‘Keep things simple’
The Guardian’s award-winning podcast, Today in Focus, was launched almost three years ago and it has been widely praised, winning best current affairs podcast at the British Podcast Awards. Rachel Humphreys, one of the presenters and producers, recently gave IBT members a masterclass. Mark Galloway reports.
Rachel’s parting words to us were ‘keep things simple’ and I do see what she means. There are so many podcasts that throw lots of information at you and they are just not that enjoyable to listen to. The Guardian’s Today in Focus has a winning formula so it was a real pleasure to hear from Rachel about the key elements behind its success. Many of our members produce their own podcasts and I’m sure there are lessons that we can all learn from Rachel.
One the key strengths of Today in Focus is its storytelling. It feels more like a documentary than current affairs. The podcast opens with a question that the presenter seeks to answer. She leads us on a journey. Her questions are simple and straightforward. She does not ask ‘clever’ questions to impress the audience. The presenter brings something personal and, even if she has prepared the questions in advance, it should not feel scripted. If she is shocked by an answer she shows it. The producers cleverly break up the narrative into several parts. They hook you at the beginning and then start to peel back the layers of a story.
Tone of voice
Rachel told us how it has taken the team some time to develop the right tone of voice. She tells her journalistic colleagues that the style should be conversational – very different from writing a story for the newspaper. And there is more time and space. A newspaper story might be 1,000 words. A 30 minute podcast would equate to 5,000 words. There is time for context, background, history and character development – even for humour. The tone is informal and easy to listen to. The presenter is like a friend guiding the audience through a story.
Strong characters are key to the best journalism and Today in Focus is no exception. Some episodes feature Guardian journalists who are eyewitnesses to a story. They are great storytellers. Others feature experts. But the most memorable ones feature first person testimony from someone who has direct experience of the issue being investigated. One of the most memorable recent episodes featured the story of Karim Ennarah, a human rights activist who was arrested and imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities. His British wife, Jess Kelly, told her side of the story.
One of the strengths of Today in Focus is its international coverage. International news nowadays is usually told in the form of short reports and there is rarely time for depth or context. The Guardian has an excellent team of international reporters who don’t get space in the newspaper but do get space on Today in Focus. There have been many memorable international reports from the team. One of the most stark was from Tom Phillips, the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, who reported from one of Rio’s biggest favelas, the day after police carried out a deadly raid in which 27 favela residents were shot dead. One police officer was killed too. Many of the international stories featured on the podcast have not broken through to the mainstream news agenda. It was encouraging to hear from Rachel that there will be more international stories going forward.
Keep an open mind
Rachel and her colleagues always keep an open mind. They have no preconceived idea of what a story looks like and therefore they are open to being pitched ideas from NGOs and others. One of their recent episodes looked at families who were searching for missing relatives, a trend that has increased as a result of Covid. They came across this story when it was pitched to them by a charity working in this area.
Choosing the right presenter is key. A presenter should be calm under pressure, show empathy, be able to listen and have a conversation rather than just run through a list of predetermined questions, remember to ask the obvious questions and maintain a sense of humour. The presenter should be in the background, allowing the story and the protagonists to take centre stage. She should follow her instincts – the audience tends to be interested in what you are interested in.
Today in Focus has a new presenting team. Anushka Asthana, who launched the podcast, has just left and Mike Safi and Nosheen Iqbal have been hired to join Rachel. We wish them well!
Mark Galloway is IBT’s Director.