Inside the mind of a podcast reviewer 

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Dross-filtering and detective work are the two top characteristics you need to learn, harness and repeatedly deploy if you’re going to make a stab at becoming a podcast critic. At least that’s how Fiona Sturges describes the craft. The Brighton-based reviewer has been interrogating our new favourite form of audio entertainment since she took over the radio column at The Independent in 2011. The outlet went online-only in 2016, killing off the segment and Sturges subsequently took her column to the FT where it launched in the summer of that year. 

Sturges, who also regularly writes about books and music for The Guardian, told FN that she initially thought she was “too cool” to critically analyse radio. But as a new mother she also “didn’t want to be that person that has to write about doing the ironing whilst listening to the f***ing Archers” and wanted to avoid an attachment to BBC Radio 4 and “middle-aged, middle-class radio” in general, hence the introduction of podcasts into her column which became a more regular fixture over the years. 

Sturges’ first podcast addiction was WNYC’s Radiolab, introducing her to a “whole kind of world with a relaxed style”. More than a decade since Radiolab’s podcast launch, the Covid-19 pandemic and our work-from-home lives have catalysed the production of podcast shows thanks to relatively cheap microphones, free software and new listening habits. Is the market overcrowded then?

“I don’t think so, but I can see why people would think that,” Sturges said. “You don’t say that there are too many books or albums do you? Some stuff rises to the surface and some stuff doesn’t; there’s some stuff that I realise that I’ve overlooked. Dig and you will find the interesting stuff.”

She does concede, however, that there is now “more crap than there used to be” and wellness as well as celebrity-on-celebrity podcasts (for one, the guests are apparently on constant rotation) are typically bad. 

“I know the listeners love it and I get the logic of it,” Sturges said. “It’s the same as reality TV, which brings in the crowds. There’s going to be a lot of dross in any field and it is the critic’s job to sort through it and engage with stuff that is seen as dross.” Will the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new Spotify project, Archewell Audio, be on her playlist? “I don’t mind that they’re doing it, but I’m not that interested in hearing from them,” Sturges remarked. 

There are exceptions though, namely Louis Theroux’s Grounded which Sturges described as “brilliant”. And the crime of “wanging on in front of a microphone without an editor” is becoming a rarer phenomenon as the field becomes more competitive. “There is also something for everybody, even if you like carpentry in the 19th century,” she said.

Sturges tries to use her platform to champion and celebrate podcasts, especially new releases. By way of example, Eleanor McDowall’s experimental hour-long Field Recordings of audio clips from across the world, including a hollow tree in Russia to a call to prayer in Bangladesh, made her best podcasts of 2020. Commercial launches such as Audible’s From The Oasthouse: The Alan Partridge Podcast also get a hearing. 

“I try to do new launches or something that is topical, something that requires to be in a newspaper,” she said. “I’m also mindful of the FT’s global readership, so it’s important to have a wide range of podcasts from different territories across independent and commercial production houses.”

“I don’t delight in giving a kicking and I often don’t give a kicking unless it’s done by someone who should know better, who is well-known and is in a position of power. I would never s**t on an independent podcast, I would rather just not write about it.” 

Sturges will try to cover one podcast at length per week, with a couple or more similar suggestions below. True crime is a difficult one because “there’s a series coming out every week” and she will make notes about the bits that “standout or annoy” her so she doesn’t have to listen to a podcast over and over again. 

The downside? “You never get to savour the thing that you are writing about because you have to move on,” she said. As for discovering new podcasts in the first place, it “takes a lot of detective work”, an enterprise Sturges often outsources to her Twitter followers where “pleas” are published for what’s new, good and coming up next. 

“The marketing of podcasts is a bit crap, so it’s quite hard to find out about new podcasts,” she explained. And will Sturges ever join the industry which is expected to generate annual revenues of $1bn next year and has reportedly seen Bill Simmons net a staggering $200m and Joe Rogan allegedly land more than $100m? “I’m more useful as a pair of ears…” 

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