The Podcast Evolution
Top producers reflect on what’s coming soon to an ear near you
By Erica Ngao
THE SALTY SCENT OF POPCORN and a brisk November draft filter through the dim theatre of Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as people stroll in, most clutching coffee cups. A day-bed-turned-sofa is onstage in front of the screen, elevated high enough to see from the back. Hot Docs is known for its annual international documentary festival, but on Friday, and all weekend long, the space is dedicated to the power of the human voice. The inaugural Hot Docs Podcast Festival is designed to be an all-access pass to the top Canadian and American podcasters, making the familiar voices that accompany long commutes or tedious chores no longer disembodied.
On stage right now is Hannah Sung, one of the morning panelists. She co-hosts and produces The Globe and Mail’s Colour Code, a podcast launched two months earlier. The newsroom had put out a call for special project pitches and video journalist Sung, along with life section editor and columnist Denise Balkissoon, proposed a podcast on race in Canada, a topic they felt was not being covered adequately. Neither had done a podcast before, but for the next eight months they focused extensively on it, with Sung working on the show full-time and Balkissoon contributing to it in addition to her regular duties. The resulting 11-episode series explored sensitive and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about race, from how Indian Status resonates in Indigenous communities today in “Race Card,” to the complexities of mixed-race relationships in “First Comes Love.” When the show premiered, it ranked at the top of iTunes’ New and Noteworthy podcasts list.
Later in the evening, a long line forms around the corner for a recording of Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids, during which two additional mics are pointed toward the audience to catch every gasp, laugh, and shriek. The weekend concludes with a live, Degrassi-themed episode of The Imposter, complete with guest Stefan Brogren reading dirty fan fiction and Toronto band Germaphobes covering songs from the show at the side of the stage.
The success of Colour Code was clear from its metrics, but it was made tangible from listener response. Each episode is embedded on The Globe and Mail’s website for direct listening, along with supplementary pieces that accompany each episode. An ad for the show was printed on the front page of the newspaper the day it launched. Listeners tweeted using #ColourCode, and both Sung and Balkissoon would respond. The show was designed as an experiment, but media organizations beyond the Globe are adopting podcasts in an effort to lure new audiences.
Initially, podcasting was defined by tightly knit communities of hobbyists looking to share common interests. The intimacy of podcasting, combined with a blend of journalism and the fictional elements of storytelling made the medium particularly suited to long-form investigations into sensitive or controversial topics. The popularization of mobile devices made it worthwhile for media organizations to experiment with the form. The barrier to entry is low, making it difficult for a podcast to stand out because listeners can choose from thousands of shows. When podcasts make an impact, though, they create an empathy not easily found in other mediums.
It’s easy to forget just how young this technology is. In 2000, software developer Dave Winer created a new version of RSS that enabled listeners to access and subscribe to audio content automatically over the Internet. Early adopters began to experiment with this new distribution system, including former MTV VJ Adam Curry, who in 2004 launched Daily Source Code, a mix of Curry’s takes on life, music, and other podcasters. It is widely considered one of the first breakout podcasts. Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley coined the word “podcasting” that same year while reporting on the growing trend of amateur Internet radio. A hybrid of “iPod” and “broadcast,” it became the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2005 Word of the Year.
In 2005, Apple upgraded iTunes to version 4.9, the first to include a directory allowing users to search for and subscribe to podcasts. The number of podcast subscriptions grew to over one billion. But the popularity of podcasts wavered after an initial surge in 2005, as other emerging mass media like video streaming gained favour. If podcasting has never been embraced by mass audiences, it has nevertheless experienced slow, steady growth. According to Edison Research, 21 percent of Americans aged 12 or older said in 2016 that they listened to at least one podcast in the preceding month, compared to 12 percent in 2013. While there are no widely accepted numbers in the United States, the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2016” report says that publicly available data from Libsyn, one of the largest commercial podcast hosting companies, indicates an increase in both the number of shows and download requests.
