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September 15, 2022updated 16 Nov 2022 6:21pm

New Americast host Justin Webb: A BT wifi endorsement? ‘If that’s getting your voice back, fine.’

By William Turvill

Justin Webb, the new co-host of the BBC’s popular US podcast Americast, has a confession to make.

When I ask him if he was a regular Americast listener under its former hosts, Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel, Webb admits: “No, I wasn’t actually. I’m not a great podcast listener.

“When I walk my dog, the last thing I want is someone prattling on in my ear. And I fully understand and I very much hope people do listen to me prattling on, and to my colleagues.

“But for me personally, I’m not a great podcast listener, to be perfectly honest. I prefer silence or reading.”

Webb, 61, suggests his aversion to podcasts may be explained by his age. But more likely, he says, “it’s a function of my weird upbringing”.

“I had a very isolated upbringing and I went to a Quaker school. So silence upon silence.”

Webb, who I interviewed last Wednesday, a day before the Queen’s death, joined the BBC in 1984 as a trainee after graduating from the London School of Economics. He is a former Breakfast and Six O’Clock News anchor who is now best known for presenting Radio 4’s Today programme.

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(For the record, he does listen to Today when he’s not on duty “for professional reasons – you can’t present a programme and not hear it when you’re not on it”.)

Podcast interviews should be ‘less combative, but just as probing’

Webb took on his latest assignment, co-hosting Americast alongside North America editor Sarah Smith and social media correspondent Marianna Spring, at the end of August.

Notably, the relaunch announcement came on the same day Americast’s original hosts, Maitlis and Sopel, went live with their new podcasting venture, The News Agents, at Global. Webb recorded Americast’s reintroduction episode while on a family holiday in Spain.

“It’s actually been coming for a while,” says Webb in an interview over the phone after his return to the UK. “I know it has been portrayed as an emergency, like the Archers having a cliffhanger the day that ITV was invented sort of thing.

“The truth, I’m afraid, is more prosaic. We’ve been talking about it for some time, and I just happened to be on holiday in the days before they decided to launch it.”

Despite his disinclination towards podcasts, Webb did listen to an episode of The News Agents after Liz Truss won the Tory leadership contest. The episode was built around an interview with George Osborne, the former chancellor. “I thought it was really good, actually,” says Webb.

His aim is for Americast, like The News Agents, to operate in “an atmosphere that is not an ordinary broadcast atmosphere – so possibly less combative, but just as probing”.

But Webb believes there is no place for podcast-style informality on Today. “I think Today still needs to be relatively formal because it has this sense of morning urgency about it. I don’t think rambling on and giggling is going to be the way forward for the Today programme.”

‘I am hugely pro-America, the idea of it’

Webb is a former North America editor of the BBC and a self-confessed “Englishman [who] learned to love America”.

“Yeah. I am hugely pro-America, the idea of it,” he says. “I said many, many years ago – in fact, before I was sent to America by the BBC – that I thought we didn’t give it the benefit of the doubt in many respects.

“We were endlessly going on about the crazy preachers and the guns, but we never really tried to explain why it was so obviously massively successful, both in economic and in cultural terms as well. We didn’t get that purpose-driven thing that is the kind of USP of America, the thing that drives it when it’s at its best.”

Mathias Dopfner, the chief executive of Politico-owner Axel Springer, recently stated that he believes American press outlets, including the Washington Post and New York Times as well as broadcasters, have become too polarised. He said that this presents an opportunity for non-partisan outlets like Politico.

I ask Webb what he makes of this claim. Is there a bigger opportunity for the BBC in the US as well?

“I do think there is a legitimate view in America that almost all of their media is now is in a sense skewed to one side or the other,” he says. “And that the Americans I know are now increasingly looking outside for discussion not only of world affairs, which they’ve not really had proper discussion of in their own media for decades, but now increasingly of their own affairs as well.

“It’s pretty obvious which direction the New York Times has gone in, the Washington Post is going in the same direction, I think… And CNN is now having this real discussion, which I think is really fascinating, [about] moving back from a sort of anti-Trump campaigning organisation back to something that is more impartial.

“But, of course, in the wake of Trump, that is quite difficult to do because, as we’ve discussed, there are certain things that Trump has said that are not true and you’ve got to be able to point them out. It’s whether you go further than that and just day-to-day hammer away. So you’ve got this amazing divide, and obviously there are right-wing channels and talk radio, et cetera.

“And you know, is it a warning to us in Britain about hollowing out the centre, as it were? That genuinely isn’t for me to say. It’s a discussion for us to have. But it’s an interesting discussion, and I suspect that it’s one that we’ll need to enter into.”

Fear and loathing? ‘Noooo’

I’m speaking to Webb at a time when the news division of the BBC, facing cutbacks thanks to licence fee freezes, appears to be in an unhappy state. A recent Sunday Times headline spoke of “fear and loathing” inside the corporation. Is it really that bad?

“Noooo,” says Webb with a chuckle. “I’ve worked for the BBC since 1984 and I’ve never known a year when you couldn’t have written that headline. And indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever known a year when that headline wasn’t written! So I’m not holding my breath. I think these things happen.

“I think that the people coming and going is interesting, really. I think the BBC is a changing organisation, and obviously the money is tight, and that will mean that there are decisions taken about programmes. And there’ll be quite a fight between programmes for the money, and that’s perfectly legitimate.

“But the wider picture, and the picture that interests most people, is just whether you’re getting a decent broadcasting service at a reasonable price. That’s still the fundamental thing.”

Over the past year or so, the BBC has endured a spate of high-profile resignations and exits. Some have branded it a “brain drain”. As well as Maitlis, Sopel and their co-host Lewis Goodall, other escapees include Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, Vanessa Feltz, Simon Mayo and Paul O’Grady.

Some have intimated that they felt leaving the BBC would free them to speak their mind more. Do the BBC’s impartiality rules frustrate Webb?

“Not at all,” he says, laughing. “People speak for themselves, and that’s great. I personally don’t feel that there’s anything I want to say that I can’t say inside the BBC.

“Frankly, I don’t have many strong political opinions, and I’m certainly not interested in telling people about them. I’m not interested in my own opinions let alone thinking that anybody else would be interested in them.”

In a slight dig at his Americast predecessors, Webb references The News Agents’ sponsorship with BT. “I was amused in the podcast I listened to with Emily and Jon that at one stage they had to speak very warmly about BT and how wonderful it is for wifi. Well, if that’s getting your voice back, fine.

“I don’t have to speak warmly about BT, or about anything or about any organisation or anyone. But I feel totally free. If I went off the reservation and started wittering about some cause close to my heart, then I imagine [BBC director general] Tim Davie would be on the phone saying, ‘Be quiet.’”

So you’re BBC lifer then? “I think I probably am,” says Webb. “If they keep giving me podcasts, I’ll probably be here for another ten years, yeah.”

Quickfire questions with Justin Webb

Favourite recent book? Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

TV show? Rugby on BT Sport

So now you’re endorsing BT? “There we go – we’re all at it!”

Magazine? The Atlantic

Newspaper? The Times

Film? Airplane!

Career high point? Doing Americast

Career low point? “I asked David Blunkett [now Lord Blunkett, who has been blind since birth], when he was, I think it was, probably home secretary at the time and I was presenting breakfast television… I said: ‘Mr Blunkett, can you now see and hear us?’ And he said, ‘Well, I can hear you, but it would be quite a miracle if I could see you.’ He was in a remote studio. I think that was probably a low point.”

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