Ross Sutherland & Damian Barr on the rise of podcasts

We look at the ever-expanding and endlessly exciting world of podcasts with two of Scotland's most celebrated podcasters, Ross Sutherland and Damian Barr

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 03 Jul 2018

Over the last decade, the world of podcasts has swollen from an obscurity on the cultural outskirts to a vast and varied realm that extends across every conceivable theme and topic. Along the way, it has engulfed huge swathes of the general population, enticing many of the world’s biggest celebrities, and creating hundreds of millions of pounds worth of advertising revenue. A term that once sounded techy and niche, 'podcast' is now a part of most people’s everyday vocabulary. 

Appearing at this year’s Unbound to talk a little about this tidal shift are two of Scotland’s most celebrated podcasters, Ross Sutherland and Damian Barr. Rather than pushing it as something shiny and new, both Sutherland and Barr are keen to point out how podcasting can tap into something essential and timeless. To better illustrate this, Barr points to his own route into podcasting. “My interest began as a child, long before the internet, listening to Story Teller – the Marshall Cavendish magazine where each fortnight you got a new tape. I’ve always enjoyed listening to stories and having them read to me, listening over a long form. I think people have always enjoyed that and podcasts are just a new platform to satisfy a very old urge. The urge to listen.” Sutherland agrees, adding: “Making audio stories has been going on for about a century, so there's nothing new really. Podcasting is just allowing amateurs like me a chance to experiment with the medium and find an audience.”

In opening it up to whoever wants to try their hand at it, podcasting has flourished into one of the most diverse artistic landscapes in existence. A cursory glance at the difference between Barr and Sutherland’s demonstrates this pretty clearly: beyond their success and their Scottish accents, the two really are worlds apart.

London’s Savoy Hotel has been playing host to great writers for over a century, a place where the likes of Zola, Twain, Maugham, and Wilde would each spend time locked in discussion of life and letters. With his Literary Salon, Damian Barr brings this tradition into the digital age, letting the world listen in to conversations with literary heavyweights like Bret Easton Ellis and David Mitchell, as well as newcomers airing their talents for the first time. 

This is in tandem with the most popular image of a 'podcast': experts and enthusiasts holding an in-depth conversation about their shared passions. Ross Sutherland’s Imaginary Advice is off at podcasting’s other pole, opting instead for a highly experimental mixture of intimate storytelling and hypnotic soundscapes. Barr’s sounds like a cosy afternoon conversation with a good friend, Sutherland’s more like a chemically altered epiphany-exchange taking place at three in the morning in the smoking area of a club. The great thing is that, in the world of podcasting, there is room for both.

This multiplicity is a key part of the appeal for both hosts, as Barr explains: “There is a podcast for literally everything. I think that’s great.” In this conversation alone, podcasts ranging from Australian True Crime to Brighton-based Twin Peaks fandoms pop into the conversation. “And I think the fact that anybody can make one is also great,” he continues. “I’m quite confident that if I’ve got a totally byzantine, niche interest I can go find a podcast about it. In about two minutes.” Talking about the ways in which podcasting has changed since he first began, Sutherland is similarly enthused, citing “about a million more podcasts!” as the biggest change the medium has undergone since he first got involved. If nothing else, he credits this explosion with the fact that “I probably don't have to explain what a podcast is as much as I did four years ago.”

Just as streaming services allow us to choose what we watch and when podcasts give us that kind of control over our listening. Steve Jobs referred to it as TiVo for radio while Barr goes with “radio on demand” and it seems likely that this flexibility is a large part of the reason so many are now working podcasts into their lives. Sutherland explains: “Often podcasts are used in vulnerable moments – lying in bed, walking to work, waiting for trains. This is what I use them for, at least. I like the idea of art slipping into these gaps in our lives.” Radio was designed for a time in which working hours and leisure time were more standardised, but “people now use their time in a different way,” Barr suggests. 

“People’s work landscapes have changed, their lives are much more fragmented, so I think that ‘consume on demand’ model now works much better," he adds. The “gaps” in our lives are now much more widely spread, chopped up into little pockets of time we want to fill with something valuable. Sutherland talks about them as a way “to make doing the dishes 30% less shit”, while Barr mentions how many people he sees listening to them while waiting on trains. The point is the same: whatever size the gap is and whatever point in your day you can find it, there’s a podcast there to fit it.

Much like streaming services, this convenience and ease of access has helped turn podcasting into a massive industry. Apple has been integral to the medium’s rise, while Disney Marvel has further expanded its media empire into the podcasting peninsula with Wolverine: The Long Night. In spite of this, the general culture remains predominantly punk, thanks to its democratising DIY potential. “Podcasts are, to my mind, a bit less monetised than YouTube,” Barr argues. “There’s not so much, ‘Look, I’m using this concealer' or ‘I’m wearing this Nike thing’. YouTube and Instagram are a bit more paid-for, podcasts seem to me to still have a wee bit more integrity.”

As the medium moves forward and becomes more mainstream, Barr hopes that it is able to maintain this lo-fi, accessible quality. “I hope it doesn’t become commercialised in the way YouTube has. I’d like it to remain a bit of a Wild West.” However, with the sheer mass of small podcasts now in existence, there is the risk of it becoming a jungle in which the little guys cannibalise one another while those with the artificial advantage of a big ad budget are left to thrive. As a remedy for this, Sutherland suggests strength in numbers. “I'd be interested to see more podcast 'networks' spring up in the UK. Little podcasts can be stronger if they connect up.”

There’s a famous line which has floated around for many years, attributed to various different writers, that goes something like this: “Everyone is born with a book inside them and, in most cases, that is exactly where it should stay.” As a final piece of wisdom, Barr offers an updated take on that anonymous adage: “I think we’re getting to a point where lots of people feel like they should have a podcast just for the sake of it. If there isn’t something you really want to talk about, if you have to really look for the idea, maybe you shouldn’t. There are people who just shouldn’t have a podcast.”

Fortunately, neither Barr or Sutherland are those people.

Damian Barr's Literary Salon, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Mon 13 Aug, 9pm 

Imaginary Advice Live, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Tue 14 Aug, 9pm