I was absently scrolling through my phone’s news feed a few days ago when I noticed a headline about The Today Programme.
The reference took me back to a time just a few years ago when I always used to wake up to the voices of John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Sarah Montague and the rest of them. My morning routine was so entrenched with Today that I even set my phone’s alarm to BBC Radio 4 when I was abroad. The presenters’ voices were familiar and the interviews generally informative.
Thought For The Day always grated with me: it is anachronistic and I have always thought that superstition should have no place in a programme billed as factual. To avoid the daily aggravation, I developed a cunning strategy: time my shower to coincide with it, drowning the unscientific drivel under a jet of hot water noise. Problem solved!
By 9:00 every weekday, as I arrived at the office or started my work at home, I had been energised, entertained and thoroughly informed by the familiar voices of the BBC.
I can’t remember exactly when I last listened to Today. I haven’t tuned in this year, and I don’t think I did last year either. I realised as I saw the headline that I have transformed completely, from loyal listener to committed detractor. As I read about yet another case of overlapping a well-informed, respectable guest and a stridently ignorant ideologue to serve the programme’s ridiculous misunderstanding of balance, I couldn’t but feel a sense of relief that I no longer have to endure the charade the programme has turned itself into.
The thought made me smile. Then it made me think: I’m an avid consumer of news and I pride myself on being well informed about the widest range of subjects and current affairs. Today used to be a very large part of that. Now that I haven’t listened for at least a couple of years, what I have I replaced it with?
A varied news diet for 2020
I haven’t owned a TV for more than 10 years, so TV news make exactly 0% of my sources. I find the modern TV news format unbearable.
Radio is also out. I haven’t tuned in to a broadcast since I parted ways with Radio 4. Audio, however, has not gone away. I listen to hours of podcasts and audiobooks every day. I love the depth that my chosen podcasters bring to their analysis, free from the rigidity that broadcast formats impose, prioritising timing and rhythm over quality, analysis and depth. The global nature of podcasting also enables me to access the best reporters, regardless of location, and to ensure I am achieving that elusive balance by listening to several sources. Additionally, while some great podcasts focus on the here and now, others take the long view of history while others yet look forward in time. A few even manage to make fun of it all, helping to brighten even the darkest of subjects.
A few of my favourite podcasts
The Bugle, audio newspaper for a visual world. Andy Zaltzman breaks down the news with comedians from across the world. The Bugle has been going on for a lot longer that I’ve been listening to it. John Oliver was a co-host before he became globally famous as the host of Last Week Tonight. It’s one of those magical satirical shows that make you laugh and then reflect. Andy Zaltzman spends a lot more time researching the topics in the news than anyone involved in daily reporting, and it shows. I always feel satisfied by the time end credits roll.
I have been listening to Behind the Bastards, a show by Robert Evans, for a long time. When he announced Worst Year Ever (Robert Evans, Katy Stoll, and Cody Johnston) I decided to give it a listen, even though a podcast about the 2020 USA election may not be that interesting to me in the long run. (Un)fortunately, the show’s name turned out to be prophetic and the team have pivoted to provide excellent, in-depth coverage of all the horrible events this year has delivered so far. It’s not a balanced show: the three hosts bring their politics to their show in a way that is overt but not overwhelming. The reporting is unfailingly brilliant: Robert Evans must be the most thorough reporter, enjoyable crafter of words and prolific audio journalist out there.
I can’t get my head around how podcasting gives us access to some of the brightest minds in the world. Deep Background is a brilliant example of this: I get a weekly chance to listen to Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, talking to other top intellectuals about the issues of the day. No need for artificial BBC balance here: one deep interview at a time, important themes are given the time they require as points of view and matters of opinion are explored by ensuring different experts participate over time.
I discovered Deep Background as a regular listener of Revisionist History, Malcom Gladwell’s own weekly show. Gladwell’s podcasting success led to him launching Pushkin, a podcast stable that includes Deep Background as well as Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales.
