“Live Shows Really Started the Fire Beneath Us”: How Podcasts Became Arena Fillers

wRunning on stage at Live Aid, Freddie Mercury knew the crowd was in the palm of his hand. When comedian and radio presenter John Robbins took to the stage at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Mercury — the homage feels appropriate.

He’s not about to perform Bohemian Rhapsody, but rather a live embodiment of Made Up Games, part of the weekly BBC Radio 5 Live show he hosts with fellow comedian Ellis James. However, the cheers from the angry crowd were deafening.

Robbins and James met on the comedy circuit in 2005, fantasized about doing a radio show together, made it a reality in 2014, and in 2020, won gold for funniest performance at the Arya Awards.

Their weekly chat show, also released as a podcast, was one of the first of its kind to go on tour, and they were the first to do a streaming gig during Covid. Now, tickets for their live performances sell out across the country within hours of going on sale. There are even whispers of a transition to television.

Live podcasts are on the rise. Compared to 2013, the number of events increased by 2000%, which in the past year has undoubtedly helped increase the popularity of Covid-driven podcasting. In 2022, Britons are listening to podcasts 40% more than they did before the pandemic, with fans keen to meet and interact with their heroes in person. From Deborah Frances White’s The Guilty Feminist to James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s Off Menu, it seems that the mark of success on a podcast or radio show is whether or not it makes the rounds.

“The live shows really lit a fire under us,” says comedian Stevie Martin. Along with fellow comedian Tessa Coates, she hosts the hit podcast Nobody Panic, an audio guide to ‘being an adult who works without screaming’ – and she just enjoyed a residency at London’s Soho Theatre. “It can be very lonely in the studio, but doing the show live allows us to meet the listeners and really understand why we were doing it all in the first place.

“We can be meaner and less censored”… Tessa Coates and Stevie Martin from the Nobody Builds Podcast Photography: Marco Vitor

It also broadens our listening range. People come on first dates and then return as partners, or they come alone and leave as friendships. Others who come to the show (or are dragged there by their girlfriends) have never heard of us and go on to become regular listeners.”

Coates adds, “We can be meaner and less censorious on a personal level, too, which makes for a more rowdy night.” Back in Bloomsbury, Robbins explains to his audience that there will be no time lapse. When he uses the phonetic alphabet to spell out “interval,” everyone knowingly laughs. (Publication of the phonetic alphabet is And therefore John). Then, in his introduction, James began shouting the word “Argos” over and over. It’d be a little confusing if you didn’t listen to their show – but fortunately that’s not a problem for the 500 people in attendance, who know full well that James was referring to an episode of their show six months ago when he hacked the BBC by naming the retailer’s catalog on air. He cries, “Well, we all knew it was Argos,” and brings their cheers to a resounding crescendo.

Their show has been on the air since 2014, when it began life on XFM (now Radio X) before moving to 5 Live in 2019. Since its inception, it’s gained a cult following — so much so that they have an online shop that features merchandise bearing their slogans and jokes, and a Facebook group for fans that It has 18,000 members at the time of writing. But how did a weekly radio show on an independent station turn into a sell-out tour?

“John used to do this thing where he read chapters from his autobiography, Robins Among the Pigeons,” says James.

“The thing that made us realize we might be able to go to the theater was a demo we did in a pub. The venue only holds 160, but tickets sold out in half an hour. Listening to the podcast is a very intimate experience, but it’s all one-way traffic. We’ve been in people’s ears for years, and now they want to be in a room with us.”

Poppy Jay and Rubina Pabani, the voices behind the hit podcast, Brown Girls Do It Too, had a similar experience. When asked about their way of launching a live show, they sarcastically respond that it all started with “a white guy slipping into the DMs.” The man in question was a podcast producer, and he put them together “like brown Spice Girls.”

“We’re not from the live or theatrical world, so we didn’t know what rules to break, and our live performances turned into very interactive experiences—dialogue between us and the audience, mixed with songs, sketches, and improvisation,” says Guy.

“We didn’t know the rules we were breaking”… Bobby Jay and Rubina Papani of the Brown Girls do too. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Papani adds that as South Asian women, with largely South Asian listeners, they feel a measure of responsibility. “A lot of women come to our live shows in secret so they can meet other brown women who want to talk about sex and relationships. We’ve had women come quietly to us at the bar after shows, wanting to confide in us about their personal lives.”

It is the directness and originality that made Robbins and James so beloved by listeners. Their show is a traditional radio show in that it has regular features that include guest and listener participation, but apart from that, it feels more like an unscripted dialogue between two friends.

“There’s just something about male friendship,” Robbins muses. “You don’t see too many male friendships – and if you do it’s often that horrible naughty boy. It’s rare that you hear two men try to be as thorough as possible in their language, and they can really take out each other’s anger but not in a belittling way.” More male friendships are like ours than you think, when they’re with one person.”

When asked why “Brown Girls Do It Too” meant so much to people, Papani paused and then summed it up: “People feel like they have a connection with us, so they come to the show to see us, but really they come to see themselves reflected back.”

After the collective trauma of Covid, it’s perhaps unsurprising that shows that combine self-reflection with exuberance have been a huge draw for audiences.

Next year, more live acoustic performances are planned than ever before, and big hitters like Rob Beckett and Josh Widdicombe’s Parenting Hell, and Chris and Rosie Ramsey’s Shagged. Married. Already upset selling squares.

The John Robbins shirt said it all. Radio: You have not yet had your finest hour.

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