In praise of podcasts

When I was learning about community art, nearly 40 years ago, we talked about putting the means of cultural production into everyone’s hands. That purpose made sense to me (it still does) but I also saw how little power we had to set against the corporations and institutions of the art world. We could, at most, prove the possibility of something different, something fairer and more democratic. I could not imagine then how that vision of community art would become reality. The means of cultural production really are now in the hands of most people (though still not everyone): there is more productive capacity in the cheapest smartphone than in a 1970s community media project. More importantly – and even more unimaginably – the Internet has given people the means of cultural publication and distribution. It is a real transformation that makes cultural democracy possible, and therefore contested again.

You can see this change in the relatively quiet world of podcasting. I’ve always preferred radio to TV, and the British and French public broadcasters had a huge influence on how I imagined and understood the world when I was young. But those authorities have steadily lost their hold on my attention, replaced by the far more diverse voices now reaching me through podcasts. Some are academics, but I’m drawn more to people with little or no institutional backing. I’ve written before about the excellent podcasts on cultural democracy by Sophie Hope and Owen Kelly (I even contributed to a couple of episodes earlier this year, though I couldn’t listen to those). But I’ve also been enjoying to Ten Words for a Northern Landscape, by Caroline Beck for New Writing North, Is it Rolling, Bob? by Kerry Shale and Lucas Hale, Philosophize This! by Stephen West, Cakewatch by Steve Bullock and Chris Kendall, and Sandwell Stories by Multistory, among many others. I’ve discovered sound art by my friend Rebecca Lee and the French group Dixième de Bel, which though not podcasts, keep showing me how much space there is between my ears.

These podcasts have little in common in subject, or tone: some create sophisticated soundscapes with many voices, others are conversations between friends. But each one is a vivid demonstration that what we used to call radio is being transformed as more and different people are able to make it. The monolithic power of state broadcasters and private corporations is being undermined by a million tunnels. This is not all good: it raises existential difficulties for how we do democracy, as recent elections have shown. But if democracy is to mean something real, then we will have to solve the challenge of the multiplication of voices in ways that do not, as in the past, give excessive power to those who already have it. I’ve no idea what the answers are, but they must be found. And the opening of speech and sound art through podcasts is a good place to look.

Dixième de Bel

What gives me hope is the quality and sophistication of the podcasts I find. The authority of BBC Radio – and the enormous salaries commanded by some of its ‘star’ presenters – rested on the idea of exceptional talent. Making radio programmes was a skilled, sophisticated craft that should be left to the professionals. The podcasts I now listen to give the lie to that idea. They are mostly indistinguishable in sound quality from the output of corporations with far more technical resources. And more importantly, the performance of those who make them – whether they are interviewing guests, telling stories, expounding ideas or making soundscapes – is at least the equal of most radio professionals. What the world of podcasts shows, above all, is that anyone can make good radio, if they put their mind to it and they have something to share.

And that is the real promise of cultural democracy – not that, in Kingsley Amis’s banal dictum, ‘More will mean worse’, but that more will mean more: more good, more bad and more ugly, more chances for more people, more freedom of thought and expression, more allies and networks, more creativity and more innovation. Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, is a good because you can never tell when something will turn out to be what you need. We need democratic processes to make us play more or less fair, but never doubt that we can all play.