Saturday, 15 November 2014

Serial: Could the crime podcast solve the case for radio's future?

Serial host Sarah Koenig
Ambridge’s cockerels could soon be shrieking their final crow, with former Home Secretary David Blunkett, saying he “was losing the will to live” over BBC Radio 4’s The Archers' plot lines this week. But the phenomenal worldwide success of new podcast Serial
may signal a changing of the guard in audio entertainment as millions of listeners wait on tenterhooks for today’s edition.

Serial, a spin-off from US radio show This American Life, is hosted by former Baltimore Sun journalist Sarah Koenig who sets out the case for and against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, aged just 17. Koenig turns the case like a Rubik’s cube in attempting to discern the student's killer, guiding listeners through holes in the conviction and Syed’s story.

Listeners have taken to Reddit to attempt to solve the case and are hosting listening parties for each episode.

Serial producer Dana Chivvis tells me the conclusion is not set in stone: “We have a vague idea, but we also know we could uncover some key piece of information tomorrow, and the whole thing could take a sharp turn. Or not.”

With many in the UK coming to Serial late, this thriller has triggered a spate of binge listening amongst commuters and those attacking the household chores. Marathon DVD boxset and streaming sessions are now a firm part of our televisual culture, but could this be the tipping point for radio and podcasting?

“This is the first break-out podcast,” argues Matt Deegan, creative director at radio consultancy Folder Media. “Serial could be to podcasting what House of Cards was to Netflix.”

Chivvis adds: “People want to binge listen because they want to be able to immediately scratch that itch of ‘what's gonna happen?’ But also because it’s so engrossing to live inside the world of this story, the same way you don’t want to look up from a really good book or go to the bathroom in the middle of an epic movie.”

Serial is not the only podcast charming hordes of fans keen to consume its wares in one gorge. Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s long-running BBC Radio 5 live film review show treats podcast listeners to exclusive content and regularly reports missives from listeners stocking up on episodes for long haul jaunts to Japan or Himalayan treks.

“We often get emails from listeners who have discovered us three weeks before and listened to all 300 episodes,” laughs Helen Zaltzman, whose Answer Me This podcast has won a clutch of awards. “Consuming large quantities in one sitting is one of the attractions.

“Video streaming sites were originally worried that putting whole series out at once would kill the sense of anticipation around new episodes. But if you look at Orange is the New Black, people are still dissecting it online months later.”

Radio listening figures remain healthy but the popularity of the traditional drama serial is in question. Podcasters are trying to re-invent the medium and have found their own darling – Welcome to Night Vale.

The deliberately weird drama is set in the fictional town of Night Vale and presented in the manner of a local news broadcast. First released in 2012, its popularity stepped up last year when fans took to Tumblr to share artwork of how they imagined characters, including a levitating cat, would look. It now enjoys more than 150,000 downloads an episode and the show's creators are amid a sold out European tour.

Meanwhile, Zombie podcast We're Alive has enchanted a legion of fans keen to have their brains munched by its audio delights.

Amazon’s Audible, the established player in the online audiobooks market (which also began sponsoring Serial this week), is also making waves, commissioning original content on everything from naughty romance to crime dramas.

But is a Lovefilm-style audio model a commercially appealing proposition? “Audio is still cheaper for advertisers and if they see the success of Serial, they may be tempted in,” says Deegan. “In the US, listeners are also used to stations asking for donations to support high quality speech radio.” Indeed, podcast network Radiotopia is steaming towards success in a $650,000 Kickstarter campaign to release a raft of shows including an edition of The Truth by Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin.

The radio industry has its ear pressed to the speaker attempting to disseminate the impact of Serial, but one question hangs heaviest in the air, who did kill Hae Min Lee?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Buck 65 at the 100 Club: The chirpiest heartbreak you ever did see

I'll keep this short and sweet as Buck 65's place as ShadowPlay's All Time Favourite Artist is well documented and firmly assured*. A surprisingly chipper Richard Terfry was on fine form at London's historic 100 Club this week.  

A short chat at the merch stand prior to the gig confirms he remains the affable, charming and funny soul we've come to know and love over the last two decades (well, one in my case. It was heartwarming to find he remembered my favourite ever interview at the Rescue Rooms, Nottingham with him in 2004). On seeing Buck at The Garage in Islington last year I wondered whether his forthcoming album would be his Blood on the Tracks, documenting, as it does, his break up with his wife. 

Terfry had come back from tour to find a note saying 'don't forget to feed the cat' and his wedding ring. And indeed the record, Neverlove is a cathartic effort ('That's the Way Love Dies' and  'Love Will Fuck You Up' are standouts) but still with Buck's inimitable perky style ingrained within it. It combines his usual hip-hop/folk style with his popiest edge yet and, in all but a couple of cases, is complemented well by a series of female vocalists. What's more, it's his best outing since 2003's celebrated Talkin' Honky Blues, mixing clever wordplay, some well worked duets and effortless changes in tone. 

Before the set, he tells me he's had to talk a lot about his split from his wife in conducting media interviews for the new album. It's been like a psychoanalysis session, he explains. Indeed, he sought help for panic attacks experienced after his divorce. 

But his 100 Club performance displays little of this torture. Dressed in a sharp suit, Buck is his usual playful self, making quips about laundry and culminating his set with a dance suggesting there's an explosion in his crotch while singing about having cake and sex on his birthday. There's snatches of crowd favourites including Indestructible Sam and Roses and Bluejays and ultimate classics including Centaur and Wicked and Weird are given full run outs. He largely steers clear of the more mournful songs from the album and uses his duets with Tiger Rosa to muck about and encourage her to spank him with her belt. He drifts off to remind us he's a great scratch DJ then nips back to the mic to tell a funny story about a girl downing a glass of milk. 

Buck 65, whether in his guise as a radio host or simply as Richard Terfry, a man who has been through a lot, remains one of the most talented musicians on the planet. With his latest offering, he's also reminded us he remains one of the most musically relevant. 

*Oh ok, yes I failed to keep it short and sweet.