Famous people, whether actors, musicians, sports stars or royalty, don’t automatically make good podcast hosts. Lacking broadcasting experience, they are frequently given to talking over their guests or failing to ask searching questions for fear of causing offence. And so it was with caution that I listened to the first Holiday Special from Archewell Audio, the new podcast series from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. In some ways, the couple are hobbled from the start. They may have relinquished their status as senior royals but family connections, along with enduring media scrutiny, mean they must still mind their Ps and Qs. The freedom that many find in podcasting to let loose and be themselves is not a luxury extended to the Sussexes.
Yet, despite all this, they have made a podcast which, while not reinventing the medium, is definitively not terrible. Certainly, there is little of the forced informality — “Hi guys, I’m Harry.” “And I’m Meghan” — that can be heard in the trailer. And while the tone is often sentimental, as we knew it would be, there are moments of genuine poignance.
The plan of this first episode is to allow friends and those they admire to share their stories and reflect on the challenges and tragedies of the past year — which sounds fine until you realise their close friends include Elton John and James Corden, two men who aren’t exactly in need of a public platform. But other guests prove more interesting, among them the politician and activist Stacey Abrams, chef José Andrés, environmental campaigner Christina Adane and podcaster and spoken word performer George the Poet.
Rather than interview each of their guests, the Sussexes have instead asked each of them to submit audio diaries. While you could accuse them of avoiding the hard graft of interviewing, it’s a smart move, as it means there are no technical hitches, no overlapping voices and, crucially, no toe-curling celebrity chumminess. While Andrés recalls his terror of watching his businesses shut down as the world went into lockdown, George shares a story of a heavily pregnant loved one admitted to hospital with Covid and being forced into an early delivery (mother and baby are now doing fine).
In creative terms, there’s nothing to frighten the horses here. Perhaps more startling is that, in their bid for personal and financial freedom away from the royal family, Harry and Meghan have alighted on podcasting as a medium, and that they have found a home with Spotify. While the streaming service is clearly banking on big names with a guaranteed audience and a strong contacts book (it has also landed the Obamas and Joe Rogan), the Duke and Duchess get to attach themselves to a medium that is still on the up and in which they can control their own narrative and call the shots.