Tim Harford used to style himself as The Undercover Economist, which is also the title of one of his books. He also leads the team at More or Less, a rare bit of BBC Radio 4 I remain loyal to. I want all my podcasts in the same app, regardless of who happens to make them, so I have never heard anything the BBC has done recently as it is all locked into their silly walled garden BBC Sounds. Imagine having to buy a special radio that could only play BBC to hear their programmes, and needing another for anything else? That’s what they’ve done with their pointless app. I refuse to buy the silly single function radio, even if it’s nominally free. Luckily, some of their pre-sounds content remains accessible to those of us who prefer making our own choices.
More or Less has been a staple of my information menu since long before I switched to podcasts. The programme rarely fails to talk about subjects that are interesting and topical, and the tone is always spot on. I was pleasantly surprised by their recent regular updates on the UK government’s target for 100,000 Covid tests and how bravely and clearly the team have taken a position of reporting the unadulterated facts.
The podcast feed includes both the Radio 4 and World Service editions of the programme, resulting in some repetition. An annoyance that made me twice remove it from my feed. But I always go back: I simply enjoy it too much.
Smart headlines that know (some of) what I am interested in
Beyond podcasts, I get many of my news today via the Google Assistant on my phone. A simple swipe right from the home screen opens an always-refreshed, mostly relevant list of articles I like to scroll through a few times a day. On any given day, a mix of technology and industry news, UK and Spanish politics, local weather and the latest missed opportunity by Barcelona to win a game are all ready for me to scroll through.
I used to access written content via a hand-curated RSS aggregator. Over time, I got tired of spending too much time managing the lists and constantly feeling like I was getting a very narrow view on the world, so I stopped curating my feed and tried the algorithm. Google’s selection of news tends to include quite a few things I’m not really interested in: from most sports headlines to gossip and travel news. The assistant’s ability to adapt to what I click on is both useful and annoying. Great for starting following new interests such as education technology, terrible when falling for clickbait and suddenly finding more of it on my feed. However, the cost of clutter is low: just scroll past irrelevant things and let the algorithm learn to drop them over time. I did have to specifically opt out of tabloids I find objectionable, but that is the extent to which I’ve had to customise the feed.
I rarely click on most items – the headline and snippet is often sufficient to let me know what’s going on. When I do, I like that the system is aware and able to respond to my expressions of interest. This kind of headline snacking is the perfect complement my podcasting habit.
Newsletters and magazines
I read precisely 2 newsletters every week: Exponential View and Weekly Thing. Exponential View has its own podcast, but I have never managed to listen to an entire episode without rolling my eyes and skipping to another show. What a difference format makes…
Both newsletters are broadly about technology. They have lovely in-depth content but what I really enjoy are the sections of little snippets that often include something truly new and interesting which I would not have discovered otherwise. How many of these paper aeroplanes can you make? It may seem quaint to refer to newsletters in the age of social media and algorithmic news, but these 2 have found a permanent place in my inbox.
I also tend to read Wired UK’s Today’s Top Stories. I am a subscriber to Wired’s print edition, out of a combination of professional pride (Wired runs deep in the identity of the technology innovator) and never remembering to unsubscribe before another payment goes through. Each month’s magazine takes pride of place in my coffee table, but I rarely open it these days. I prefer to read the content as it is shared on each daily email, taking a few minutes at lunchtime to read an article every day or three, when the subject looks interesting.
No social media
For quite a few months now, I have not opened either Twitter or Facebook with the intention of scanning the timeline to see what’s going on. I started posting the odd photo when I got out of the house for my daily walk during strict lockdown – crossposting from Instagram for convenience, and I do click on the odd alert when a friend I haven’t seen for a long time IRL posts something. I have, however, given up on social media as a source of anything positive or informative. Best save the time and the aggravation.
I’ve never been a YouTube viewer: video takes too long and requires one’s full attention, I used to say. Lockdown has provided a surprise: full-length YouTube premieres and interesting channels on DIY high-tech and creative cooking. It’s early days to know if it’ll stick, and it’s not news anyway, so that’s a post for another day…
Back to the Studio
This post started as a quick reflection: I’ve completely changed the way I access news. Not as a result of a deliberate decision, but as a result of a combination of reduced utility and increased annoyance from traditional sources (particularly the former cornerstone of my world view, Radio 4’s today Programme) and the availability of much better alternatives.
We live in interesting times, and we’re lucky to share them with the people who make the podcasts, newsletters, articles and algorithms that make it so easy and fun to be informed of it all.