It’s hard to definitively establish who holds the crown for the longest-running podcast, but Andy Zaltzman is surely a firm contender. The writer and comedian has been hosting satirical comedy podcast The Bugle since 2007 and the show celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this year.
Reaching this milestone hasn’t been without its challenges - not least the departure of founding co-host John Oliver - but the battle scars of a decade and a half in podcasting have done little to dampen Zaltzman’s enthusiasm for the show, and the history of The Bugle makes a compelling case study for anyone grappling with the challenges of keeping a show on the air.
Originally launched under the banner of Times Online, The Bugle was a comparatively early entrant into the podcast market, but began running independently after separating from the publisher in 2011. The podcast has subsequently explored a number of funding models; it briefly hosted advertising for two years while it was part of Roman Mars’ Radiotopia network, but for most of its lifespan it has been supported by listener donations.
This is becoming an increasingly popular avenue for podcast monetisation, and The Bugle’s ‘voluntary subscription’ scheme (in keeping with its ‘audio newspaper’ conceit) has allowed it to cover its costs consistently for the best part of a decade.
“It's over a decade since we left the Times,” Zaltzman says, “and for most of that, we've been kept going by our listeners.”
“I'm not a natural business person, and my main concern is that it's sustainable and makes enough to pay everyone who does it; that's been the main driver, really, is to try and make it as stable a business as possible. Whether we could make more money in different ways, possibly. I don't know. But I like the fact that it's completely independent.”
The results are hard to argue with. Not only is The Bugle still going strong, it has grown into its own podcast network, with eight shows under its umbrella. This growth has been assisted by producer Chris Skinner, who has been vice president of entertainment for podcast powerhouse Somethin’ Else since last year. Many of the network’s other podcasts are helmed by regular Bugle contributors, including The Gargle with Alice Fraser, and Tiny Revolutions with Tiff Stevenson, and while Zaltzman rejects its characterisation as a ‘media empire’, he admits that The Bugle’s success has given him a platform which allows him to help launch deserving shows.
“It's just been nice to be able to help provide a bit of assistance to people, whether it's to get shows off the ground or to provide a long term home for it. We don't really have ambitions to be a giant network, but who knows, in future hopefully we'll be able to branch out a bit more.”
A medium of infinite possibilities
Zaltzman is now using his hard-won experience to help fellow podcasters nurture their own careers, but while he and Oliver were among the first wave of professional UK podcasters, he says they never set out to be pioneers.
“We were lucky to get in when we did,” he reflects. “It'd be lovely to think that we'd been visionary enough to say, ‘Oh, this medium is the future of comedy’, but the fact is, our agents just said, ‘We've got this deal for you to do a show, do you want to do it?’”
When they launched the podcast, Zaltzman and Oliver had already been collaborating for a number of years on stand-up and radio shows, which Zaltzman credits with helping it stand out. While many of The Bugle’s contemporary podcasts - such as those of Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand - were born of radio shows, their formats tended to be unscripted and organic. Zaltman and Oliver, by contrast, were much more pre-planned and deliberate in their approach to the show’s content.
“John and I, our stuff was always very written when we did live double act shows,” Zaltzman says; “The Department and the Political Animal show we did on Radio 4 were very tightly scripted. We try to make it as sort of dense as possible with as many different laughter points in it. So, I think it was that approach to radio comedy we then took into podcasts - and you still see that in the way John does his TV show today. That commitment to try and make every word count.”
Oliver now hosts HBO’s Last Week Tonight - a satirical news programme with echoes of The Bugle’s tone and content - and was forced to step away from the podcast in 2016 when balancing both productions became too much of a struggle. Zaltzman, meanwhile, has continued working in radio as well as podcasting, expanding into cricket analysis, and in 2021, he also took over hosting duties for Radio 4’s iconic News Quiz.
However, while the BBC now invests heavily into digital audio and podcasts, this hasn’t been the case for much of Zaltzman’s career. For instance, Radio 4’s The Department was written by Oliver and Zaltzman in collaboration with Chris Addison, who would later go on to win critical acclaim for his work on The Thick Of It and Veep. The show had all the makings of a cult sleeper hit, but hasn’t been made available by the BBC since its original broadcast.