The second wave of popularity began October 3, 2014, with NPR’s Serial. Its runaway success created a buzz, indicating that podcasting might grow beyond its indie roots to become a bonafide mainstream industry. A spin-off of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, Serial’s first season investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, and her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was arrested and convicted of the crime. Sarah Koenig, a former newspaper reporter and producer at This American Life, hosted and produced the 12-part season (along with three follow-up episodes about Syed’s hearing). The combination of true crime, new reporting, evidence, and Koenig’s narration accelerated the podcast to an unheard-of level of success for the medium. Within four weeks, the show reached a million downloads per episode and, a year later, “the Serial effect” yielded over 90 million downloads.
Parallel to America, podcasting had also taken hold in Canada. In 2005, early CBC Radio experiments simply involved making segments of programs like Quirks and Quarks, The Current, and Definitely Not the Opera available as downloadable files. CBC then moved beyond digital extensions to launch the CBC Radio 3 Podcast in June 2005. Hosted by musician Grant Lawrence, each weekly episode featured the best in new Canadian independent music. The show was an instant hit. The first year’s 54 episodes attracted more than two million downloads and 40,000 to 60,000 weekly subscribers.
The podcast format resonated with Radio 3’s younger, tech-savvy audience as an accessible, portable broadcast alternative. On its one-year anniversary, a letter to the National Post stated, “The national and international success of the podcast makes it clear that the CBC has succeeded where others have failed, and has done what this paper has said was impossible; it has popularized Canadian art and entertainment.”
In recent years, as the podcast’s popularity appeared to wane and its production cycle was extended from weekly to monthly, CBC began to experiment with original series in 2015. The first show, Campus, reports on the lives of post-secondary students. Three more podcasts followed: Love Me, Back Story, and Someone Knows Something. Leslie Merklinger, senior director of audio innovation at CBC Radio, says the shows are aimed at a broader, more diverse audience. “Our goal is to share the stories with as many Canadians as possible and to reflect Canada as best we can,” she says.
Merklinger says that CBC, in the wake of Serial, wanted to make original podcasts that were both popular and innovative. In 2016, CBC News launched two new podcasts: Secrets of The Fifth Estate, a behind-the-scenes look into the investigative program’s most memorable stories; and Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?, an eight-part investigation into the 1989 unsolved case of a murdered Indigenous woman. The latter was based on CBC journalist Connie Walker’s reportage of Williams’s death, which she began after receiving an anonymous tip from Garry Kerr, a former RCMP officer and the lead investigator on the case. According to CBC, the RCMP acknowledged that it has received new information because of the podcast, and that the case is active.
While CBC has a strong tradition of audio storytelling and broadcasting, the rest of Canadian media are catching up. The Edmonton Journal’s legislature reporter Emma Graney has hosted more than 150 politics podcast episodes, while politics reporters at Maclean’s round up the week’s parliamentary news in Maclean’s On the Hill Politics Podcast. The Toronto Star and Postmedia have launched sports podcasts, including I’ll Have Another—where Star reporters Doug Smith and Laura Armstrong discuss the latest sports news—and the hockey-focused Off the Post, hosted by the Toronto Sun’s John Matisz. At Chatelaine, editor-at-large Rachel Giese conducts intimate conversations with notable personalities on UpTalk. More than ever, podcasting is a way for journalists to engage with audiences. The former are no longer just bylines, the latter are no longer just clicks, and the potential to create a relationship that gives stories resonance is real. “It’s a format that breaks down the walls between the journalist and the audience,” says Balkissoon. “That’s something people want in the social age.”
HITTING THE KEYBOARD TO PAUSE, Lindsay Michael asks, “Did that intro make sense to everybody?” Three producers sit around her desk, facing the computer. They nod and keep listening, occasionally jotting notes. The chatter in the next cubicle doesn’t bother them. They’re reviewing episode 67: “Must Hear Podcasts of the Season.” It tells five stories they’ve selected, from the founding of America’s largest African-American–owned broadcasting company, to a fictional live radio variety show broadcast from atop the Eiffel Tower. Before each episode is released, the team conducts a “listening session,” during which they play the full segment out loud to do last-minute edits of production blips or inappropriate content. The team runs through the hour-long show, chuckling at humorous moments, heads down in thought during the serious segments. Behind them, two whiteboards are scribbled with plans for the next two months’ shows.
