Miranda Sawyer’s Best Audio of 2021 | Radio

A busy and busy year for audio. As in 2020, the lockdown has given all audio a boost – in status, as well as listeners. The lack of concerts, theater, art or cinema exhibitions from January to March caused audio (radio, podcasts, music) to climb the cultural ladder. Podcasts were also boosted by even more celebrities deciding to fill their lonely hours with a “talk to my famous friends” show. Listeners responded, and podcasts are now the fastest growing audio medium (although live radio still makes up the bulk of what we listen to).

Anita Rani. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

2021 saw some interesting radio dates from big names. Emma Barnett and Anita Rani have joined Woman’s hour with great success, although the first one started off in a contentious fashion (Kelechi Okafor refused to appear when she overheard Barnett discussing with the producers about whether Okafor was anti-Semitic). Amol Rajan moved to Today, where he brought a more conversational feel (when he remembers to slow down his natural chatter). In late spring, much-loved Radio 1 mainstays Annie MacManus and Nick Grimshaw both announced their departure, with MacManus’ final tie reaching a life apart on social media (“Life is short. It’s going by storm. If you like music, you have to get up and dance. Do it.”). And 6 Music’s Afternoon Entertainer Shaun Keaveny is also gone, but sadly not on his own: his brilliant replacement, Craig Charles, is upbeat but less natural. Graham Norton left his Saturday morning show on Radio 2 to do the same on Saturdays and Sundays for Virgin Radio (no effect on Virgin Rajars so far). On 5 Breakfast Live, Rick Edwards joined Rachel Burden, replacing Nicky Campbell with no issues or issues.

In March, the BBC announced a gradual but mandatory move to the regions. Much of this Big Shift About meant changes for radio production teams: News journalists have gone to Birmingham, tech hacks to Glasgow, and more of Radio 3 and 6 Music’s production is to come from outside the capital (Charles’s show is based in Salford). Several alumni, including brilliant tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, have chosen to retire rather than move.

The Battersea poltergeist.
“Scary Real Life Stories”: The Battersea Poltergeist. Photography: BBC

In commercial radio, the niche is still king, with Boom Radio, which launched in February, targeting their 60s, and Greatest Hits for Gen X uncools (people like Alex Lester and Mark Goodier have been joined by Simon Mayo in March). Times Radio did well in its first year (around 640,000 weekly listeners), providing a brilliant alternative to Radio 4 and 5 over the air.

Big business outside of radio take our ears seriously. Spotify gave us podcasts from true midlife superstars Barack and Bruce (renegades), UK’s biggest YouTubers, Sidemen (guys, What’s good about Miniminter and Randolph) and the world’s most popular podcaster (Joe Rogan). Its reward has been to overtake Apple and BBC Sounds as the most popular podcast platform with young audiences. Audible, known for their audiobooks, has quietly created engaging UK podcasts, including investigative shows Find Q, Death to Deepcut, and inventive dramas such as Jed Mercurio-exec’d zoetrope. Wonderful and reliable bang-out of real American crime, added a few British shows this year, such as the excellent Hard reality.

With big business comes a lot of money: in June, American celebrities interviewing their comrades Clever was bought for a deemed amount of $ 80 million by Amazon Music, which also bought out Wondery. But amid all these dollar signs, the question is, is there enough ad revenue to support the independent podcast industry? There are some great shows that struggle to get those all-important mattress, brushcutter, and web design commercials because they’re all sucked into, you guessed it, new celebrity shows. Still, there’s no question that since the 2020 lockdown, audio has exploded. Expect even more next year.

The top 10 shows / podcasts of 2021

Former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes, one of the subjects of Coming in from the Cold.
Former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes, one of the subjects of Coming from the cold. Photograph: Christopher Thomond / The Guardian
Jon Ronson.
Jon Ronson.

1. Things fell apart
(Radio 4)
Jon Ronson traces the often surprising origin stories of the cultural wars raging today.

2. Welcome at your fancy
(Pineapple Street Studios / Gimlet)
A brilliant, detailed account of the true story of crime that you never imagined you wanted: the story of the Chippendales. The host Natalia Petrzela is excellent throughout.

3. Find Q: My journey in QAnon
Journalist Nicky Woolf shows off the wreckage QAnon has left behind and gets a face-to-face interview with the man most likely to be Q.

4. The harsh reality
Wondery uses his long-established true criminal techniques to examine the life of trans woman Miriam Rivera and how a British reality show exploited her and others.

5. Uncanny / The Battersea poltergeist
(Radio 4)
Danny Robins’ two brilliant Radio 4 series on the paranormal: the Battersea Poltergeist, a documentary (with dramatic sections) about 12 years of haunting an ordinary family; and Astonishing, which examines 10 spooky real-life stories.

6. Coming from the cold
(TalkSport / Untold Stories
This excellent six-part series traces the history of black players in English football, and includes testimonials from Cyrille Regis, John Barnes and Raheem Sterling.

7. Windrush Stories
(National Prison Radio)
Complete Stories of the Windrush Generation and Their Children, produced and presented by DJ Flight. NPR nurtures serious talent (see also Brenda Birungi, winner of Best Host: Audio Speech at this year’s Audio Production Awards)

8. Eat well
(The Guardian)
Personalities as diverse as Scarlett Moffatt and Bernardine Evaristo discuss their pasts through their favorite comfort food with Guardian food critic Grace Dent.

We didn't light the fire

9. We did not light the fire
(Crowd network)
A witty and fascinating modern history lesson from Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce, through the lyrics of the Billy Joel hit.

10. Sweet Bobby
An immensely complicated, crazy cat fishing story about a brilliant young British woman, which starts out brilliantly but – as is often the case with real crime – quickly falls apart once the villain is revealed.


Any celebrity podcast to interview another one celebrity
With a few honorable exceptions, such podcasts are always too comfortable to offer anything other than boring anecdotes and mutual positions. We know you need attention, celebrities, but you can all stop right now.

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