News & Views
Voices of the Crowd #8 – Anna Staufenberg26 October 2021
Back in February of this year, about five days after the first episode of We Didn’t Start The Fire came out (Harry Truman, if you didn’t know), an email came pinging into my inbox. It was from a woman called Claire in New York, who said she was “Billy Joel’s agent.” She and Billy had “heard the first episode on Truman,” and they “both LOVED it.” Huh?!
Claire said she’d come across a story in a small Long Island rag about this “new history podcast in the UK, based on a song by Billy Joel.” That’s us. We wanted to be the first modern history pod that adds some sparkle, makes history fun to listen to instead of droning on about some date where some people did this apparently really important thing. So this is what we came up with. We take Billy Joel’s brain, put the fabulous Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce in front of some mics, reel in some expert guests, and make one-hundred-and-twenty-episodes. Each lyric in Billy’s song, delivered fresh to your podcast app. For two years.
And it’s gone great. I love Fire (as we affectionately call it in the Crowd office). Each episode is so different, as unpredictable as Billy’s lyrics. What other podcast can jump from the Beatles to bombs, from Doris Day to Disneyland without having some sort of identity crisis? But we do, and we do it well, mainly because Katie and Tom are such legendary hosts who find everything interesting. But also because we’ve got Billy.
And now we’ve actually got Billy. It turned out Claire wasn’t pretending to represent the piano man, she could actually link us up! So, sometime in late August we found ourselves sat opposite the man himself. The one who started this whole thing. Sat smoking a vape cigar, tinkling away at his piano, telling us how much he hates the melody. And we finally got to ask him how and why he wrote the lyrics that have dominated our lives for the last ten months.
Tom and Katie always say the song has given them “the most original, random and unique way to explore the post-war world,” and it’s true. I’ve learnt so much, just from being sat in the studio with them during recordings. I had no idea about the tragic Rosenbergs before we made episode 15. Or what it was like to grow up in Communist China before episode three. Or how 91-year-old Britain’s Got Talent winner Colin Thackery felt when firing his gun during the Korean War. That’s episode 18 (Panmunjom), if you haven’t listened to it. And I haven’t even got into Jonathan Ross talking about Marlon Brando, or Caroline O’Donaghue raging about JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or the history god himself Dan Snow coming on in outrageously bright red trousers to explain where and what the heck Dien Bien Phu is. And why it’s falling. No, it’s not a waterfall, Tom.
And this is just the start. We’re so excited to have been nominated for best podcast at the MPA Awards, and in December a small group of us are travelling to Belgium to do the first ever live recording of We Didn’t Start The Fire as the opening act for the Ostend podcast festival. We’ll be joining producers from the incredible S-Town and This American Life. It’s exciting and they’ve even invited me onto a panel of “industry experts” to talk about it. Eek.
The Fire’s spreading, and it’s an actual joy to be part of the flame.