The New Punks of Podcasting
How the DIY ethos of the 1970s punk movement is creating a new broadcasting landscape.
History will remember the first age of punk rock for its raw and angry music; its teenage rebellion; its bondage trousers and — of course — the safety pins.
But that is only half the story. With the benefit of hindsight, it is not even the interesting half. And the defining ethos of punk has aged far better than most of the music and all of the clothing of that bygone era.
At its core, punk was rebellion against what had gone before.
It made landfall here in the UK against a backdrop of “prog-rock”; overblown, pompous and self-indulgent concept albums upon which a 10-minute harpsichord solo was considered chic, pioneering and arty. Those overproduced albums were made by bands with ridiculous names (Van Der Graaf Generator? Seriously?) and whose members sported long hair and wore flared trousers. They played to thousands in stadia around the world; and they were managed and promoted by big-name record companies.
Much as it had when the crooners of the late-1940s and early 50s gave way to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, music and fashion was overdue a much-needed shake up. Punk was that shake up. Although they would have hated the comparison, punk was the new Elvis.
Ten-minute melodic dirges gave way to two and a half minutes of targeted vitriol, anger and feedback. Flowing locks gave way to short spiky hair; while flared trousers were replaced by drainpipes and bondage trousers. This “new music” was played to small audiences in equally tiny venues.
And then there was the greatest seismic shift of all. Gone were the big-name record producers and the big-name record companies for whom they worked. Suddenly, punk records were being self-produced and self-funded. They were promoted not on Top of the Pops, through TV advertising or via the “serious” music press. Instead, they were promoted via self-produced “fanzines”. Those fanzines might have a circulation of just a few hundred; sometimes less. But that few hundred readers were the true fans; the fans that bought the records; that wore the t-shirts; and that travelled to see and support the bands they loved.
In a matter of months, the rein of the prog-rockers was over; their big-budget orchestral extravaganzas overthrown by two minutes of shouting, recorded in a garage, and promoted via a hand-written and hand-distributed magazine.
The age of punk had arrived. And even though it too would pass in just a few short years, that do-it-yourself aesthetic endured. Just a few years later, that DIY ethos would spawn the arrival of the original hip-hop artists. They could not afford instruments or backing musicians so they crafted their own using samples from James Brown, Funkadelic and the Motown back catalogue.
That DIY ethos would surface again more recently. Justin Bieber’s musical career began on YouTube; Ed Sheeran is a former street busker who got lucky.
And it is that DIY punk philosophy that is powering the next revolution; this time in the media space.
Riches in the Niches
It was not that long ago that, in order to broadcast across the airwaves, you would need an expensive studio filled with equally expensive equipment. You would need highly educated studio, sound and broadcast engineers. You would need a broadcast license and — unless you were a public service broadcaster like the BBC — you would need a team of advertising salespeople to help fund this broadcasting empire.
Here in the second (golden) age of podcasting, almost all of that can be replaced with the smartphone in your pocket and free apps like Anchor.FM and Spotify.
With zero investment, it is now possible to broadcast to the world. Perhaps more importantly, it is possible to broadcast to a few dozen people that share your passion and your enthusiasm for a specific topic.
It is often said that the “riches are in the niches”. That might or might not be true from a financial perspective. But if you’re looking for a rich vein of highly-focused entertainment, then that phrase is true now more than ever.
Regardless of your passion, there is likely to be a podcast for you. Among my personal current favourites is Fake Doctors, Real Friends in which the stars of the TV show Scrubs discuss the making of each episode.
If you weren’t fan of the TV show, then the podcast will be of little or no interest. And that is precisely the point. Because while there will be millions of people that are unaware of or ambivalent towards the Scrubs TV show, there is a small but passionate number of us that loved the show sufficiently to listen to a podcast that — more than a decade on — analyses and dissects each episode in microscopic detail.
The New Punks
There are a number of podcasts that are dedicated to the subject of construction, the field in which I earn my living.
There are those hosted and funded by big name companies that, personally, I can take or leave.
There are polished and highly-produced shows from large media companies eager to extract every last cent out of an industry to which they’re loosely allied. These are the podcasts that Van Der Graaf Generator would produce.
But there are also gems hidden — literally — in the dirt. Rough diamonds that are all the better for their apparent lack of sheen and polish.
Peter Haddock’s Content with Media series has more passion for construction in its little finger than other bigger and better-known industry podcasts have in their entire back-catalogue. Sure, Peter has invested in a professional quality microphone to ensure that his show sounds as good as possible. But make no mistake, his podcast is pure punk in its truest sense. He might have fewer listeners than some of the prog-rock podcasts in the construction space, but those that follow Peter will be every bit as passionate as their host.
Although it is early days, I am also keeping a very close eye on a new show from crane operator Tristam Mayes or “That Crane Guy” as he is also known.
During the COVID-19 lockdown that has prevented him from working, Tristam has taught himself how to podcast and his pilot show is now available on the Anchor platform.
Tristam is unlikely to be the next Ricky Gervais. Chances are, his show will not be heard by millions of people. It might not be heard by more than a few dozen. But that few dozen that have taken the time to seek out the show will have done so because they share the host’s love of all things crane-related. They will know precisely what he is talking about; they will speak the same industry language. And they will hang on Tristam’s every word.
Back when I was a teenager — shortly after punk had died and just before cassette tapes and CDs appeared — teenage tribes were divided clearly along musical lines.
I distinctly remember attending house parties when I was about 14 years old; watching as each guest arrived cradling newly-purchased albums; and deciding whether they were worthy of my time based solely upon the vinyl they were carrying.
The boy with The Specials debut album was definitely cool. The girl with Blondie’s Parallel Lines was fine too. But — raging hormones notwithstanding — the girl carrying the Grease Soundtrack was to be given a very wide berth indeed.
Forty-odd years later and, to my ageing ears, music has become homogenous; that visible tribalism on the late 1970s giving way to a standardised and corporate sound in which producers and DJs are now the stars and when online downloads mean more than album sales.
And yet, in the podcast sphere, that tribalism endures. Small producers delivering small shows for small but passionate, loyal and dedicated audiences.
These are the people forging the new media path. Their presence, their passion and their focus is to be celebrated.
I might not swap a new Content with Media polo for my old Ramones t-shirt. But make no mistake.
These are the new punks.