The Rest is Politics: Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart are leading the podcast boom

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Comment

2 years ago

Last week, as the country reeled on the rollercoaster of political resignations, there was one corner enjoying the ride very much. The Rest is Politics podcast, changed its usual programming and released not one, but two, emergency podcasts to respond to the political storm. In return, it held an unprecedented three out of four of the top spots in the Apple Podcast Charts. Not bad for a podcast that only went live in March this year.

Its position in the charts is significant for two reasons. First it was ahead of BBC’s Newscast –  the now veteran politics and news podcast that was launched to release the Brexit pressure valve and became a cult listen. Second, it’s a non-news team affiliate operating as a news broadcaster, being reactive to world events, and in turn, beating the broadcasters. The new media revolution continues.

So what’s so special about the political podcast and why has it become such a big beast in such a short time? The Rest Is Politics is presented by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart – AKA Tony Blair’s fearsome former head of communications and former Tory MP and London-mayoral hopeful, Rory Stewart. From various hotel rooms around the world – they are rarely in the same country let alone the same place – the pair Zoom their thoughts about global and domestic politics, sharing their extraordinary insight from high-flying careers in key positions in government, and as politics and history nerds.

Until last week, a typical podcast title would be “Food shortages, Francois Hollande, and Shireen Abu Akleh” and Campbell might play the bagpipes. In short, brilliant, eccentric, driven and interesting.

The podcast is the brainchild of production company Goalhanger, which was founded by Gary Lineker (yes, the footballer) and Tony Pastor, former head of Sport at ITV. Pastor is a Burnley football club obsessive like Campbell, and the pair are friends. The idea was to create a political conversation podcast with a goal ‘to disagree agreeably’.

Initially Goalhanger wanted to pair Campbell with Dominic Cummings, Campbell shared in an interview with ES Magazine but Cummings said no – he was too busy “getting rid of the trolley.” Despite having a longlist of Tories including Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, Campbell hosted an Instagram Live where he asked “if I was going to do a podcast with a Tory, who do you think it should be?” Over half of his audience said Rory Stewart.

Stewart signed up immediately, and three weeks after their initial conversation, the first episode aired. It was an immediate hit – something that Campbell mercilessly mentions – with audience numbers well into the six figures, chart dominance, thousands of questions every week, and most recently the show was nudging a million downloads an episode.

Its parent company, Goalhanger Films, which produces sports documentaries like Wayne Rooney: The Man Behind the Goals, has been going since 2015, but only launched the official podcast arm in 2022, after a string of hits including Lineker and Baker and The Rest Is History. In June, Goalhanger signed the podcast division to talent agency WME, in order to further expand its output.

The success of the podcast is down to several tenets that underpin all social media success; flexibility, authority, authenticity and intimacy. The podcast is nimble, when the volume of questions the pair were receiving on Twitter became overwhelming, they set up a second weekly podcast purely to answer questions – they received over 800 in an hour during the downfall of Boris Johnson.

This is reminiscent of author and activist Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things, which launched last year and has been a runaway success. The production team deal with questions arising from the show (it has a dedicated voicemail) and broadcast again that week.

Now Campbell, Stewart and their producers trawl through thousands of messages on Twitter – another sign demonstrating how this is truly a new media effort. When The Rest is Politics announced a live show, it immediately sold out and they put in another slot, which sold out too. When Boris Johnson’s cabinet began resigning, they set up an emergency podcast, like pirate radio. They lean in to what works and are flexible to the chaos of politics.

Campbell and Stewart’s chemistry is undeniable, as is their fierce commitment to finding common ground in every argument – they’ve had one cataclysmic row about Northern Ireland – but the point of the podcast is to bring together a coalition of ideas. This combined with their own individual and charming eccentricities, as well as their insider perspectives, lends listeners a very real and intimate experience.

So it’s no surprise to see how intensely the podcast has been received. Stewart told ES Magazine, “I was on the plane flying over from Jordan and the flight attendant was listening to it and told me. And then the guy in the seat behind me told me he was listening to it. And the guy in the seat across. Same thing as I’m queuing at immigration. And then I got to London, I was walking out of my hotel and I got chased down by a priest on a bicycle, who came banging up on to the pavement and said, “Just want to tell you…”

When Stewart discussed losing his wedding ring after an event on the podcast, and then on Twitter too, it achieved 4.5 million likes and hundreds of people took to the exact street in Derbyshire with metal detectors in an attempt to find it.

The current chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, who is a friend of Stewart’s, was so enraged by Campbell’s musings on one episode that he harangued him on every interview on mainstream media, even as he was trying to prop up Johnson’s prime ministry.

Fiona Bruce ticked Campbell off for plugging the podcast on Question Time. Advertisers on the show have included The New European, The Week, The Knowledge and Nutmeg. In the last episode, Campbell announced gleefully that people are turning away from radio because “podcasts are the future”.

Here I must also declare an interest in all this, being the co-host of my own podcast, The Midult. However, it’s interesting that by playing fast and loose with the podcast format, and the way the dynamic duo use Zoom, Twitter and Instagram to be in constant dialogue with their fanbase, The Rest is Politics is creating a perfect new media storm. The rest is podcasting….

More podcasting trends to look out for

Flash pods

One of the many things that has most delighted fans of The Rest is Politics is its spontaneity  – it’s reactive to news and events, which interrupt the schedule and land wherever people listen. A tragic example of this was the return of You, Me and The Big C, when Lauren Mahon and Steve Blandy travelled to Manchester following the death of Dame Deborah James for a special recording of the podcast, About Our Debs.

Going live 

Post-pandemic, the live podcast is back and proud. While The High Low and My Dad Wrote A Porno have already had huge sell-out tours pre 2020, Table Manners, hosted by Jessie and Lennie Ware went on a tour last month, selling out in Manchester, Birmingham and two nights at the London Palladium. Also comedian Joanne McNally and TV personality Vogue Williams announced they will be hosting a live version of their podcast, My Therapist Ghosted Me, next year in Dublin.

Fun of the fare

Speaking of Table Manners, food-based podcasts continue to be a success story – as seen on the latest hit in the Arts charts, Dish. This is a Waitrose-sponsored podcast hosted by Nick Grimshaw and chef Angela Hartnett who each week bring on dream dinner party guests. The chat element is also interesting, which begs the question, are podcasts the new chat shows?

Cause celeb 

Sentimental in The City, the Sex and the City-themd podcast hosted by Caroline O‘Donoghue and Dolly Alderton, said that they would donate all the advertising profits from their April epsiodes to the Ukraine war efforts. Alderton posted that with 432,340 downloads, £6,735.37 of ad revenue went to Just Giving.

TikTok time

No list of podcast trends would be complete without mentioning TikTok, which has proved a brilliant platform for trailing podcast conversations and creating audios – see Julia Fox on Call Her Daddy and the way the Shxts ‘n Gigs podcast have owned the ‘ick’ conversation. Also Grace Barry’s Saving Grace podcast launched in April and has been a huge success, with her chatting to TikTok titans such as Max Balegde and Issy Oakley.

Brand new bits 

Vlogger Suzie Bonaldi announced the launch of her new podcast Thirty Something Drama Queen. Laura Whitmore and Iain Stirling have gone all Cagney and Lacey with their Spotify Original true crime podcast, Partners in Crime, and Millie Mackintosh and Charlie launched a parenting podcast called Mumlemmas & More.

By Emilie McMeekan, features director of CORQ. Picture credit: The Rest is Politics via Instagram