The sincerest form of flattery

Inspiration and imitation in the world of podcasting

You’ve probably heard the quote asserting that “good artists borrow, [but] great artists steal.” It’s commonly attributed to Pablo Picasso (although this may be apocryphal) and refers to the idea that the more liberally a creator borrows influences and inspiration from their fellow creators, the better their work becomes.

If that’s true, then podcasting is the greatest artistic medium that humanity has ever devised. Podcasters are constantly reinventing, remixing and repurposing the work of their peers and predecessors; in fact, during the recording of tomorrow’s podcast, Evolution Of Horror host Mike Muncer told us that he borrowed the genre-focused seasonal format of his show from Karina Longworth’s Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This

However, there are always some podcasts that influence the industry’s direction of travel more than others. Fittingly, this column was inspired in large part by a Tweet from Message Heard founder Jake Warren, who noted that while Serialhas been the pace-setter for almost a decade, The Rest Is Politics appears to have stolen its crown.

The latest golden child of podcasting - in the UK, at least - Goalhanger’s smash-hit discussion show has quickly become a sensation, hovering continually around the top of the charts, racking up praise and selling out live tours. Helmed by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, it became the breakout star of last year, and its influence is only set to grow in the run-up to next year’s looming general election.

For larger podcast studios and production houses, however, TRIP is a surprisingly easy format to replicate. Its genius lies in its simplicity: at its core, it’s just two experts in a specific field, who host opposing viewpoints but are nonetheless friends. The show’s unofficial ethos is based on the concept of ‘disagreeing agreeably’, and it’s been applied to the numerous spin-offs that Goalhanger has subsequently launched

It’s not difficult to find people that fall into this category, particularly in politics, and evidently, many podcast producers have been busily raiding their little black books to round up a suitable pairing.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that it’s already spawning shows which are clearly drawing considerable inspiration from it - including The New European’s The Two Matts, and Persephonica’s forthcoming podcast with Ed Balls and George Osborne. While a cynical observer might be tempted to dismiss this as naked opportunism, the rush of podcasts mimicking Campbell and Stewart’s formula is, to my mind, a much more positive trend for the medium than the glut of true-crime podcasts that arose as a result of Serial’s runaway success. 

The problem with this true-crime gold rush was that it’s much easier for a single genre to reach saturation point. Unless you can offer a new spin on the format - as with Drunk Women Solving Crimes - the market can only support so many stories about horrible murders before a ceiling is reached. This is likely why an increasing number of production companies are branching out into different sub-genres like medical cases and con artists.

Of course, no media is immune to bandwagon-jumping; look at the wave of superhero movies that followed the success of Marvel’s first outings, or the ‘landfill indie’ trend of the early 2000s, for example. Where the influence of The Rest Of Politics differs is that it’s not a particular subject matter or thematic elements that are being lifted; instead, it’s the dynamic and relationship between the hosts, which should be the beating heart of any successful podcast. 

While the hosts of Persephonica and The New European’s new podcasts may share the same political expertise and Westminster credentials as The Rest Is Politics’ hosts, it’s that shared chemistry which is the real secret to their podcast’s success - and that’s what anyone seeking to achieve similar results should be trying to steal.