Scotland’s rising broadcaster on podcasting, progression, and perseverance.
This article was written on the 26th November 2020.
“I hate when people fuck me about, so I’m really sorry.”
In truth, there is no need for Sean McDonald to apologise. His face, illuminated by a bright and sincere smile, pops up on my screen just minutes after the time we had agreed. The slight delay would barely be worth a mention to most. For him, it’s a genuine point of contrition.
Less than two years ago, the 30-year-old’s morning phone calls centred around his job in computer software. Today, they centre around his rise through the ranks of the Scottish media.
Still in relative infancy in an oversaturated market, Blethered has lit up the podcast scene with its flowing conversation and insightful anecdotes. Guided by McDonald’s candour and curiosity, the show has enjoyed an upward trajectory since day one, and now pulls in around 50,000 listeners a month.
Over the weekend, McDonald will go from podcaster to presenter, as he hosts the digital coverage of the SNP’s annual party conference. Despite his confident and charismatic persona, the scale of the opportunity he has earned himself is not lost on McDonald.
“It’s a great job to be getting, but it does come with a bit of stress. While I’m bracing myself for folk to say stuff about me, I think once I do it people might sit up and go ‘hold on a minute, he’s hosting a party conference for the actual Scottish Government.’”
As part of his duties, McDonald will sit down to introduce perhaps the most sought-after interviewee in the country, Nicola Sturgeon. He fondly recalls his only previous encounter with her.
Last year, at a business event in Glasgow, the First Minister of Scotland approached the young man from Bishopbriggs and said, “It’s Blethered, isn’t it?” From the Highlands to Holyrood – and far beyond – McDonald’s show is capturing the attention of even the most powerful.
Blethered, a podcast which welcomes a wide variety of guests to discuss society and the issues it faces with an immutable Scottish slant, has unsuspectingly thrust McDonald into the spotlight.
“I just started the podcast for fun…If I was to reflect on it, I suppose it’s because I’ve done everything with genuine and authentic intentions that I’ve naturally found a place in the media. It’s funny how things work out.”
Before the idea of starting a podcast had even crossed his mind, McDonald found himself in Barcelona after pestering an agency to give him a job teaching English. His time in Catalonia allowed him to expand his linguistic capabilities.
He laughs as he remembers a colleague in Glasgow ridiculing his interest in learning French, pondering how they might react upon discovering that he now speaks five languages fluently.
It’s an interest he has enjoyed since an early age, able to pinpoint the exact moment his passion for multilingualism began with a holiday to Tunisia when he was five.
“I remember hearing Germans and just thinking it was mental…There was this one boy, he must have been about ten, but I was just staring at him in pure wonder. I just thought everyone spoke the same language.”
“This is the first thing I ever did. I’ll never forget it. My mum spoke a bit of French so she told me to go up to the bar and say ‘je voudrais un limonade s’il vous plaît?’ which means ‘can I have a lemonade please?’ So I gave it a try and the guy didny bat an eyelid, just went away and got me a lemonade.”
“And I was like ‘Wow, I’ve unlocked some ancient, unknown knowledge. I canny wait to go home and tell everyone in Scotland about this.’ That built the fascination for me.”
While some episodes of Blethered can be found in Spanish, the show is unapologetically Scottish in nature. Broadcasting legends Janice Forsyth and Fiona White recognised this, adding Blethered to the budding portfolio boasted by The Big Light, the “Netflix of Scottish podcasts.”
Life has changed immensely for McDonald over the past few years. Some see his success as an indication that he is inherently privileged, a notion that baffles the podcast star. His mother was just 18 when she had McDonald, bringing him up on her own in the south of England. It’s not something he’s keen to dwell on, however.
“I’ll never talk about it, because I’m repulsed by the people who do the working-class hero thing…No matter how tough you’ve had it, there’s always going to be someone who’s had it far, far worse.”
It’s one of the few topics McDonald shies away from. In conversations with various guests, Blethered has covered serious social issues, from addiction to discrimination, with stunning sincerity.
For McDonald though, it’s imperative that these topics are discussed for the right reasons, in the right manner.
“It’s becoming in-fashion to ask people in interviews ‘what do you think about mental health issues.’ It can be shoehorned in. I’m always cautious of talking about it, I only do it when it comes up. Hashtags aren’t getting us anywhere. They’re well intentioned, but they’re achieving fuck all.”
‘Don’t be flippant to the subject. Don’t ask about it as if it’s part of your checklist. It’s people’s lives. It’s serious.”
Martin Melly, a close friend who appeared on Blethered to discuss his battle with depression, told me why he isn’t surprised by McDonald’s success.
“He is meticulous in his research and leaves no stone unturned…While he is very good at what he does, the most important thing to know about Sean is that he’s a great friend.”
During our almost two-hour conversation, it is easy to see why McDonald is held in such high regard by those around him. His genuine warmth and unwavering engagement in our discussion is almost tangible, despite the impersonal nature of our Zoom call.
As McDonald enthusiastically details the many projects in his immediate future, he is also reminded of the many rejections he has faced, and how perseverance has been key to his ever-growing success.
“The reason I started doing it was because I was made redundant, and I thought I could go and take a punt at this. It was scary at times, I ran out of money a couple of times, but it’s going quite well now.”
“I now embody the cheesiest cliché: do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ve just turned 30, so I didny have that straight away… Double your efforts, you double your rewards. It’s just this self-perpetuating cycle of enjoyment really.”
Early in our chat, without any bitterness or arrogance, but instead to convey the rise and falls of the industry he has grafted his way into, he says “I’ve almost been a household name five time over.”
The way things are going, it is only a matter of time until the name Sean McDonald achieves that status.