Canadaland’s Big Problem
Pick a friggin’ format already.
Note: I’m a contributor to Canadaland. Aren’t I supposed to disclose that kind of thing? I give them either $5 or $7/month, whichever level got me the t-shirt (which immediately shrunk, but that’s not the point). OK?
Something’s been bothering me about Canadaland but until this afternoon I couldn’t put my finger on it. On today’s episode of Short Cuts, the weekly news-focused podcast (is that a good description?), Jesse Brown hosted JJ McCullough, a conservative writer, moustache owner and unironic sayer of “aboot”, and sort of engaged him in a discussion about Canada’s non-existent refugee crisis and I guess some other news stories. They fought, they…I dunno, something else, I guess…and afterwards a bunch of people of Twitter berated Brown for doing a crappy job. It wasn’t until I saw the feedback that I finally understood what had been bothering me about the show.
The problem—and I offer this constructively with peace and love, knowing it’ll come off initially as a bit hacky, but stick with me a minute—is Jesse Brown. Specifically, it’s Brown’s effort to be every kind of radio host at once. He’s an interviewer, an opinion-maker, a polemist and an activist. He’s hosting talk radio, but also an interview show, but also a news show. He’s a journalist but also kind of a columnist. In other words, he’s confused. And increasingly that confusion is burying important content in a confused mess of conflicting formats.
There are a few ways Canadaland and its host can be fixed. Let’s contrast 3 hugely popular hosts with different styles: Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Marc Maron. Rush is all politics, Stern and Maron are generally thought of as comedy shows (though Stern’s entire existence is political) and Maron has been dabbling (lightly) in politics, mostly notably his interview with Barack Obama. Both Maron and Stern do interviews and Stern does what could be described as panel discussions (with unusual panelists). All 3 are also extremely successful, so they must be doing something right. Limbaugh is the undisputed all-time champion of talk radio and the archetypal AM host, Maron helped popularize podcasting and is probably its most recognized performer and Stern is hands down the most successful radio broadcaster in history, who at his peak on FM radio had 20 million daily listeners and now broadcasts to a subscriber base of over 30 million.
Limbaugh is the most self-centred of the bunch. The opinion-maker. Whatever the topic, guest or no guest, the focus of the show is Rush. When Jesse Brown interviewed Arthur Kent a few episodes ago, he was doing Rush. (Remember we’re talking style here, not content, ok? Don’t freak out.) It was clear Brown’s motive was to make a slippery slope point and no matter what Kent said Brown took it as an opportunity to reiterate his position. By the end of the interview, I wondered why he’d had Kent on at all. That’s Rush style.
Short Cuts, the more casual Thursday news-oriented version of Canadaland, has been slowly and surely transforming into the Jesse Brown Show, a opportunity for Brown to convey his opinion on a broader range of topics while occasionally (maybe) giving his guest a chance to chime in, though they mostly just sit there politely while Brown makes his point. Jesse Brown could easily be a Canadian Limbaugh: a talk radio opinion-maker who loves the sound of his own voice. But Canadaland was, in the beginning, about promoting guests and their media-related stories, with a dash of Brown’s opinion thrown in. Now we get a tablespoon’s worth. Canadaland has too much Rush and needs some new role models.
Like Rush, Howard Stern’s show is all about Howard…except when he interviews people. When the topic is politics, sex, pop culture, his staff and/or their ridiculous antics, or when it’s one of the much-loved “no guest” days when Howard has the entire show to riff, the focus in all on the host and anyone else on air is there to support him. When Howard shifts into interviewer mode, however, it’s like an entirely different person is behind the mic. In an interview Howard almost never references himself, his experiences or gives an opinion, unless a guest asks him for one. He’s become so good setting himself aside and showcasing the guest, a skill he’s evolved and perfected since moving to satellite radio, major a-listers who’d avoided his show like the plague for decades are now giving 1 and 2 hour-long live sit-downs and then coming back in a year to do it again. He’s well-researched, selfless and makes the shift in and out of interview mode seamlessly. (Though Stern has the benefit of a 4 hour show in which to make the transitions. Canadaland, as an interview show, is too short, in my opinion.)
Then, quickly, there’s the Maron model, where the host is the focus at all times, but can also deeply engage a guest through vulnerability. What Stern does with massive amount of research, Maron does through openness and a real desire to listen. Stern is the greatest radio interviewer, but Maron is a better listener. That said, the focus never quite comes off Maron. This has changed over the years as he’s moved from interviewing comics and friends to interviewing politicians, artists and musicians. But still, there’s always a kernel of the host in everything. But just a kernel, and never at the expense of the guest. That’s the balancing act required to be Maronesque.
What bugs me about Canadaland is that Brown has tried to merge Limbaugh with Stern and Maron into a freak of radio, the Limbaughsternmaron. Brown has lots of opinions and really wants to get them out, but he also wants to be a well-researched interviewer, which clashes with his desire to relate to (some of) his guests through shared profession or experience. To pull this off successfully, Brown has to be the least compromising, best-researched, most insightful and most engaged host while also being completely selfless and creating space for the guest to shine. It can’t be done. He’s been trying, but the opinion stuff is the easiest to do and, unfortunately, it’s taking over.
Which brings us back to today. Brown’s taken flack for not doing enough to challenge McCullough’s position on border-crossing refugees, specifically those of Somali origin and, to his credit, Brown later admitted he didn’t have the right research in front of him to mount a more effective opposition. But that’s also kinda bullshit. He’d have known inviting McCullough on and discussing that topic would lead to some kind of debate. Brown was researched, but not researched enough. So if he didn’t invite McCullough on to promote his viewpoint and wasn’t prepared for a debate, what was the point?
And that’s my problem with Canadaland. What’s the point? If Brown can’t conduct an interview without interjecting himself and/or his agenda, doesn’t want to fully commit to personality-driven radio and doesn’t have the time to do the research required for a debate show then what kind of show is Canadaland and/or Short Cuts supposed to be? Stern, Maron, Limbaugh, As It Happens, This American Life…they all have a consistent format and intent. If Brown wants to keep growing Canadaland, he’s gonna have to pick a style. If he wants to be Jesse Brown: Dude Who Knows Shit And Will Debate Your Ass, he should hire a researcher and host Short Cuts only. If he wants to be Jesse Brown: Important Journalist, Disseminator of Truths and Good Interviewer, he should hire a researcher, focus on his interview technique and host Canadaland only. If he wants to keep hosting both shows, he’s gotta go full journalist, completely “As It Happens” that shit and ditch the agenda. That’s it. If the show’s maintain their focus on the host, they’ll die. Slowly and sadly.
But Canadaland is too important to die. Canada needs more independent news and opinion, not less. It just doesn’t necessarily need them at the same time, in the same 30 minute show. A little clarity will go a long way to making Canadaland and its host much better.