Vox Populi: How podcasts are reshaping the face of political journalism

Audio content is playing an increasing role in the ear canals of power

If you would like an idea of just how oversaturated the market currently is for podcasts about British politics, consider this: when broadcaster Iain Dale compiled a list of the top 50 last year, he felt the need to exclude “daily ‘news’ based podcasts”, “podcasts of bespoke radio or TV shows” and “satirical podcasts” - and yet, there were still several dozen to pick from.

It’s an odd state of affairs, given how few people actually listen to them. “The market for British political podcasts is really small”, says Nick Hilton, the director of audio production company Podot Pods and former producer of the Spectator and New Statesman podcasts.

“The listening figures for the best performing newspaper and magazine podcasts are somewhere between 50 and 100,000 people per episode, which is, in the grand scheme of podcasting, really not very much.”

That hasn’t stopped every publication, pundit, wonk and wag with too much time on their hands from launching their own podcast. Some of them, like the Guardian’s Politics Weekly UK, are largely focused on news. Others, like Politico’s Westminster Insider, pick one topic for each edition and go for a deep dive. Many of them, like Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s The Rest Is Politics, are mostly conversational and revolve around the hosts’ banter and opinions. Several are even hosted by MPs themselves, from Jess Phillips’ Yours Sincerely to the now-defunct On The House, fronted by Sam Gyimah and Philip Lee.

In short: whatever your listening tastes are, they will be catered to. Interestingly, it wasn’t the case even a few years ago - compared to other industries, Westminster was late to the podcasting party.

The first notable one was The View from 22, launched for the Spectator by Sebastian Payne. “When I joined the Spectator in 2012, podcasts were becoming a thing outside of the Westminster world”, he explains.

“I remember saying to [Spectator editor] Fraser Nelson, ‘Can we have a go at doing our own podcast? Can you give me a few hundred quid? I'll go buy some microphones and I'll do the whole thing myself’. And so we started a podcast which I edited, hosted, and produced.”

Though Sebastian and his one-man-band were a success, it took several years for podcasts to become a permanent feature of British politics. According to Whitehall insiders, the landscape only really began evolving around 2016; until then, even Westminster obsessives had been well-served by the output of the BBC and more traditional media.

The divisiveness of Brexit and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn changed all that. Suddenly, many people felt very strongly about an issue and wanted commentary and analysis that matched their beliefs. This need was quickly filled by shows like Remainiacs on one side, and Chopper’s Politics on the other.

When the House of Commons began eating itself in 2017, podcasts also felt like a way of keeping up with obscure conventions, opaque parliamentary rules and seemingly constant twists and turns. As Hilton puts it, “during the post-Brexit era, the Theresa May election, and then eventually the Boris Johnson election, it was the best way to get a sense of what was actually going on with Conservative politics, much better than watching the news or listening to the Today programme.” By the election of 2019, they had become an integral part of the Westminster information ecosystem.

Double bubble

Three years and two Prime Ministers later, they remain a product that offers content other formats can never quite provide. “When you're writing a 500 word news story, it's quite formulaic in terms of how you write it, and all of us in our political team have been doing this for a long period of time”, Payne said. 

“When we do the podcast, we can bring more personality into it. What we're trying to do for the listeners is to say: come into our little world, this is how we talk.”

The chattier approach may be a draw for journalists tiring of having to keep to tight word counts, but it also brings in listeners. If you have a deep interest in politics, the adversarial nature of many of the discussions and the sharpness of news items may leave you wanting. Podcasters, on the other hand, are able to take their time and explore issues in more depth.

Crucially, this is also something that matters to Westminster insiders. British Political podcasts may not have the millions of listeners their American counterparts have but, inside the parliamentary bubble, they still fulfill an important purpose.

As Labour shadow minister and self-confessed “podcast geek” Charlotte Nichols explains, “because there are so many personalities in Parliament, it's often a good way to learn more about another person. Then, the next time you see them or you're working with them on something, you can use the fact that they’re a campaigner on an issue you’re also interested in, or that their family background or work history is relevant to something you’re doing.”

“So for example, I didn't know until quite recently that Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, used to work for World Wrestling Entertainment. I'm the Vice Chair of the wrestling All Party Parliamentary Group and realising that when she got reshuffled into DCMS was very helpful.”

Most jobs in Westminster rely at least tangentially on information gathering, and knowing about people’s ideological bent as well as the content of their character or their personal history. Glossy magazine or Sunday paper profiles may offer those details but they’re usually only concerned with prominent figures.

By giving others in the bubble the time and space to talk about themselves and their views, podcasts can help give depth to political players who usually get little airtime. “They help with cross party working and building alliances”, Nichols concludes. “They help you find allies.”

Maybe that’s why it isn’t really a problem that most political podcasts are ignored by the vast, vast majority of the country. Recorded in the bubble and listened to by the bubble, they have found their niche; anything else is a bonus.