The Week in Radio: Why The Bugle blows away the BBC's tired take on satire


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The Independent Culture

I've made no secret of my struggles with radio comedy. I've searched long and hard for a BBC show that would make me crack a smile but to little avail.

These last few days have been especially bleak. Would I like to spend Saturday night with the country music singer Tina C on Radio 4 Extra as she exhumes prehistoric stereotypes in the Baltic States? I would not. Is Hobby Bobbies, a sitcom about a pair of dim-witted policeman with a cameo from Noddy Holder, my idea of cracking entertainment? I'd rather have my ears surgically removed.

As the former home of Chris Morris and Rory Bremner, BBC radio used to be the land of satire; these days it gives us the Punt and Dennis-hosted The Now Show in front of a chortling studio audience. When it comes to cutting-edge comedy, this is far from a boom time.

Luckily, though, there are alternatives, ones that are not policed by out-of-touch commissioning editors with the clear intention of excising all sense of danger and fun.

Among the best is the satirical news podcast The Bugle, hosted by shock-headed stand-up Andy Zaltzman and transatlantic success story John Oliver, which calls itself "an audio newspaper for a visual world" and receives around half a million downloads a month.

It is, on the face of it, a roaring success, though its continued existence is nothing short of a miracle. It used to be hosted by the Times website until it directed its barbs at the newspaper's owner Rupert Murdoch. Now an entirely independent venture, The Bugle asks listeners make regular donations via its homepage. The future of quality radio may lie in podcasting but only if it can find a way to pay for itself.

There's also the fact that it is co-hosted by Oliver, best known as the sidekick on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and who, at the end of this month, will have even bigger fish to fry as the sole host of the new HBO show Last Week Tonight.

A lesser comic would have written Zaltzman a Dear John letter and changed his phone number. And yet here he is on his 266th edition of The Bugle casting his withering eye over the royal visit to New Zealand. Or, as he called it, "Prince George's "Bow Down Before Me, I Could Have You All Killed" world tour", complete with media footage of "the Baby King crawling around with the baby peasants".

This week, Oliver and Zaltzman also turned their attention to the elections in India, an event that has been pretty much ignored by the mainstream media despite the fact that 814m people are eligible to vote, with 15,000 candidates running from 500 political parties. This means, noted Zalzman, that more people will vote in this election than voted in the last six US presidential elections – "and America should see that as a direct challenge. Give hamsters the vote, if that's what it takes."

There's a strange sense of contentment that comes with spending half an hour in the company of Oliver and Zaltzman, which is perhaps what prompts their more faithful followers to open their wallets. For me, The Bugle is the sound of two thoughtful blokes offering knowledgeable, no-nonsense and near-the-knuckle commentary on world events.

It's also the sound of two comics with a natural chemistry revelling in their creative freedom to say pretty much whatever pops into their heads. Satire isn't dead, it's just got a new home and it's a long way from the BBC.