Written by Noah Keate
The hosts of the BBC hit podcast 'Americast', Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel.
Over the last couple of years, learning more about American politics has become a requirement for any proper insight into world affairs. The Trump Presidency, international volatility, global issues: all have made an understanding of the actions inside the White House crucial. Whatever threats to its unipolarity America faces, it is simply undeniable that it remains a world leader. The American president is still the most powerful person in the world. Ignore that, and you ignore so much of what is important about politics.
The BBC gets subject to much criticism for how it does (or doesn’t) cover domestic political issues. Caught up in a culture war, its very future is far from certain, not least with regards to its funding. Part of its duty of being a truly sensational broadcaster lies in the depth of its international coverage and whether it is able to cover locations that other broadcasters simply could not manage.
Part of the way in which the BBC has managed such a trend is through exploiting the brilliance of podcasts. Growing in popularity over the last couple of years, they create a deep intimacy with listeners. Not as professional as a radio show, podcasts are designed to engage and can be listened to on the go, throughout the week. Where or how someone listens to podcasts is a huge part of the process, alongside who presents them.
Thank goodness that BBC Sounds saw the start of the 2020 election campaign - with those primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire - as a great opportunity for a new podcast. Americast was born, presented by the BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel and the legendary Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. The first thing to say is their presenting chemistry and dynamic makes the podcast what it is. Referring to one another as Sopes and Maitlis respectively, you can tell from the beginning that a good laugh is around the corner.
That being said, Maitlis and Sopel are excellent at taking the issues under discussion deeply seriously. It is a strength held by sister podcast Brexitcast/Newscast, where the presenters were always eager to highlight the seriousness of what was under discussion. If that wasn’t the case, the podcast would lose its credibility and, frankly, would be an embarrassment for the BBC.
Its informality helps to drive back listeners week after week. Jon Sopel has time to provide analysis and anecdotes that a couple of minutes on the News at Ten wouldn’t allow. Emily Maitlis can offer insight into her preparation for Newsnight from an American perspective, exploring which stories are covered. From a journalistic perspective, that side of the podcast is deeply informative.
The more casual nature of the podcast doesn’t stop Matilis and Sopes from getting high quality guests from both sides of the political spectrum. Why wouldn’t the guests go on? It is in their interest to have their views spread to as large a group as possible. While the presenters give the guests time to make their statements and remarks, they are unafraid, as every good journalist should be, of challenging them where appropriate and ensuring their assertions, as much as possible, are based on the facts. That is paramount to ensure integrity is maintained.
At the height of the 2020 election, the reporting from Americast became essential for understanding what the election really felt like on the ground. Despite the widespread elation (certainly from me) at Trump’s defeat, his refusal to concede the election and belief it was full of fraud suggested that American democracy could really be on the brink. It was at times like this where American politics and reporting became more important, not less.
Indeed, I was so pleased to learn that Americast was going to continue in the presidency of Joe Biden. This is partially because coverage of American politics seems to have dramatically declined in the wake of Biden’s victory. Whatever your politics, he is by no means as exciting as his predecessor. However, he deserves immense levels of coverage and political scrutiny. This is where Americast has come in. Ensuring that American politics remains in the spotlight, it grips its listeners every week, never fails to amuse and ensures everyone finishes knowing more than they did at the start. If that’s not the mark of a great podcast, I don’t know what is.