On Radio

A series of sharp transactions

Anne McElvoy on how LBC branch out into podcasting and American podcasters bid for their share of British ears

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


Despite heading a department built on podcasts at Economist Radio, my downtime default remains Radio 4. But that tendency is breaking down as the BBC Sounds app improves its offer. It has ditched its crazy earlier strategy of targeting witless shows at the under 35s, figuring out that middle-aged folk are eagerly acquiring the pod habit and need a more balanced offer than footballers and woke comedy. We’re also seeing newcomers to app-listening as talk radio stalwarts such as LBC branch out into it and American podcasters bid for their share of British ears.

So I banned myself from tuning to 93.4 FM for a while and used the Sounds app to find a recent HARDtalk. Yes I know, it’s an awful name — who wants to be told a show is a hard listen, let alone with a title written like a text garble? Its television incarnation is a byword for exacting, if wholemeal, interviews with international folk (whither Afghanistan and ex-foreign ministers seem to be the staples).

In its podcast form, one name leapt out in the staid mix, namely Barbara Amiel, journalist, society maven and wife of the former press baron and Telegraph newspapers owner, Conrad Black, who ended up serving a prison sentence for fraud. She stood accused of being a vengeful, privileged siren, dishing it to practically everyone she had met on her way up the greasy pole to a life of privilege and expensive shoes. The host Stephen Sackur, well-briefed and stern, proceeded with headmasterly dressing down to his guest for being “calculating, manipulative and transactional” in her sexual behaviour.

At this point, my sympathies listed considerably to the guest, who explains the stuff most people think, but never say. Of her relationship with Lord Weidenfeld, she recalled, “under normal circumstances, I would like to have just been a friend but in order to hang onto the parts of the relationship, I had to cope with his feelings. Had I been an honest and decent person, I would have given up the dinners and conversation — but unfortunately I wasn’t that decent a person.”

What surprises us here is not so much the sexual frankness. Lots of people go on air these days to “own” their exciting love lives. No, the secret sauciness of Amiel’s honesty is that she was happy to admit to the transactional side of flirtation (and sometimes more) as a form of barter — common, but unacknowledged.

For me, these stories were a lot more winning in audio form than on the page, where Amiel’s archness can grate and the accumulation of score-settling begins to feel spiteful. On air though, she’s a riveting listen. She took £100,000 off the Australian tycoon, Kerry Packer, after sitting next to him as a lucky charm at a casino.

Did she hesitate, asked Sackur. Not for a second. Gambling a fortune with the compulsive titan “it could have been a column” (this is the world’s best excuse for ill-judged adventures). The next night she turned out again in the same role of gaming-table siren — and got her share of the stash as a reward.

“Repulsive,” adjudicated Sackur, heavily. Fair enough to be a bit sententious, since Conrad Black was sentenced to prison for fraud — a verdict Amiel disputes. But the underlying contest here was the host’s view that having wealth and the high life to go with it was itself suspect, while Amiel was batting solidly for the party of the Ultra High New Worths and Becky Sharps.

Sackur thought she might be regretting not having attended to more “issues of social justice and inequality”. You think? Asked if she would recommend other young women to pursue a life different from her own Mitford-esque world, the reply was a zinger: “I would recommend they take a course in financial planning —it’s a hell of a lot more useful than courses in gender studies.”

Being a thoroughly commercial pod-world, you have to endure the host advertising a device for nasal hair trimming

BBC Sounds has new rivals for our listening time, and one of the most interesting is from Wondery, a US company which has just released British Scandal, based on a similar mini-series format in America.

It’s deceptively simple, like all the best pod shows. Hosts read a compendium version of a complex story and add commentary and jokes. Bought by Amazon, the Scandal series offers clever catch-ups for folk too young or distracted to have caught up with shaggy-dog scandals. Free for now, it leads to a paid-for model which will test the readiness of listeners to be charged for their podcasts. Apple is also embarking on a path to paid-for subscription.

The hosts of British Scandal are Alice Levine and Matt Forde, an engaging and talented duo, who work their way through complex material with a good grasp of the detail and a jokey levity that reflects the giddy, terrifying world of clumsy hired assassins and their unforced errors. Such as why you should not go shopping for a new jacket on your way to a Polonium assassination.

Being a thoroughly commercial pod-world, you have to endure the host advertising a device for nasal hair trimming. Even Russia’s FSB thugs couldn’t come up with an aural torture quite so bad. But as a calling card, it’s a confident start. The more well-researched, listenable (and still wondrously free at this point) pods that liven up the airwaves, the merrier.

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