The High Low profile by The Sunday Times Magazine

By Anne McElvoy, published July 21st, 2019

Podcasting, until recently, was something other people did. Just as the French had sex while we had hot water bottles, hip Americans were sharing their favourite “pods” on Twitter, while we were still stuck in the old world of the radio dial. But in the past five years, the number of weekly podcast listeners in the UK has nearly doubled from 3.2m to more than 6m, according to Ofcom. And half of this new audience is under 35.

The High Low is the UK’s highest-ranked current affairs and pop culture show on iTunes, with 1m listens a month. The premise is simple: two hip and savvy friends discuss the week’s biggest news stories, trends and Twitter talking points — whether that’s FGM, veganism or the rise of the turmeric latte — dispensing millennial enlightenment, advice and analysis as they go. It recently marked its 100th episode, with celebratory messages from the Australian actress Margot Robbie and Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood — and a faux-snarky one from Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey telling its two young hosts they are so successful it “gets on my tits”.

The High Low duo are Dolly Alderton, 30, and Pandora Sykes, 32. Alderton is a columnist for The Sunday Times’s Style magazine, a former story producer for Made in Chelsea, and the author of the bestselling Everything I Know About Love, a candid memoir about her roaring twenties, which brought mothers of girls out in hot flushes thanks to its eye-opening depictions of squalid flats and drink- and drug-fuelled benders. Her podcast partner, Sykes, is Style’s former Wardrobe Mistress and fashion features editor, and the author of an upcoming book, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?.

We meet at Alderton’s flat in Camden, north London. Approached through a dingy door with an overflowing ashtray on the windowsill, inside it’s a chic mix of old Hollywood posters, eye-catching rugs and velvety furnishings. They settle on the sofa in close proximity, like a 21st-century incarnation of sharp-eyed Jane Austen characters waspishly observing events in the millennial parish. Part of their on-air charm is the intimacy of their real-life friendship — listening to the show is like eavesdropping on the pair enjoying a lively brunch.

They met on a platonic “date”, recommended to one another by friends. Sykes has stylish hair in a casually flippy bob and impeccable make-up. She comes across as the more corporate of the two, talking briskly about the business model and the “ingoings and outgoings” of running the show.

Alderton is the fidgety, vaping one with huge eyes, a big mane of blonde hair and an infectious laugh. Their conversations are like verbal Catherine wheels, spinning off one another. On air, it’s often hard to disentangle their voices — they finish one another’s sentences and pick up seamlessly on the other’s pauses. Their easy chatter is a refreshing contrast to so much of the shouty, self-righteous bluster that passes for debate elsewhere in 2019. How different are they as people? “Dolly is a bit more ‘woo-hoo’,” says Sykes, which, it turns out, means that Alderton believes in horoscopes. “And I love that about you,” Sykes adds. “Pandora doesn’t like wellness,” sighs Alderton. It’s all very girl power, no niggling or snark.

The pair began with the PanDolly podcast in 2016 before launching The High Low in 2017 — a nod to Tina Brown, the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor, who used the phrase to describe the perfect cocktail of magazine content, where poppy ephemera and highbrow topics sit side by side. Established radio stations tend to carve up airtime by time slot and demographic, meaning most current affairs shows are either all-out serious chat or newsy satire. “We felt there should be a space where serious things could be discussed with a lighter touch and trivial things could also be discussed with a kind of reverence,” Sykes says.

The show “bounces around” at the top of the UK Apple download chart “depending on what [footballer] Peter Crouch’s show is doing”, Alderton explains. “He’s the competition, the nemesis,” Sykes adds.

I had assumed their listeners were all young female urbanites like themselves, but they assure me their demographic is wide — from stressed girls doing their GCSEs to “mothers who have had it recommended by their daughters — and even a sprinkling of men”, Alderton says.

“I think they expect a gold medal,” Sykes deadpans. It’s the kind of droll aside that adds a whiplash of wit to their otherwise upbeat flow.

In my role at The Economist as head of radio and presenter of an interview podcast, I am often struck by how male-centric the fast-growing business of audio still is. So it’s refreshing that two women with no previous radio experience have cornered the market in current affairs podcasts with their own independent show.

