The BBC Global News Podcast, which I listen to every morning and sometimes in the afternoon, is the most functional news show imaginable. It begins with a faintly Scottish accented woman saying, “Hello, this is the Global News Podcast, from the BBC World Service, with reports and analysis from across the world,” and it pretty much does what it says it will. It is a simple and sturdy vehicle for the delivery of global news: recent fallout from whatever tragic proxy war has people most concerned that week, Brexit, something Trump has said while standing right next to a helicopter, the fracturing of the European Union, the rise of the far right, the catastrophic effects of climate change, poor people’s struggle to get anyone in power to care even slightly about their lives, disease, earthquakes, wars. The news. It is of course incredibly depressing, but that is not the fault of the BBC Global News Podcast: it’s depressing because the news is depressing. The presenters are simply telling it like it is, in as neutral a manner as is probably feasible, trying hard to abide by the BBC’s editorial guidelines and their famous insistence on impartiality.
The presenters are simply telling it like it is, in as neutral a manner as is probably feasible
From the woman with the Scottish accent (Valerie Sanderson) to the various immensely capable correspondents, you can hear them striving to remain at all times authoritative, independent, trustworthy. Their voices are modulated and calm; they give little away. Functional and anonymous. Just a practical vehicle for the conveyance of important items. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to over-identify with. But this is the thing. The closer they get to achieving utter blandness, the harder their number one fan (me) tries to distinguish a personality or opinion, and the more invested I become. I recommend this podcast to my friends. Just check it out, I tell them. Listen to the jaunty way Valerie Sanderson says “BBC” at the beginning. Listen to how presenter Emilio San Pedro says his own name. Enjoy.
I feel like I know these people. I listen to the Washington correspondent drily describing whatever it is that Donald Trump has managed to bellow out over the noise of the helicopter he is standing extraordinarily close to, and while she says nothing to indicate her personal feelings about the man, I am sure from the way she says “President Trump’s most recent comments,” that she loathes him to the extent that she gets a headache on one side of her face when she has to say his name too much.
I listen to London correspondent Rob Watson, whose job it has been to provide lucid and edifying updates about the latest idiotic development in the Brexit process, and I believe I can hear his agonized frustration and disdain just from the way he breathes in before he says “the Tories.” One of these days, soon, a presenter is going to ask my best friend Rob Watson a question about a particularly opaque and self-defeating statement issued by whoever it is that is currently determined to be in charge, and Rob Watson is going to completely lose his cool. Rob Watson, who I imagine prepares for every Brexit update by standing in a bathroom stall at the BBC offices and flushing the toilet over and over while he howls and screams, trying to leach the contempt out of his voice. This is no way intended as a comment on the evident professionalism of my best friend Rob Watson. I obviously have no idea what he actually thinks about Brexit (although on the day that Theresa May announced she was stepping down, he did say “The PM’s, ah, legacy,” and I could definitely tell that he was doing scornful air quotes when he said “legacy”).
I believe I can hear his agonized frustration and disdain just from the way he breathes in before he says “the Tories”
I am sure that there is a very straightforward explanation for the way I feel about the BBC Global News Podcast, and it probably has something to do with the psychological phenomenon known as “projecting your feelings onto a blank canvas.” It makes the news more bearable, somehow. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes listening to the news a pleasure, but it does at least become somewhat tolerable.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes listening to the news a pleasure, but it does at least become somewhat tolerable
The real pleasure comes at the end of every bulletin, when after all that appalling news, the presenters take it upon themselves to deliver a cheery and brief human interest story. These stories are occasionally more painful to listen to than the news itself. You’ll get a brief update about Syrian refugee school kids in Jordan getting music lessons and forming a little band, chirping away about how good they are at drumming, and by the end you just want to lie down on the floor and never get up, because they are so brave and so game and have suffered so much, and the world is so disgusting. These kinds of stories are mercifully infrequent.
Much more common are those that begin like, “An OWL has been MAKING FRIENDS in SCHIPHOL AIRPORT,” or “Scientists have discovered that BEES can SMELL THE LETTER H,” or “Prehistoric kangaroos were actually QUITE A BIT SMALLER than the scientific community believed,” or “Eating MUSHROOMS makes it easier for BEARS to LISTEN TO MUSIC,” or “WORMS can teach us all a little something about BIPARTISANSHIP,” or “THREE YEARS after this OLD ROBOT was put on the scrap heap, researchers found it WRITING POEMS,” and finally, “LIZARDS prefer it when you WEAR SUNGLASSES because it makes them FEEL LIKE THEY ARE ON A ROLLERCOASTER.”
“THREE YEARS after this OLD ROBOT was put on the scrap heap, researchers found it WRITING POEMS.”
They are meant to be uplifting, and they absolutely are. This isn’t only because it’s soothing to think about what the bees are going to do with their newfound ability to spell. This is a big part of it, obviously, because even knowing that bears can enjoy music now does nothing whatsoever to dull the awareness that we are all headed towards total social and ecological collapse. It’s still nice, on its own, to think quietly about the fact that even at this late stage there are still thousands of people dedicated to discovering new things about pollen or tiny little rabbits or a bit of the inner ear that doesn’t even have a name — and that the pool of collective knowledge is always growing. It is a good reminder that most people are just trying their best, and that the world is an interesting place.
The other reason these little updates are uplifting is because many of them fly so flagrantly in the face of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, with their emphasis on impartiality and objectivity. They are by definition biased, and while this is true of all news stories, it is especially clear in these cases. There is only one per bulletin, and if you are the person tasked with deciding what the story of the day is going to be, you have got some tough choices ahead of you. Who is to say whether a story about a family of wrestlers running a flourishing olive oil factory is more interesting or uplifting than a story about a horse who keeps breaking into the farmer’s house and opening all the kitchen drawers with his nose? How do you decide what makes a good human interest story, and what is it like to have that job?