“There was a certain frustration with radio that you'd do a show, it would go out and then it would sort of disappear… And it became clear quite early on through when we started doing The Bugle that you've got a much more committed audience through podcasting, partly because the stuff just stayed online.”
While radio shows typically require a lengthy commissioning process before they see the light of day, the low barrier to entry of podcasts means that they can be produced much faster, and with fewer resources, which Zaltzman notes has sparked an “explosion of creativity”.
“Podcasting is a medium of infinite possibility. You can do whatever you want with it, plus it has that sense that it's not so ephemeral as radio used to be… What podcasting did was enable you to start a show and just let it grow without that constant worry of thinking ‘is it going to come back’,” he says. “It took a year, year and a half to get a radio show off the ground, and with podcasting, you could just start something within days, so it enabled a lot of people to do shows they really wanted to do and to carve niches because it has a global audience rather than the regional audience.”
The Bugle has certainly found its own niche. The show has run for almost 550 full episodes by Zaltzman’s reckoning, and if you were to go back and listen from the very beginning - which Zaltzman claims would take around four months to get through on a 9-5 schedule - you might be surprised to find how little the show’s essential format and tone have changed over the years.
The most significant change came when Oliver left, but Zaltzman has endeavoured to maintain a sense of thematic and tonal consistency, replacing Oliver with a rotating cast of guest contributors from around the world. This goal has been assisted by Skinner, who has been with the show since 2010.
“It gradually, I guess, rebuilt and evolved from there as a slightly different show,” Zaltzman explains, “but with the same spirit of wanting to try and make the week's news funny, entertaining, and hopefully slightly less depressing than it sometimes is.”
The list of Bugle contributors includes a number of notable podcasters, such as Stevenson, Fraser and Nish Kumar - who will be launching another satirical news podcast early next year. The cast has also featured Zaltzman’s sister, Helen - a podcast industry luminary in her own right who, in addition to co-hosting the long-running Answer Me This podcast with Olly Mann, also hosts a popular podcast on etymology.
Another major change came with lockdown, when the podcast moved to remote recordings via Zoom. Unusually for its time, The Bugle was designed around remote recordings from the very beginning, with Zaltzman in London and Oliver dialling in from New York via a high-end digital phone line, but he notes that being able to see his guests has been a hugely beneficial addition, and he has no plans to go back to the studio.
“The difference with the Zoom recordings is it's actually made it slightly more personal, in that you can see people's faces and interact in a slightly more human way,” he explains. “It wasn't so much of an issue working with John, because we'd worked together for so long, the fact we couldn't see each other didn't matter too much. And the quality of an ISDN line meant there was no lag on it like you get with Zoom, which is obviously one of the drawbacks of it.”
Nevertheless, the revised format and recording style has given Zaltzman a helpful degree of flexibility, which allows him to fit the podcast into his seemingly punishing touring schedule, which has seen him recording episodes from locations including Australia and India. Writing and recording The Bugle still takes up a substantial amount of his working life, he says, but even after 15 years, he's nowhere close to ending the show.
"I nearly put it to bed when John couldn't do it any more. I thought should we just leave it at that, as a show that worked really well with just the two of us? And I came to the conclusion it was worth trying to keep it going, partly because I needed that outlet, almost - and having built something up, it seemed sensible to try and keep it going."
In fact, Zaltzman’s sheer persistence and force of will are a large part of the secret behind The Bugle’s longevity. In the face of increasing competition, shifting funding models and the departure of Zaltzman's chief creative collaborator, The Bugle has not just held on, but actively grown, driven by passion and determination.
"I guess if I reach a point where I feel I'm not creating anything new and good and fresh enough, then I might consider [ending it], but I love doing it," he says. "I'd love to just keep it going indefinitely, as long as there's enough of an audience, and as long as I think that I'm making a good enough show."