Why The Whickers Foundation is continuing a media maverick’s legacy through podcasting

The organisation’s Podcast Pitch award supports audio documentary makers in the name of media maverick Alan Whicker

If you’re old enough to remember watching Alan Whicker on the TV, then you probably have a memory of a posh middle-aged gentleman with trademark glasses, a military moustache and a super-smart blazer. If you don’t know him, he was a British broadcaster and journalist with a career that spanned 60 years, most famous for the Whicker's World series in which he travelled the globe telling the stories of the places and the people he met.

Award-winning documentary maker Jane Ray worked with Alan Whicker towards the end of his career, and remembers him speaking often about “Whicker’s luck”: the opportunity to simply have an idea and bring it to life. He’d tell her, “I could just walk into my boss’s office and say, ‘Off to Haiti this week, dear boy, I'll send you the stuff when it’s done.’”

Latterly, however, he came to see that those days of fully-commissioned documentary programmes were a thing of the past, with commissioners reluctant to green-light anything without a celebrity name. “Alan recognised that the chances of a ‘brilliant idea’ getting made if you were a first-time director were slim at best,” says Ray, “and he wanted to address it.”

Whicker’s legacy

Following Alan Whicker’s death in 2013, Ray was named in his will as the person he wanted to take his legacy forward. In 2015, alongside his partner Valerie Kleeman, she helped set up The Whickers, a funding organisation that supports emerging film and audio documentary-makers.

The mission of The Whickers’ two annual awards and bursary scheme is to encourage the making of quality documentaries by emerging film and audio talent. With its main prize worth £100,000, The Whickers Film and TV Funding Award quickly became one of the most significant documentary awards in the world, but the audio award was slower to take off. Ray says it did OK, but that it didn’t really find its feet until she met Raul Niño Zambrano, head of programming at Sheffield Documentary Festival. “He said, ‘I love audio too,’ and I just thought, hang on.”

In June 2022, in partnership with the Sheffield Documentary Festival, The Whickers launched The Podcast Pitch, with five shortlisted podcast creators pitching to an industry audience at Sheffield's Crucible theatre. “We gave it all the razzmatazz, all the publicity, the bells and whistles that a film director is used to when they stand up in the Crucible. We managed to fill the theatre with people who were actively looking for talent.”

Podcast Pitch 2023

Accepting applications for its second Podcast Pitch until 25 February, The Whickers will be presenting a £5,000 production award to the winner and £2,000 to a runner-up in 2024. The five finalists will also receive a free pass to Sheffield Documentary Festival in June 2024, one night's accommodation, a contribution of up to £400 per project towards their travel expenses and that all-important access to industry professionals.

The Podcast Pitch is open to anyone, from students to people established in their career. “Everybody with a good idea,” says Ray. “The one that you've not been able to sell commercially but that you can't let go.”

The award is also not genre-specific, despite Alan Whicker’s reputation for travel documentaries. “I want you to surprise me,” says Ray. “Take us to a hitherto unseen or unknown world. That could be across the globe, or what's going on inside your shed - or your head - right now. It doesn't have to be a great long 13-part series. It can be a one-off, or it can be a six-parter, you just have to be clear when you come to the podium.”

In a world dominated by celebrities and engagement metrics, The Whickers’ judges are looking for something more. Full judging criteria are listed on the Whickers’ website and ‘a demonstrable flair for coaxing the human spirit into revealing itself’ is one of the best metrics we’ve ever seen.

Ray uses the acronym S.O.A.P. to highlight the key attributes of a successful Whickers’ Podcast Pitch: ‘S’ is for storytelling, ‘O’ is for originality, ‘A’ is for access, and ‘P’ is for the passion and perseverance needed to see an idea through to the end.

Pitching podcasts

Taqwa Sadiq demonstrated all of those qualities in her pitch for Breathing Lyrical, winning second prize at 2023’s inaugural Podcast Pitch. Her 15-minute podcast, featured in the BBC’s New Storytellers series, documents her quest to understand how an ancient Persian poem helped her overcome breathing difficulties brought on by long Covid.

Sadiq describes her podcast as a “weird, niche thing”, combining her readings from a non-European literary tradition with comments from experts in science and medicine. “I thought everyone was going to think ‘What's this girl on about?’ But people responded really well.”

Besides the prize money, Sadiq says the Podcast Pitch gave her confidence to be herself. “The pitch was a bit of a turning point. I can just say what I'm actually thinking and people are responding to it.

“There's a big movement at the moment in the creative industries to just make things which are tried and tested, cookie-cutter stuff,” she says. “If the mainstream can't understand it, then there's no room for it.” 

Podcast Pitch judge Hugh Levinson, a commissioning editor at BBC Radio Four, sees the award as a way to support the sort of innovation embodied in personal podcasts like Breathing Lyrical. “It's making a commitment to original podcasting as a serious and ambitious medium,” he says. 

“We've gotten to a stage where a lot of the big podcasts look very, very similar. What looked like a glorious field of innovation, especially in the first few years, seems to have become really regimented. The money men have looked at it and found some formulas that work.”

Levinson says the podcasts that tend to pay their way are two people in the studio, maybe with a guest. “That's fine - a lot are brilliant and obviously speak to their audience - but it leaves out a whole other universe of what can be done.”

As a judge, Levinson is looking for work that’s original, engaging and accessible, but that pushes the boundaries.

Judging starts with the written pitch, but moves quickly to the submitted audio clips. “The audio is amazingly good at differentiating. Language only gets you a little bit of the way - you run out of adjectives quite quickly, but you know immediately when you hear it, within 30 seconds. There’s a little sort of mysterious magic in really good audio.”

The Whickers’ focus on podcasting is recognition of the incredible growth that came after Alan Whicker died. What would he have made of the pivot to podcasting?

“He may have looked like a military pukka gent,” Ray says, “but it was all a disguise. He was the most maverick mind I think I have ever known. He was extraordinary and any new technology that came on the scene, he'd think, ‘Oh, I wonder how I could use that?’”

Ray highlights his adoption of satellite communications, which she says he quickly adopted to send material back to Broadcasting House so that he could keep travelling, “hopping from country to country” rather than having the time and expense of returning to base.

“I think he would have leapt at the chance to do podcasting. I think he would have been in his room after Valerie had gone to bed – because he was such a night owl – his mellifluous tones, his astute observations on human nature. I think he would have been up there with The Rest is Politics. And would have loved the idea that he'd been able to bring in some new talent.”