Robert Peston has a somewhat fearsome reputation. The man who first broke the news of Northern Rock’s impending collapse in 2007, which heralded the start of the UK financial crash, Peston's wealth of knowledge and experience as a respected political and economic journalist makes him a distinguished name in British current affairs.
Currently serving as political editor for ITV News, Peston has worked in senior positions across various news outlets over the course of his career, including as political editor at the Financial Times and as business and economics editor for BBC News. He has often been praised for his ability to explain complex topics and issues from around the world - a skill which he has taken into his career in podcasting.
“I approach [podcasting] the way that I always approached my journalism, which is, if you want to have authority, you have to immerse yourself in an issue and you have to have a sense of where the great currents are going and what matters to people,” he says.
“What we try to do is cover the big issues that will help people make decisions about their lives and we also want to make it entertaining. The programme of the podcast reflects our convictions, as well as our personalities.”
Fresh from launching his economics news podcast The Rest is Money with production company Goalhanger, we spoke to Peston at a Spotify event in London about his ultimate goal in launching the podcast, how he approaches journalism, and why accessible financial news is more important than ever.
Making economics accessible
Podcasting isn’t a new venture for Peston, having previously been a host for ITV News political podcast Calling Peston from 2019 and even being a podcast listener himself; although he mostly uses it as a means of entertainment or to enrich his knowledge on other topics, with preferences towards technical podcasts from companies like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.
Launching The Rest is Money was originally Peston’s idea, pitching it to Goalhanger co-founders Tony Pastor and Jack Davenport with the aim to make economic and financial news more understandable and easy to unpack to listeners during the cost of living crisis.
“This is the most volatile and, in some ways, exciting time industrially, politically and technologically, and what we're trying to do is understand it and then explain it,” says Peston. “Why [focus on] economics business now; it's because if you don't understand how to make money, you might as well pack up and go home.”
Ultimately, Peston’s goal as both a political journalist and a podcaster is to reach as broad an audience as possible, and news podcasting specifically has proven to reach younger generations who are not tuning in to traditional forms of media. In order to achieve that, Peston says that the most important thing is not to patronise the listener and to avoid using jargon that makes the topic unnecessarily complicated.
“The trick is to take complex stuff and explain it in a way that your mum or your grandmother can understand, but somebody who's very sophisticated and who knows the world well thinks is intelligent,” he advises. “What we're both desperately trying to do is to make the complex understandable to pretty much anybody.”
Choosing the right partner
When it came to choosing the right co-host for The Rest is Money, Peston says there was one name that came to mind. Steph McGovern now hosts daily entertainment and lifestyle series Steph's Packed Lunch on Channel 4, but during Peston’s time at the BBC nearly 10 years ago, she worked closely with him as his producer. She was behind the scenes when he broke the Northern Rock news, and their work together has been grounded in an ethos of making economic complexity digestible for a mainstream audience.
She went on to present a number of financial and economics programmes, including the BBC’s On The Money and Can Britain Have a Pay Rise?, with a particular focus on consumer financial advice. In an interview with The Daily Express in 2020, McGovern praised Peston for supporting her in pushing her career forward, stating that he always saw her as more than a producer and would always try to keep her voice present in the room.
“She was on a very short list of people that we thought would work, and she was the first person I rang up,” says Peston. “For better or worse, she said yes. Literally on the spot.”
Experience and personality are the two things that most listeners look for in their news podcasts, and while both Peston and McGovern are experienced and respected names within journalism, they also have a proven chemistry. This is an essential part of Goalhanger’s podcast strategy, according to Davenport, and is a key element of its success with other podcasts such as The Rest is Politics with former political figures Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart.
The podcast is framed around Campbell and Stewart’s opposing perspectives, with the former having served for the Labour Party and the latter a previous Conservative minister. Similarly, Peston and McGovern both come from different backgrounds - with Peston being “a middle-class Jewish boy from North London and [McGovern] a girl from Middlesbrough” studying to be an engineer in Cambridge - but despite their differences, they’re still able to get along and spark off each other.
“I hate the word diversity, because it's such a cliche, but I do think if you listen to the podcast, you can tell that we come to it with very different experiences,” Peston says. “Experience shapes judgement as well, so I think that if you’re a listener, you do get something different from each of us.”
Why experience matters
Over the past two years, news podcasts have had a significant rise in popularity due to unstable political and economic circumstances. This was further proven by the fact that four out of the top 15 podcasts in the UK - based on total weekly audience reach - were all current affairs and political podcasts, according to Edison Research’s UK Podcast Metrics for Q2 2023.
This includes Goalhanger’s The Rest is Politics, BBC’s Newscast, The New York Times’ The Daily, and Global and Persephonica’s The News Agents- all of which are led by experienced journalists. According to Global’s whitepaper on news podcasting from earlier this year, 41% of survey respondents said they prefer their hosts to be “experts in their field” and 71% said that they find news podcasting easier to understand than other mediums.
McGovern and Peston are both authoritative voices on the subject of economics and make a natural pairing. Similarly, Goalhanger’s rival Persephonica also launched a new economics podcast around the same time, in the form of Political Currency with ex-politicians Ed Balls and George Osborne - both of whom are also experts in this field.
Both companies have found great success with their previous news podcast launches and hope to do the same with The Rest is Money and Political Currency, breaking down complex headlines to listeners while simultaneously providing them with engaging and entertaining conversation. In fact, prior to starting The Rest is Money, Peston asked Campbell - who he’s known since the 1990s - for advice. The former political figure said that his success was a “complete mystery”, but Peston says that it was Goalhanger’s behind-the-scenes team that was the greatest source of insight.
“I'm not really trying to flatter Tony and Jack and the team - and Dom, who's our producer - but the truth is, the people that Steph and I listened to very much are on the production side of the podcast, because they've been doing it, and doing it very successfully,” explains Peston.
Despite his experience in the podcasting world and the great value that Peston sees in it, he says the way he gets his news has not changed. Peston isn’t looking at turning down traditional forms of media and prioritising podcasting; instead, he’s trying to look for the stories that matter - wherever they are - and explain them to his listeners.
“There are podcasts like The Rest is Politics and The Rest is History hosted by people with expertise, and you can listen to those podcasts and genuinely significantly enrich your knowledge of matters that matter,” says Peston. “But the basic way that I've done my job has never changed, which is: what are the stories that matter? Who knows about it? How do I get the information?”