The Allusionist and the art of the softly-spoken podcast

Our regular podcast column looks at the linguistic wonder of Helen Zaltzman's The Allusionist

Article by Brian Cloughley | 21 Dec 2018

Serene. Tranquil. Mellifluous. Placid. Canorous.

This month, Pod People has been hitting the thesaurus to find ways to describe wordy podcast The Allusionist. Its creator Helen Zaltzman describes it as a programme about language, which is, for two reasons, a very clever description. Firstly, it’s demonstrably true – The Allusionist is a podcast, and it's about language. Then secondly, ‘language’ is just about as wide a topic as you can imagine. Tattoos, emojis, competitive typing, internet dating, brain haemorrhages – there’s a connection to language in all of them, and they all have an Allusionist episode devoted to them. Actually, as soon as you say or write something it automatically has a connection to language, so the only subjects that couldn’t be legitimately covered by The Allusionist would be those which have never been expressed in speech or writing. And of course, the existence of such topics would be very interesting from a linguistic perspective, so... yes, a very clever description.

Mind you, The Allusionist’s cleverness isn’t really in dispute (it won the Smartest Podcast prize at the British Podcast Awards a few months back). Just as notable is its atmosphere of calm. We’re in a time of innovation in the way podcasts sound, which is a good thing. Immersive audio is becoming more common, but the standard way of commanding listeners’ attention continues to be undue excitement and forced laughter. The Allusionist doesn’t bother with such obstreperous rowdiness (the Pod People thesaurus can do antonyms too!)

Instead, it relies on Zaltzman’s smooth tone of voice, her gentle humour, and soft acoustic guitar stylings twiddling around beneath the dialogue. A typical episode will have Zaltzman interviewing a couple of understated experts on the topic of the day. It’s true that in the occasional episodes where Zaltzman’s is the only voice, the urge to have a quick nap can be overwhelming, but that’s forgivable. It’s a fine line between chilled and somnolent.

Unanticipated sleep definitely isn’t a risk in the fine episode about Scots, featuring two passionate advocates (Ishbel McFarlane and Michael Dempster) for its status as a flourishing language. Their accounts aren’t just interesting, they’re genuinely moving, especially when they speak of how Scots has been literally beaten out of young people in the not-too-distant past.

Perhaps the saddest and strangest point they make is the way that the ascendancy of English is internally policed. Think about somebody mumbling something in Scots. If the listener doesn’t catch what they’ve said, then the tendency of the speaker isn’t to repeat it in Scots but to enunciate it slowly in English, thus reinforcing the idea of English as more ‘proper’. It’s thought-provoking stuff, and if nothing else, it will give the raging Mcglashans among you plenty of ammunition the next time you hear someone refer to Scots as a dialect.

Five more softly-spoken podcasts

1) Home of the Brave – Scott Carrier has been producing compelling radio for decades, and has just started a series about immigration and the US-Mexico border. Expect softly-spoken introspection and indignation.

2) Sleep With Me – Drew Ackerman’s meandering stories and dopey delivery are intended to send you to sleep. They might be too funny to actually achieve their purpose, but if you’ve tried everything else they’re worth a shot.

3) Hidden Brain – Dependably interesting pop-neurology. Every episode features at least one ‘Ah, that’s why I’m such a moron’ moment.

4) Wireless Nights – Jarvis Cocker’s whispery programme about all things nocturnal is now onto its sixth series, so plenty of company for insomniacs here.

5) The Great God of Depression – There’s some great stuff on Radiotopia’s Showcase platform, including this multi-layered exploration of mental illness.