Arts Muse

Rise of the Podcast: Death of the Interviewer?

Andrew Young examines the recent trend of celebrity podcast hosts and its impact on the art of the interviewer

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I think I speak for us all when I say that David Tennant seems like a thoroughly nice chap. He is beloved by many his roles as Casanova, Hamlet and of course the Doctor. He is also now as charming and engaging as ever in his new role as a podcast host. Mr Tennant has been putting his skills to great use, sitting down for a warm chat with famous names from the world of acting and beyond.

In the last few years, podcasts have become a major force in the entertainment industry, with an astonishing breadth of topics covered. From crime documentaries unfolding in our earphones, to a bunch of filmy types banging on about the movies for an hour and a half, podcasts have created a huge market for shows tailored to special interests. In placing himself in a room for a chat with another celebrity for an hour so, what Tennant’s podcast does is reflective of a recent trend in new podcast shows. Other famous names to swap positions into the interviewer’s chair include George Ezra and Maisie Williams, each one bringing on their celebrity chums for a chat. With this trend perhaps comes the time to question the role of the interviewer in this day and age.

What Tennant and co. can achieve with this new style is a more relaxed feeling interview. The guest no longer appears to feel as nervous or robotic, instead just lapsing into a casual conversation. This arises because, unlike in a traditional interview, the focus is no longer just on them; the listener is tuning in not just to listen to the guest, but the host too. For many podcast listeners, the chance to hear George Ezra talk will be a big enough incentive to listen that they couldn’t care less who is sitting opposite him.

Their relaxed manner is also down to the fact the guests seem to really want to be there. They will often have a new project which they are plugging, but in general the conversation goes wherever it wants. Richard Ayoade once famously staged a trainwreck of an interview on Channel 4 News with Krishnan Guru-Murthy to expose the ridiculousness of an interview where the guest’s sole reason is to be there to sell a product. Making the interviewer a friend and a colleague removes the contractual obligation to plug your book or film, and instead presents an oppor-tunity to record your thoughts and feelings for audiences.

The interviewer and guest are in a sense one and the same. A particular highlight of Tennant’s show is when he brings his own experiences in the world of showbiz to the questions he asks the others, many of whom are his friends. Take his episode with Jodie Whittaker, for example; they bond over their mutual experience of being custodians of the pop culture behemoth that is Doctor Who, meaning that we are listening not just to Whittaker’s story but Tennant’s, each of them revealing new details about themselves as they feed off each other. When he discusses the difficulties of fame with Olivia Colman, we sense that both participants are being more open and honest because they have a shared experience. Listening to one of these podcast series is an ideal way to learn about that person, their part in the multiple conversations making them the subject of an elongated interview themselves.

I am not, boldly and rashly, proclaiming the role of the interviewer to be dead. In the serious world of politics and current affairs it is important to have people whose job it is to ask the questions, to really grill people, rather than have a relaxed and potentially less challenging natter. Yet beyond this, the world of arts and culture still has a place for the interviewer. Sometimes you want the entire focus to be on the guest, probing them for fascinating answers. A good journalist’s knowledge of their industry, and experience with big stars makes them a great interviewer in their ability to get straight to the point.

The best interviewers and journalists manage to turn themselves into a part of the entertainment just by asking the right questions. Chris Hewitt, host of The Empire Podcast, is a witty, entertaining journalist who treats his guests like friends. Chat show extraordinaire, Graham Norton, also is famously good at making his guests relax and treats his interviews as chats. These interviewers have a rare talent, however. The rise of a new kind of podcast is doing great things for the industry and, if not eradicating the role of the interviewer, putting a pressure on them to up their game.

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