Thursday, 26 November 2020

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Interview: Podcaster Helen Zaltzman

“I don’t know anyone who is interesting un-edited, to be honest,” laughs Helen Zaltzman, her voice pouring out from my smartphone speaker. “No one needs to spend that amount of time with people they don’t know!”

It is 10am and I am at my kitchen table listening to the disembodied voice of Britain’s queen of podcasting. It’s not that unusual; I often turn to Zaltzman for some entertaining answers in the morning, but this is the first time that I’ve been asking the questions.

Even at its most animated, Zaltzman’s voice remains reassuringly steady. It never rises above a friendly volume or sinks into a mumble but moves up and down slowly, like someone practising scales on the piano.

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Credit: Teri Pengilley

This morning, the object of Zaltzman’s affectionate disdain is a certain brand of unfettered podcasters — a blight on her otherwise glorious industry.

“People think all podcasts are rubbish,” she says. “They think it’s just people farting into a microphone. But actually a lot of podcasts are extremely well honed. People do clever and beautiful things but they suffer from association with the ones that are self-indulgent and not that interesting.”

Zaltzman is undoubtedly in the extremely-well-honed camp. She credits her podcasting skills to a previous job as a freelance book editor: “I already had that mindset of trying to trim things down and take material out.”

Her latest creation The Allusionist is a series of concise audio pieces about language, produced for US podcasting network Radiotopia.

“At the heart of [The Allusionist] are short, sort-of documentaries, sort-of essays, about language-related topics and how people communicate,” she explains.

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The description sounds somewhat vague, but it is exactly this imprecision that makes the podcast so fun and engaging. Each episode is an absorbing mixture of highbrow facts and downright silliness lasting somewhere between 10 and 25 minutes.

The show, which is produced, presented and edited by Zaltzman at her home in Crystal Palace, covers everything from the US election lexicon to Toki Pona — the smallest language in the world. It is a bit of an anomaly within the Radiotopia network, not least because Zaltzman is the only British host among a sea of Americans.

“The tone of Radiotopia is set by quite an American style of audio-storytelling that is very sound-rich and makes you feel feelings. I don’t think we have as much of that in British radio.” The Allusionist, by contrast, is proudly silly. “I just find it difficult to be serious,” she proclaims.

Zaltzman made a name for herself via the comedy podcast Answer Me This, which she launched in January 2007 with her friend Olly Mann. The pair had worked together on a student radio station at Oxford University and Mann “had a sniff” that podcasts were going to be the next big thing.

Initially Zaltzman thought of the show as a stepping-stone. “We both wanted to work in radio but we couldn’t get any jobs,” she explains. “I thought it would be a good demo for us.”

Fast forward nine years and the duo have recorded 331 episodes of Answer Me This and won various accolades, including two Sony Awards and a European Podcast Award. Radio work did follow for both of them – including a show on Radio 5 Live for four years – but it wasn’t the Holy Grail she thought it would be.

“I wasn’t really aware of sexism until I started working in radio!” she says.It’s still very hard for women to get anywhere  — particularly to be in charge of a show and not just be a subordinate sidekick.”

Podcasting, too, was initially dominated by men but recently Zaltzman has noticed an encouraging change. “The last few months there have been some very good, high profile podcasts hosted by women. For example, Buzzfeed has an almost all female team and most of the shows are female-hosted. I think that they are being really progressive and very smart about it.”

Given that a recent study by the Pew Research Centre found that the podcast audience is now split 50/50 between men and women, it’s about time. “Hopefully shows like Another Round (Buzzfeed) will inspire others to think ‘oh, it’s not just straight, white men reflecting the straight, white man experience with other straight white men’.”

Zaltzman is something of an inspiration too; she is now one of Britain’s few full-time podcasters. As well as her shows and regular radio appearances, she is a regular contributor to Sound Women, a network for women working in audio, and she runs meet-ups for aspiring podcasters every few months.

“They began as a space for people to ask me boring questions about technical things,” she explains.  “But the best thing about them is people meeting and jumping off each other. Podcasting is such a solitary thing to do, so it just makes you feel a bit less alone.”