The News Agents, the much-trumpeted daily news podcast from LBC’s owners Global, landed (slightly late) on to Global Player on Tuesday after a couple of sort-of episodes. These consisted of teasers plus a full recording of Emily Maitlis’s much-reported MacTaggart lecture, complete with breathless introduction from Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall. All three co-host The News Agents, though it’s clear from the start who the stars are. The show’s opening sting – its theme tune – boasts 60s spy-type music, a clip from Maitlis’s interview with Prince Andrew, a couple of others from Sopel’s questioning of Trump and nothing at all for Goodall. Still, Maitlis has decided to call him Luigi, so perhaps that’s some comfort.
In fact, she gives nicknames to everyone who turns up on The News Agents. I’m not sure why, though I imagine it’s an indicator as to how casual and free both she and Sopel (“Sopes”) are feeling now that they’re independent podcasters, as opposed to BBC presenters. We’ve known about their discomfort with BBC balance restrictions for many months, of course, and the headlines around Maitlis’s MacTaggart lecture merely emphasise this. But, you know… haven’t they moved on? Stop dissing the ex, what about the new show?
Well, I’ve heard two episodes, and the second was far better than the first. Tuesday’s – the official launch – was, to use the technical parlance, all over the place. The tone was established by much early jokiness and chat, which, though jolly, didn’t quite introduce the presenters properly. Then some blah about listeners choosing the day’s topic: Trump keeping top secret documents at Mar-a-Lago. Really? An offbeat choice, given that this is a daily news programme based in the UK and, if you look around, there’s everything from sewage, strikes, fuel shortages, cost of living and a new PM to chew over. Plus, though the interviews were lively enough, they were with a bizarre choice of people, and oddly ordered. A talk with Trump’s short-lived communications bod Anthony Scaramucci started in the middle of the programme, before being deserted for a chat with a politician and returned to later. Yes, there were jokes about his nickname. It’s the Mooch. I know you were wondering.
Wednesday’s show centred on the problems that the new prime minister will encounter when they start their job on Monday. This was a far better programme, the interview with the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell (nickname: God) interesting and revealing, and the tone less grating. It was hard to avoid the suspicion that the previous, Trump-based episode was just a spoiler for Maitlis and Sopel’s old show, Americast, which relaunched with a new presenting team last week.
A quick explainer: until they left the BBC in February, Maitlis and Sopel both had high-profile “proper” BBC reporting jobs – Maitlis as host of Newsnight, Sopel as North America editor. But they were also co-hosts, with Anthony Zurcher, of the successful BBC podcast Americast (produced by the talented Dino Sofos, who came with them when they left for Global). At the beginning of the week, Americast’s new hosts were announced: Zurcher was to be joined by Justin Webb from the Today programme, Sarah Smith, the new BBC North America editor, and – a great choice this – Marianna Spring, the BBC’s excellent disinformation and social media correspondent. The relaunch date? Last Wednesday.
Anyway. As suspected, Americast’s first show with its new hosts was about… Trump keeping top secret documents at Mar-a-Lago. Hey ho. Such are the trials of an audio reviewer. The episode came out several hours later than promised, and you could imagine producers frantically editing out one guest (perhaps the Mooch?) and replacing them with another. Whoever got the chop, the main interviewee, lawyer and ex-FBI agent Asha Rangappa, was far better than any of The News Agents’ guests on the subject. Focused, clear and not led by political agenda or ego, she dealt with all questions, including one raised on both programmes: would the FBI hold back on prosecuting Trump for fear of provoking his supporters into riots? No, she said, because otherwise “the Justice Department would no longer be able to say that no one is above the law”. Spring’s contribution, towards the end of the show, was innovative: she’s creating specifically designed online user profiles in order to research how certain types of US voters are targeted by social media ads. This promises to be very interesting.
The whole pace of Americast was far swifter than that of The News Agents, which I prefer: the setup clearer and the tone warm enough, though I could have done without the weather discussion. Presumably this was to establish where each presenter was: Smith and Zurcher in different parts of the US, Spring in Paris (ha!) and Webb in London. They’re all working, is the hint, and we’ll get them and their insider knowledge when they have the time. A point made, perhaps, to highlight what The News Agents is lacking: Maitlis and Sopel’s old jobs, with all the access they provided. If they’re not working BBC reporters, how will they get the scoops?
Aside from all these opening-episode tit-for-tat shenanigans, both programmes are good and will almost certainly get better. Americast will motor on like the Rolls-Royce it is; The News Agents, though, needs to settle into a less breathless rhythm if it’s to do any damage to the gold standard of the New York Times’s The Daily and the Guardian’s Today in Focus. Both of these daily podcasts provide much neater, better-produced, more in-depth examinations of specific news topics, plus an extra at the end. The News Agents needs to tone down the jokes and daft nicknames and concentrate.