It’s a common truism that radio is the grandfather of modern podcasting. While podcasting is a relatively new medium, much of its sensibilities are informed by radio – both because it’s an easy template for audio producers to take inspiration from, and because many within the podcasting industry have come to it from a radio background.
The common chat-based podcast format popular with comedians, for example, is in many ways influenced by music radio hosts, who fill the time between songs with back-and-forth banter and running jokes. Other formats such as interview shows, news bulletins like The Smart 7 and scripted drama podcasts, meanwhile, all have their roots in Radio 4’s esteemed programming traditions.
However, there is one radio format that has been sadly neglected by podcasting – the humble panel show. Codified by fan-favourite shows like Just A Minute, The News Quiz and The Unbelievable Truth, comedy panel shows have been a staple of Radio 4’s programming for decades, and the format has been successfully transplanted to TV with the likes of Mock The Week, Qi, Have I got News For You and countless others.
I’m a big fan of these shows and the panel format in general, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular; through the loose framework of a simple parlour game, it allows comedians, celebrities and generally funny people to bounce off each other for half an hour, delivering witty lines and gently ribbing their fellow panellists.
In keeping with the broadcaster’s stated ambitions to cater more to “the podcast generation”, Radio 4’s panel shows are all now released as podcasts following their broadcast airings, but what’s baffling to me is that the format hasn’t been seized on by more podcasters and networks. Considering the popularity of comedy podcasts, it is a source of considerable amazement that such a versatile and rewarding template isn’t more widely adopted.
The principal benefit of this format for publishers – other than the devoted followings that panel shows typically inspire – is that having multiple guests per episode allows the podcast to leverage the inbuilt followings that comedians and celebrities typically bring with them. It’s a well-known fact that one of the best and quickest ways to grow a podcast’s audience is to bring in big-name guests, and a panel-show format allows you to bring in two to four guests every single episode.
This isn’t without its challenges, of course; I know from experience that it can be hard enough wrangling just one guest each week, let alone enough to fill out a panel. Mind you, if there’s one thing the UK isn’t short of, it’s funny people; our stand-up comedy circuit is positively teeming with emerging talent, not to mention the cottage industry of comedy creators active on platforms like TikTok, or indeed hosting their own podcasts.
A panel show podcast does require live recordings too in order to capture that all-important audience laughter which is essential for keeping the energy up, but Pappy’s Flatshare Slamdown – one of the few examples of the format outside Radio 4 – manages to fill out regular live recordings, as well as booking a range of notable guests. In fact, panel shows are a great way to take advantage of the growing appetite for live podcast recordings.
Podcasting could even help address some of the hurdles that have plagued radio comedy for years; when I spoke to audio comedy grandee Andy Zaltzman last year, one of the main benefits that he appreciated about podcasting was the fact that it’s relatively quick to get a show off the ground, compared with the year to 18 months that it typically takes a show to make it through the labyrinthine workings of the BBC’s commissioning process.
Podcasting has fruitfully borrowed a great deal of inspiration from radio over the years, which is probably part of why the medium feels so mature. However, there’s always room for evolution, and panel shows are a comedy blind spot that, sooner or later, podcasters should start addressing.