I venture that their appeal lies in the fact they sound like slightly chaotic but cool older sisters to whom you might turn when life gets confusing. “Love that,” Alderton cries.

I wonder how far their listeners — who send in hundreds of emails each week responding to the show — guide their topics. People often write in with their own knotty problems and the pair will discuss the issues on air. They can reel off the kind of worries their audience has because they’ve been through it all themselves: the feeling of being “not smart enough, not well-paid enough, not good-looking enough, not hanging around with the right crowd …” Sykes has written extensively about her own professional anxiety on the hamster wheel of achievement; the fear of failure that can haunt outwardly confident young women.

They have a sub-editor to monitor the show’s inbox and refer vulnerable listeners for help. “We have heard from people who are in a very dark place,” Sykes says. They made a touching item on millennials struggling with bereavement after a listener contacted them in anguish at how hard it was to talk about the death of a parent when none of her peers had been through similar experiences. I lost a parent in my twenties and it is the kind of comforting advice I would have craved.

Since the show began, Sykes has got married and had a baby, while Alderton has published her award-winning book about dating. “I can tell you,” Alderton says solemnly, “that if you encounter a romantic or dating expert, they will definitely be single.” These days, she gives away fewer details about her private life to listeners. “I listen back to our early shows and I’d be sharing everything about a date that went wrong and how I drank a bottle of Malibu. I wouldn’t do that now.”

“We are much more boundaried now,” Sykes adds. “But you can find a way to talk about contemporary topics that aren’t about your direct experience.” Piers Morgan deemed them “braying posh girls talking gibberish”. Both are privately educated — Sykes at St Mary’s, Ascot, which couldn’t get posher if it took in Kristin Scott Thomas, Alderton did sixth form at Rugby. They explore “entitlement and privilege” on the show and their insights reflect broader experiences of their generation, such as the hurly-burly of the “gig economy”.

There are also incisive delves into TV and book criticism. Sykes read English at Leeds and Dolly English and drama at Exeter, “except Pandora did it properly. I was really studying gin,” Alderton says.

The podcast is funded by sponsorship, meaning they read out adverts about their sponsors, which can range from John Frieda hair products to something that stops premature enamel damage to teeth, which we hear about in a bit too much detail, really. Host-read ads can be excruciating, but they’re happy to defend the business model “because it’s clear where the plugs begin and end”, Sykes says stoutly. They don’t insert sneaky mentions of brands into their podcasts, as less scrupulous influencers do. Recordings take place at Pandora’s house with a producer and a sub-editor. They usually create 2½ hours of audio, which is then “tightly edited” into each hour-and-a-bit show.

The content is, in the nicest sense of the word, a bit woke. Pandora says it’s a “loaded word” but rises to the challenge. “We’re not after woke brownie points, but are we progressive in our attitudes and language? Yes. We think language matters and words carry weight.” Dolly chimes in that she thinks PC is “a force for good”.

If there is a grumble, it is that it feels overwhelmingly from one side of the intellectual balance sheet. So Brexit is “terrifying”, Trump is pure horror, things to do with Boris Johnson get a sharp intake of breath, while Labour’s Jess Phillips is fab and there’s a slightly befuddled tone about any alternatives to a particular stripe of progressive view. “But we are open to challenge,” Sykes retorts. “And if we don’t know something or find it confusing, we’re very happy to say so.”

At least they get their assertions fact-checked before they are broadcast — elsewhere, the podcast world is a bit of a Wild West in terms of accuracy and impartiality.

Many of their recurrent preoccupations echo the debates about race and women’s rights from the other side of the Atlantic. They are fiercely in favour of abortion rights, though serenely uncurious about the philosophical complexity of, say, late-term abortions or how medical advances and foetal viability challenge the balance of the argument.

“We are really keen not to be an echo chamber,” Sykes protests. “But we couldn’t be insipid on something like abortion and women’s rights.”

Alderton still worries about women being judged by double standards when they tell stories of rackety lives and loves, and has written candidly about her former cocaine use in her memoir. For all the hipster flippancy, I think they’re quietly aware of the fine line of influence The High Low wields with younger audiences. The Today programme may not be quaking in its boots just yet, but to bet on how the next generation of listeners will approach the medium formerly known as radio, I’d tune in for a foretaste.

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