Listening in Lockdown

by Alannah Dorli Jones

On 16 March 2020, actor Nicola Coughlan tweeted: ‘I know this time of self isolation is hard and scary for people but however bad you are feeling — please, please don’t consider starting your own podcast.’ Since then, almost 900,000 people have cheerfully ignored this advice, with 17,000 new podcasts launching each week, three times as many as the previous year. Though a significant portion of them — over 30% — appear to have petered out after one or two episodes, all signs point to the format’s rude health in the age of Covid. 

For those of us working from home, podcasts have become a good alternative to screens in our leisure time, with the added advantage that you can busy yourself doing something useful (and leaving as little space as possible for thoughts of the present to creep in). Veteran podcaster Deborah Frances White says that podcasts are ‘like radio that no one stops you from making’.

There’s a podcast to suit every conceivable niche, ranging no less widely in quality. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions to suit the present moment: one to inform, one to console, and one to distract. Though ostensibly disparate in theme, these three podcasts each have at their core the one thing we've needed for a long time — and which we’re just starting to glimpse: hope.

To inform: The Jab

With much of the news this year being unutterably depressing, the Economist attempts to give its biggest story a tentatively happy ending. Science correspondent Alok Jhan together with health policy editor Natasha Loder, hosts a podcast that aims to ‘unlock the science, data and politics behind the most ambitious inoculation programme the world has ever seen’.

The Jab is not so much covering the world’s Covid crisis as the emergence from it, following ‘the vaccine story as it enters its most critical phase’. The first episode begins with the statement that ‘there have now been more injections than infections worldwide’— an equinox of sorts. 

The Jab adopts a consciously global perspective, adroitly countering the vaccine nationalism pushed by the government and much of the UK press. Its hosts make the argument pragmatic as well as moral, emphasising that an isolationist approach to vaccination will only prolong the crisis by allowing the emergence of potentially deadly new strains: ‘We have to understand that the laboratory for new variants is going to keep coming out of the low and middle incomes countries until we find a way to protect them too.’ 

The tone of The Jab is one of cautious optimism, with a good depth of analysis without being too dry or inaccessible to the layman. Indeed, they go to great lengths to illustrate with ingenuity the global roll-out rate of the vaccine. There’s a truly special moment about two-thirds of the way through the first episode in which notes played on a harmonic scale by a piano and violin demonstrate the percentage of people per country who have received the first and second vaccine; a soaring melody of hope.

To console: Griefcast

Greifcast’s premise is a simple one: comedian Cariad Lloyd holds a conversation with someone who has lost a person dear to them. Beginning in  2016, there are 129 episodes to date,  guests you are bound to recognise in her back catalogue. Recent episodes feature Ruth Coker Burks on caring for patients during the AIDS crisis, Jess Mills on the loss of her mother (politician Tessa Jowel) and (my mother-in-law’s favourite person in the world) Monty Don on the death of his beloved golden retriever Nigel.

Lloyd herself lost her father when she was 15, and her natural empathy elicits a striking degree of vulnerability on the part of her guests. There are many unguardedly poignant moments: Adam Buxton wondering if his mother, who died during the first lockdown, would still be alive if he had intervened earlier, and Jayde Adams feeling that she now has to live for both her and her sister since her death from a brain tumour in her 20s. The dominant note here is compassion — mixed in with a little levity. I laughed out loud at Adams’ realisation that she will one day be buried in the same plot as her sister, lying a few feet above her ‘like we’re in bunk beds’. 

Griefcast reminds us of the universality of grief; it is after all the price of admission for loving someone — the pain it inflicts is inversely proportional to the love we feel. Above all, it demonstrates what a powerful tool is humour in learning not to ‘move on’ from grief, but  co-exist with it. 

To distract: Dolly Parton’s America

Dolly Parton’s America has all the propulsiveness of a true crime podcast with none of the peril. At its heart lies a different sort of mystery: the endlessly fascinating figure of Dolly herself. How one woman, over the course of a career spanning more than six decades, has stood with her guitar and her blonde wig at the crossfire of an increasingly bitter culture war, adored by evangelical Christians, country music fanatics and lesbians alike.

Host Jad Abumbrad grew up in Tennessee, home of ‘Dollywood’, where Dolly is something approaching a state religion. When his father, a doctor, happened to treat her for minor injuries sustained in a car crash in 2013, the two struck up an unlikely friendship, finding they had a surprising amount in common. ‘She has an incredible mind,’ he says. ‘She could easily have been a scientist.’

Though slightly mystified by their friendship (‘My dad is not a doctor to the stars kind of person. He’s just a Lebanese guy in Tennessee.’), it has given Abumrad unique access to Dolly, resulting in dozens of hours of interviews woven among the nine episodes, that together reveal some of the contradictions that make her so compelling a figure.

Though Parton is startlingly open about her career, her songwriting methods, her struggles with religion and mental health, she refuses to be drawn on any sort of political discussion. When asked if she identifies as a feminist, she denies it vehemently — ‘oh no I’m not a feminist — I love men!’ — yet, to many, she embodies many values of third wave feminism.

In the words of one contributor, ‘Dolly’s progression as a songwriter tracks the story of women in America.’ Much of hear early work consists of ‘sad ass songs’: songs about marginal women murdered, abused and abandoned by men, with their roots in early English murder ballads. From there she moves to anger (‘you ain’t worth the salt in my tears!’) and then to self-actualisation. Many of her most recent tracks can sound, depending on your point of view, either like an inspirational social media post or a feminist call to arms. ‘If you don't take the reins it's going to stay the same. Nothing’s going to change if you don't change it.’

There is a Dolly song for every conceivable occasion, even the present. Like Helen Morellis (a Dolly scholar interviewed in the first episode) in recent weeks, I’ve found myself returning to her song ‘Light of a Clear Blue Morning’, written on the day she broke away from a toxic working relationship.

'Cause I can see the light of a clear blue morning
I can see the light of a brand new day
I can see the light of a clear blue morning
Oh, and everything's gonna be all right
It's gonna be okay