A new House of Commons Library podcast offers impartial research to listeners

Posted On: 
3rd May 2019

The House of Commons Library has created a six-episode pilot podcast series on key policy areas to keep busy listeners across the detail, writes Ellie Davis

The Commons Library podcast tackles a new topic in 20 minutes each week.
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‘And we’re recording’ - those three special words whispered across a rather stuffy basement room in the Palace of Westminster just two months ago, marked the beginning of my podcast career and – more importantly – the Commons Library Podcast.

Since then, a small team here in the Library has created a six-episode pilot series – which invites impartial researchers from the Library on the airwaves to discuss a topical issue in their area of expertise.

It was a researcher (and my co-presenter), Andrew Mackley, who first pitched what he deemed to be an obvious new channel to communicate Library research. Traditionally we have shared our expertise almost entirely via written briefings, but a podcast is a more accessible, convenient and engaging medium to absorb it.

Our finished product aims to inform parliamentarians and their constituents on key policy areas, offering background to events or issues and delving into key debates and decisions in 20 minutes or less. Library researchers helped choose the topics covered, based their knowledge of which policy areas invite the most questions from MPs, or create the most confusion – along with what’s topical. Our researchers publish around 900 briefing papers a year and respond to 25,000 enquiries from MPs’ offices, so finding new ways to get information out quickly and accessible away from a computer is a worthwhile challenge.

Once we got the go-ahead for a pilot series a small team was assembled. We’re a mixed bunch in the Library; historians, economists, communications professionals, data analysts, indexers and researchers – to name a few. We needed a variety of skills, and to acquire new ones to get to grips with presenting, editing and producing.

For me it was an opportunity to revisit my days as a journalist and a quick lesson in discovering that my questioning style as a news reporter and now a friendly podcast host, are very different. We scurried between parliamentary meeting rooms, trying to get the best acoustics away from air conditioning and division bell interruptions, and spent a good few hours trying to agree on a jingle which conveyed ‘informative’ but ‘exciting’.

Conceptualising the type of podcast we wanted to produce was no easy feat. Our audience is MPs and their staff, but it needed to be accessible to the general public. We needed to strike a balance between providing in-depth analysis to listeners with a general knowledge of each topic area and draw in those researching an area for the very first time.

Then there was devising a name, competing with an ocean of political analysis programmes already out there. As you might have already guessed, we played it safe with the Commons Library Podcast – we are but a drop in that ocean and want to be easily found.

The series has been planned between communications and research staff, knitting together our knowledge of what those working in UK politics need to know about, and how to communicate it to a listening audience. How do we make public spending sound interesting to someone stuck on the Northern Line? Why would anyone want to occupy 20 minutes of their day learning about court cases linked to Universal Credit? Would listening to an episode on how water, energy and broadband prices are calculated put someone off their evening bath?

Our final list resulted in episodes on the private rented sector, defence procurement, devolution in Northern Ireland, public spending, utility prices, and Universal Credit. Each episode holds fascinating and important insights into aspects of life in the UK and further afield, which affect us all. The long and short-term impact of Brexit on public finances, for example, or that the Ministry of Defence works across countries to buy up equipment for future warfare – are broken down into easy segments and interlinked with the recent political past and what listeners should be looking out for in the near future.

We hope that sharing our impartial research in new ways will offer respite to those who like to learn away from a desk, need a quick briefing before a meeting, or simply want to listen in the bath.

The Commons Library podcast can be downloaded and listened to on commonslibrary.parliament.uk/podcast or downloaded on Spotify, SoundCloud and iTunes.

Ellie Davis is communications manager at the House of Commons Library