in to correct you. That’s the same with the magazine and website, really.
The New Statesman Podcast has a conversational style and you get a sense when listening that you’re dropping in on a conversation between two intelligent, funny friends. Was it a deliberate choice to create this feeling of intimacy? Were you inspired by any other podcasts to adopt this tone or did it emerge organically?
We used to have a much more segmented approach, hosted by me and with various “guests” from the editorial team. But our producer Caroline Crampton, who listens to a lot of podcasts, said a couple of years ago that her favourites are ones where there is a relationship. So, since Stephen and I spend a lot of time spitballing about politics – I edit his column – we decided to let the audience into those discussions. I’m always interested to hear what he has to say, because he gets to talk to politicians a lot more than I do, being based in the office. And the reverse is true – there are areas which interest me that he’s not so into. The only trouble comes if we agree too much. I worry that is boring.
But yes, some of my favourite podcasts – The West Wing Weekly, for example – are two-handers, so I think it’s a style that works for a loose, weekly show that reacts to news events. Someone once pointed out that one of the problems the writers had with the sitcom Friends is that the audience didn’t want the six main characters to spend time with anyone else. They were interested in what Rachel had to say to Joey, or Monica and Ross. I think it’s a bit the same with podcasts – over time, listeners get to know you and the arguments and in-jokes between you, and that creates a nice feeling of inclusion in a little club.
You have, on occasion, had a sponsorship message from Squarespace, for example. But generally, you don’t use advertising on the NS Podcast. What is the added value to the NS of the Podcast? Is it more than just a strategy for growth of the magazine? How does it fit into the NS’s overall strategy?
We have adverts provided by Acast, and we also run sponsored sections which we voice ourselves. For the moment, we’re focused on growing the audience, but commercially it is already worth our time to make and edit the podcasts. It’s also a way of getting the NS brand out there: as a smallish publication, we are aware that there are a lot of people who would like our stuff if they got to see it. So we need to put it in front of them.
You’ve hosted the BBC’s The Westminster Hour and you often refer wryly to the “safe space of the podcast”. What advantages do you think audio has over, say, the written form? For you personally, is there something you prefer about radio/podcasting?
I like how anti-viral podcasts are. You don’t have to weigh every word, like on Twitter, because it’s so easy to wrench something out of context. Also, by having a dialogue you can express tentative opinions and even say things that you think might be wrong, to knock them around a bit. I also think there’s a big advantage in hearing human voices explain an issue verbally: you can listen to us talk about trade deals, and make jokes and say mean things about Daniel Hannan, while you’re doing the washing-up. It’s not as intimidating as sitting down to read an article and being like, NOW I WILL GIVE TRADE DEALS MY FULL ATTENTION.
Particularly within a political context, there’s now a lot of fear around the phenomenon of “fake news” and the spreading of falsities. How does the NS / how do you reflect upon these developments and respond to them?
We are in the lucky position of not having to report hard news when the facts are unclear, which is an incredibly tough job. Our role is more grounded in comment and analysis. In terms of not spreading falsehoods, we try to be strict about checking out sources, staying sceptical and always being wary of anything which seems too neat. But let’s be honest: most of the places spreading “fake news” know they’re doing it – or at least don’t care. It’s not happening by accident.
We saw how Trump’s election gave a huge boost to the New York Times’ subscriber base. Have you seen any increase in subscribers/sales around particular moments in UK politics, eg. Brexit?
Yes, the last few years have seen big gains in our audience across all media – social, print, web and podcast. The world feels very volatile and people want to know what it means for them. The danger now, particularly with Trump, is news fatigue. What’s the new outrage today? Oh, I missed it, but I’m pretty sure there will be another one along tomorrow. When there is that kind of overload, it numbs you. So one of our challenges is to slow down, zoom out and say: what really matters here, and what is just froth?
What advice would you give to other media companies looking to experiment with the format?
Find a couple of people who love to talk, and let them talk! Just make sure they talk about stuff that people want to hear about.
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