Simon Mayo on the enchantment of podcasts and how he got his book club back on air

"When the Radio 2 Book Club was wrenched from my grasp, a podcast seemed like the perfect fit"

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Scene: my car. Cast: me and my mother-in-law.
“I’ve been listening to your latest blog, Simon.”
“Oh right?”
“It’s very good.”
“Really?”
“Yes, very entertaining.”
“But you can’t listen to a blog…”
“Oh… What do I mean?”
“Might you mean podcast?”
“That’ll do. Podcast, then.”
“Thank you.”
“What is a podcast?”

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Now before we go any further, you need to know that my mother-in-law is a sharp cookie. All the above exchange proves is that Douglas Adams is always right; any technology invented after you’re 35 does indeed feel against the natural order of things. But the delight of the podcast is that it manages to be both sparklingly new and reassuringly old. New because it has the word “pod” in it, and old because it employs all the enchantment of traditional speech radio.

Who can doubt that if John Snagge was still with us, he’d have his own show, Snagged!, full of wonderful sporting and newsreading anecdotes? Or that John Ebdon would be presenting more archive-based nonsense (Stephen Fry signed off his recent podcast series with Ebdon’s wonderful phrase “If you have been, thanks for listening”), or that John Peel would have found himself at number one in the podcast charts with more wry observations from Peel Acres?

You might be surprised to learn that there are podcast charts at all, but I’ve always loved the drama of a countdown, ever since the illicit, late night pleasures of the Radio Luxembourg Top 20, sponsored by Peter Stuyvesant. So that was actual cigarette advertising in my bedroom with the lights off. Could life get more exciting? Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops and the Radio 1 chart reveal on Tuesday lunchtimes were thrilling, of course, but neither of them needed a health warning. Only the Radio Luxembourg chart sounded illegal.

My interest in the podcast charts is not entirely journalistic. I have three podcasts to follow: the oldest is the film review I host with Mark Kermode from our 5 Live show, there’s the Confessions podcast from Radio 2 that I host with Jo Whiley and Bobbie Pryor – and then the newest of the bunch, the rather grandiose-sounding Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year. I’ve loved talking to authors over the years, so when the Radio 2 Book Club was wrenched from my grasp, it seemed like the perfect fit. Matt Williams and I talk to two writers per episode, they talk to each other, and that’s pretty much it.

Radio and books go together in a way that television has always struggled to emulate. An author speaking passionately about their new novel should always be thrilling; here is a story they have agonised over for years, characters they have created and dialogue they have conjured on to the page – this is their harvest time.

Not every author manages to convey this excitement, it’s true, but my hope with this new venture (complete with adverts, though not from Peter Stuyvesant) is that you, the podcast listener, get to hear some fabulous stories that might otherwise have slipped through your net.

So (finally), to answer my mother-in-law’s question: podcasting is radio, concentrated. The magic of audio-only entertainment, just waiting for you to press play.

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Simon Mayo and Jo Whiley are on weekdays at 5pm on Radio 2