Journalists Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton first brought their refreshing take on pop-culture and news to the downloadable airwaves on the Sunday Times Style' Pandolly podcast. When they both parted ways with the publication at the beginning of the year, they launched the ever entertaining, thought-provoking and extremely successful The High Low. A podcast inspired by Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s concept of ‘high low journalism’ – mixing chat about the likes of meta references in Taylor Swift's newest video with analysis of issues such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Like all the best podcasts, their quick-witted, friendly repartee makes the listener feel like they're part of the gang. A feeling that especially comes to the fore during their 'Ask the High Low' segment when Pandora and Dolly respond to listeners worries and problems.
We were lucky enough to have our own extensive 'Ask The High Low' when we chatted with the effervescent double act about what goes into running a podcast and what they'll be reading over Christmas.
There must be a lot of preparation for the podcast every week. How much work goes into each episode?
Pandora: It’s a day's work: we discuss ideas for a few hours, write a loose script, record for a couple of hours, edit for a couple of hours, then spend about an hour putting it out on social media the next day with the show notes and synopsis. But throughout the week we deal with hundreds of emails to The High Low inbox, meetings with current sponsors, future sponsors, possible event spaces… it’s a part time job, essentially!
Dolly: As Pandora says, it’s like a start-up business, which we hadn’t anticipated. But it helps that there are two of us, so we can divide the workload.
It seems like you have a lot of fun doing the podcast but are there times when you're discussing another depressing news story for the umpteenth week that it becomes hard for you? Or do you find it therapeutic to be able to discuss it with each other on the platform the podcast gives you?
Pandora: It’s really satisfying, but it isn’t always fun – because we have to be supremely thoughtful about what we say and make sure we have relevant stats, or have read all the op-ed pieces, or news pieces, on a subject. The last thing we want to do is come across as ignorant, so we have to concentrate pretty hard. But yes, I love having the platform to discuss things that rile me or rivet me, with Dolly. When Dolly went to Thailand recently for 2 weeks, I felt myself gasping to discuss topics where Twitter just wouldn't suffice!
Dolly: When really terrible stuff has happened in the news that week, there is always a part of me that thinks it would be easier to shy away from discussing it on the podcast. As Panda says, we don’t ever want to seem ignorant or insensitive and we always want to look at all sides of the story, so tackling something really big and heavy and complicated can be daunting. Ultimately, we do always end up talking about it – no matter how uncomfortable or delicate. We want to talk about the things that matter, even if it is a very sensitive topic and I think people appreciate us confronting it.
In an increasingly visual age when we’re told our attention spans are shortening, it almost seems paradoxical that podcasts are becoming ever more popular. Why do you think more and more people are listening to them?
Pandora: Because they are passive. They literally require no effort. And they curate the noise; they cut through the myriad media sources and aggregate everything from that week (in the case of The High Low, at least.)
Dolly: People are so busy, and it’s easier to consume a podcast or audio series on the go over a book.
"We like engaging with those emotional dilemmas that are specific as well as being universal."
Did you have some favourite podcasts before you started that really made you think it was something you wanted to try?
Pandora: Actually, no. I didn’t listen to podcasts! I do now, of course.
Dolly: Nothing other than the Desert Island Discs archive, which I listened to obsessively.
How do you choose which emails to read out for the ‘Ask the High Low’ segment of the podcast?
Pandora: It has to be something we are both interested in, and hope that we can be interesting, and helpful, on. We try not to pick too many of the same type of question, or anything too niche.
Dolly: We avoid any questions about how to become a journalist (“I don’t want us to get too UCAS advisor,” Pandora famously once said to me) and we don’t like doing anything too London-centric. We like engaging with those questions and emotional dilemmas that are specific as well as being universal.
You must receive a lot of emails from your podcast listeners. Are you able to respond to as many as you'd like?
Pandora: Dolly deals with The High Low inbox and she does her best to wing back a quick line, but we always say we aren’t able to reply to everything. It just takes too much time and it’s impossible to get our actual work inbox done, otherwise! I wish we could reply to all of them, though. But we don’t have any assistance, so it’s increasingly impossible.
Dolly: I’ll always respond to someone who sounds like they’re in need of help. And we’ll always try and reply with a line or two to listener emails and tweets, but we now get about 20 to 30 new emails a day in The High Low's account, so that on top of our other podcast prep and our respective careers away from the podcast make it too time-consuming to reply to every single one in full now.
Dolly, I know you keep a physical diary, why do you prefer pen and paper over digital? Pandora, what do you prefer? And, how's your handwriting?
Pandora: I use a Symthson diary – I don’t use my iCal at all. Of course, it’s risky: Dolly recently lost her diary on a plane and I’ve also done that before and my heart, and life, quite literally stopped. But I love writing notes and I think I will forever keep a diary on me.
Dolly: I use a Mulberry Filofax. And I always carry a notebook. I’m an analogue girl. As for handwriting, both Panda and I are pretty swirly.
Do you ever send Thank You notes?
Pandora: Yes! Always. Dolly writes beautiful ones, actually.
Dolly: I love writing thank you notes – I’m always so touched when I receive them.
Which person that you’ve never met would you love to be on your Christmas card list and why?
Pandora: We both adore Sadiq. We’re going to get him on The High Low, one day, we’re determined.
Dolly: Yes. Or Tina Brown! The woman who inspired The High Low’s name. [Editor's note – since this interview, Pandora and Dolly have achieved this dream! You can listen to their interview with Tina on episode 35.]
Speaking of Malcom Gladwell and podcasts, his Revisionist History is a must-listen
What will you be reading over Christmas? Do you have any Christmas books that you always return to?
Pandora: On my bedside table for Christmas reading is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Saint Mazie by Jami Attenburg and Sour Heart by Jennie Zhang.
Dolly: The new collection of Martin Amis essays, the new memoir from the creators of Guys We F****d, The White Album by Joan Didion and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.
Do you have any Christmas traditions?
Pandora: My family always follows a similar routine: stockings, brunch, Christmas tree, lunch, movies and chocolates in front of the fire. I’m having my first Christmas at my in-laws this year: so I’m about to learn all of theirs!
Dolly: We do the same. With a church service thrown in in the morning, which is fine by me as I love a carol. And I like eating cold roast potatoes before bed, if only for one day of the year.
What two Papier products would you gift each other?
Pandora: I’d give Dolly the classic border stationery set with navy, or mint trim (as I want it myself, and you should always give presents you want for yourself, so you know they are good!) and the cards with the tigers on them as they are so fun.
Dolly: Noted, Panda, I’ll get you the border stationery set!