Michael co-hosts (with Metro Morning host Matt Galloway) and produces Podcast Playlist, which curates an eclectic mix of podcasts. The idea was to introduce new content to the portion of CBC Radio’s audience that doesn’t listen to podcasts, as well as to introduce new podcasts to seasoned listeners. Although not all podcasts work on radio and vice versa, the common denominator is storytelling, and for Michael the mediums are complementary. “What’s happening in podcasting is innovative and exciting,” she says. “It brings a different energy to terrestrial airwaves.”
When Michael started the show in 2015, Canadian podcasts generally dealt with lower production values. Now, she’s seeing a shift to more sophisticated and creative productions. This is partially due to the fact that there are more opportunities for people to produce work in the medium. The technology is easily accessible, and there are more ways for independent podcasters to reach an audience. Before, CBC was the only Canadian avenue for someone who wanted to create audio stories. Now, anybody can do it, meaning that quality and creativity have become the main differentiators. “The thing that everybody can be doing better, independents and legacy broadcasters and media organizations, is to push the boundaries of what podcasting does,” Michael says.
JP DAVIDSON’S INTRODUCTION to podcasting came in 2010 in a friend’s kitchen. They spent their free time working on a dating-and-relationships show called I Like You. With no previous training, Davidson initially taught himself the basics of interviewing and production before enrolling in a formal workshop for beginner radio producers. He enjoyed it so much that he pursued freelance audio production full-time. “For a long time, I only got a few things on the radio,” he says. “But, slowly, I built up a portfolio.” Davidson turned his attention to podcasting as more opportunities became available. For the past five years, he’s made a living as a freelance producer, creating The Risk Takers — a five-part series about the stories of small business owners — for the Globe. He’s also been producing branded content for RBC and Greenpeace USA.
As the media organizations take note of podcasting, so do other brands. One company that’s leading the charge in branded podcasts is Pacific Content. Founder Steve Pratt calls it “the weirdest business in the history of niche businesses.” Pratt started the Vancouver-based company in 2014 after spending a decade at CBC Radio, where he co-created the CBC Radio 3 Podcast. He’s recruited experienced journalists and producers, many of whom have worked at CBC. Pacific Content’s first client was Slack, the workplace communication tech startup. Slack Variety Pack, which featured a mix of stories, sketches, and journalism on modern work culture, launched in 2015 and garnered over three million listens by the year’s end. Pacific Content was featured as one of Entrepreneur’s 100 brilliant companies of 2016. The following year, it again formed a partnership with Slack to launch Work in Progress, a podcast about how people find meaning in work. Companies create podcasts with Pacific Content because they reach consumers directly, rather than purchasing ad space, during which listeners are liable to skip ahead, in other podcasts. As with blogs and video, podcasts can ideally promote a brand without resorting to heavy-handed marketing messages. “Everybody has for years predicted the death of radio,” says Pratt. “It never goes away because spoken-word audio is really powerful.”
EPISODE 155 OF CANADALAND OPENS with its signature catchy jingle, which fades as host Jesse Brown begins. Usually, his voice is clear as he introduces the topic of the week’s episode, but he sounds flustered and worried. “Guys, we’re having some problems.” It’s mid-October 2016 and the outlet has lost almost half its staff. In the 28-minute-long episode, Brown speaks earnestly about the departures, both to listeners and with departing staff. He makes a plea to listeners for their support and lists the highlights that their support has enabled Canadaland to achieve over the preceding three years.
One of the country’s most well-known podcasts since its inception in 2013, Canadaland has grown into an independent news site and podcast network that includes three other shows: Commons, The Imposter, and Canadaland Short Cuts. Launched by Brown, a journalist who had previously worked at CBC Radio and Maclean’s, Canadaland is supported primarily through crowdfunding on Patreon. As of February 2017, over 3,000 patrons contributed $16,100 per month. Since that episode, it has raised enough for a pay increase (for all staff except Brown), an investigations fund, a paid apprenticeship program, a podcast development fund, and a new desk.
Former Canadaland producer Katie Jensen can confirm that they really did need another desk. While completing a postgraduate program in radio production, Jensen discovered Canadaland and wrote to Brown. She scored an interview and started interning part-time the following week. She eventually worked full-time on the flag ship show and became the founding producer of The Imposter. Her acquaintance with radio began at CFMU, McMaster University’s campus radio station. A biology major, she developed a passion for audio while curating her show Indielicious.
Since leaving Canadaland at the end of January, after producing 139 episodes, Jensen has been focusing on multiple freelance projects, including a podcast for Motherboard and a branded show for a Toronto tech startup. She believes that it’s just a matter of time before more journalistic outlets release podcasts in Canada, and thinks that the medium presents a chance to bring more diversity to the conversation. “Journalism in podcast format has an obligation to put different-sounding voices on the air,” she says. “Voices that maybe are accented, maybe in a different language, maybe have a pattern of speech that would be considered unappealing — anything that would normally prevent somebody from being on the air.”
RYAN MCMAHON HAS ALWAYS had a soft spot for radio. Growing up in Manitoba, he listened to it constantly while hunting and fishing. The Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe comedian later translated this into his podcast, Red Man Laughing, which is now in its sixth season. What started as a way to keep his comedic skills sharp as a stay-at-home father expanded into the first listener-supported Indigenous podcast network, Indian & Cowboy, in 2014. “I fell in love with the potential of having Indigenous stories on the Internet forever,” he says. Stories From the Land, a podcast about Indigenous communities, followed that same year. Despite his success, he’s wary of legacy media potentially diminishing the independent roots of podcasting. “These mainstream institutions are in such a panic about how to save their own businesses,” he says. “They’re turning to the new, cool, hip thing.” McMahon joined Canadaland in February as one of three new hosts on Commons.
After working in public radio for decades, Jeffrey Dvorkin doesn’t think McMahon has anything to worry about. Now the director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Dvorkin was previously a managing editor at CBC Radio. He also worked at NPR as its vice president of news and information and later became its first ombudsperson. He worries that media organizations are over-investing in digital and under-investing in talent. “There’s clearly a market for this but, in Canada, we seem to not be very good at figuring out how to move forward,” he says. “There’s a fearful media culture that’s not willing to be experimental.”
Dan Misener, a radio producer who worked at CBC for a decade, is willing to experiment. Since 2007, he’s been running a podcast and live event series, Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids, with his wife, Jenna. CBC Radio began to run the program in 2014 as a 10-part summer series. Two years later, Misener left CBC to focus on the podcast and pursue other opportunities, including Pacific Content, where he is the head of audience development in addition to being a producer and host. Having been an independent podcaster and producer for a legacy institution, he believes that there has never been a better time to work on audio storytelling. “There’s that old idea that a medium never really finds its voice until a generation of people have grown up consuming it,” says Misener. “I’m excited to hear new shows built especially to take advantage of the podcast medium.”
THE USUAL SET-UP in the Globe’s old video studio is replaced today by a small round table and two condenser mics. Sung and Balkissoon take a seat across from each other, both scanning over the show notes. The room is quiet as the technical producer sets up the recording equipment. It’s been over two months since Colour Code premiered. Today, Sung and Balkissoon are recording the last episode, “Your Turn.” Throughout the season, they asked listeners to send in their thoughts via voice memo. Now, they’re allowing the audience to be a part of the final episode by playing the best of what they’ve received.
As Sung and Balkissoon run through the first half of the episode, they converse with ease, laughing at times, pausing at others. Unlike previous episodes, this one is unscripted and reflective, and the hosts are honest and thoughtful with their words — something that listeners have come to appreciate.
“Making a podcast is a lot more work than I thought,” says Balkissoon, laughing. Sung jokingly chides her: “Don’t break the illusion!”
The episode is released a week later—a triumphant end to the season. It features interviews with listeners across the country, including Ian Campeau—DJ NDN from A Tribe Called Red. “It’s not just that there’s something like [Colour Code],” he says, “but there’s as many people thinking the same things that I am that it demands a podcast.”
Sung and Balkissoon aren’t sure if they want to do a second season. It was an experiment, after all, albeit one that demonstrated what could be done. As the episode comes to a close, Balkissoon thanks the audience one last time for listening.
“Yes,” says Sung. “What more can we say?”
Erica Ngao is a senior print editor at the RRJ. You can follow her on Twitter at @ericangao.