Many Thanks

There are so many things I have not had the time to mention here (hello Historian Laureate adventures!), but I am too blissed out not to share this news:

My latest show at CJSR – All That Matters – just won a national award and a listener-voted award back in Edmonton!

Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I accepting CJSR's Best News Show award for 2016.
Corine Demas, Marie Fontaine and I from the All That Matters team accepting CJSR’s Best News Show award for 2016.

It’s been a really fun and creatively challenging show to make since it launched in January 2015. It’s an Alberta-focused arts and culture show. The idea is that with each episode, we try to take small bites out of a big question. We’ve put together stories about big ideas like whether anything we make is permanent, what “good behaviour” means, what the Art Gallery of Alberta could do to turn its attendance around, and what makes a diva (one of my favourite episodes).

ncra award
Our NCRA award for Special Programming.

In June, we won a Special Programming award from the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) for a 2-part documentary we made called Boot Camp Poets. It was really exciting to get to be in Ottawa to receive it in person. And a big surprise!

In Boot Camp Poets, we told the stories of 8 men who were part of a group sharing their poetry and rap with each other while serving as inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre. We used the two parts of the documentary to share their songs, stories, and poems, and offer context for the issues they faced. We interviewed someone from the John Howard Society who helps men transition back into regular life after jail, and we spoke to The Inside Circle author Patti Laboucane-Benson about why Indigenous people are so over-represented in Canada’s prison system.

This was one of the most challenging radio projects I’ve worked on so far. It was definitely nerve-wracking getting up the courage to go into the Remand Centre for the first time with my two collaborators on the doc, Sara Khembo Alfazema and Joe Hartfeil. It took a lot of guts for those men to share their stories with us too.

Here are the two parts, in case you want to have a listen:

And we were very touched to win the CJSR award for Best News Show this year at the annual CJSR volunteer awards. This is a listener-voted award, so it means a huge amount to know people out there have been loving the show as much as we’ve loved making it.

Community radio is such an important platform to share under-represented stories, and nurture talent. Hanging out with radio folks from across Canada (like these lovely dweebs below from CJSR, CJSW in Calgary and CKXU in Lethbridge) reminded me how innovative and talented this sector is. These awards are a nice bonus for the privilege of being in that world.

alberta radio peeps

Real experts for real life

Not long ago, I wandered into a deep debate with myself after listening to Gimlet’s excellent podcast Startup. As usual, they were offering a peek into how they make their own sausage as a podcasting company. They’d been approached about the idea of doing branded podcasts for outside companies. I found myself as puzzled as them about how to tell a story responsibly when you’re being contracted to do it, and how to do as much as you can to prevent it from interfering with your journalism.

The two big fish making a splash in this very new pond are The Message, a sci-fi serial sponsored by GE, and the whole series of work/lifestyle podcasts that Slack has funded called The Slack Variety Pack. Both projects are pretty fun to listen to from the little bit I’ve heard. And crucially, as revenue sources are declining for old media, companies are willing to pay to create engaging podcasts that have their name attached. It gets people thinking positively about them.

Well, last month I got to dip my own toe into that world.

The Coles Notes version is that the Alberta College of Social Workers (which accredits all the social workers in the province) puts on events every year to celebrate Social Work Week at the beginning of March. They’ve done in-person events and print ads in the past. This year, they wanted to try reaching a new audience, and tell more in-depth stories about what social workers do. So they asked me to create a short podcast series for them. We called it Real Experts for Real Life.

I was very fortunate to have the help of my radio/podcast friends/colleagues Trevor Chow-Fraser and Marcelle Kosman in creating it. The timeline was short but I think we put together three pretty engaging stories to listen to. One focused on an Indigenous social worker named Brianna Olson who sees love as an essential tool in serving inner city kids. One asked how playing around with Lego and puppets can help kids in counseling. And one looked at how a social worker originally from China uses her own experience to serve new immigrants.

This is Brianna’s story:

So how do you balance the need to make the client happy, and portray their “brand” well (in this case, the whole field of social work) with a general journalistic commitment to the truth, and the need to maintain trust with people who listen to your journalistic work?

Well, for one thing, I’ve put my name on the project, so I’m not hiding anything from people who follow me as a journalist. Hopefully disclosure helps with that trust bit. I imagine I’ll be veering away from social work-related reporting for the time being. It wasn’t really an area of focus for me anyway. If I’m doing a story that features somebody with a connection to the Alberta College of Social Workers specifically, I’ll need to mention that or hand the story over to someone else.

As far as balancing my desire to tell the truth but also stay on message, this was a really pleasant experience though. My main contact with the ACSW was helpful and responsive the whole way through, and followed my lead when I thought we needed to shift focus to reflect the tape we really gathered, and when I pitched a new story at the last minute. If I’d been approaching this as a reporter, I might have dug into different issues, but I think listeners will understand that this isn’t investigative reporting, it’s a series of portraits of the field.

The hardest part was trying to portray the lives of the social workers and their clients accurately, but also protect the clients’ confidentiality. But that’s something that comes up in my journalism work too.
Surprisingly, the biggest difference between this and the work I do for radio is that I got to be way more finicky with the editing! I usually don’t have the luxury of getting to do a third or fourth draft before getting something out for broadcast.

So in summary I’d say my first foray into “branded” podcast work was rewarding. I hope any future projects I pursue are this ethically straightforward, and about subject matter as meaningful as this was.

You can listen to the whole Real Experts for Real Life series here.

Give Me Homework

Before I worked at CBC, I used to think hosts like Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Gomeshi were superhuman. Not only had they read all the books they were interviewing authors about, they had beautifully well-developed questions ready in a tidy narrative arc. Then I started working as a producer behind the scenes and realized I’d be pre-interviewing the guests and coming up with a lot of those beautiful questions.

But the achievement still stands that these great hosts are doing a massive amount of reading to be prepared to talk to their guests. I’ve been doing a lot of preparatory reading for stories myself lately. It’s eerie how much of a thrill it is to know you’ve done your homework when you pick up the phone or start prattling on in front of a microphone.

One of Raymond Biesinger's outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains
One of Raymond Biesinger’s outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains

This week, you’ll be able to read a story I wrote for Vue Weekly about Vivek Shraya’s fantastic new novel She of the Mountains. I interviewed Vivek a few years ago about his documentary What I LOVE About Being QUEER, and She shares many of its themes in exploring race, sexuality, and searching for a sense of belonging. I guarantee you’ve never read a novel like it, though. It’s an almost minimalist love story about a man searching for a way to reconcile his love of both men and women, learning to love himself, interwoven with the domestic blisses and bloody battles of Hindu gods and goddesses.

More recently, I got to race through Edmonton political affairs commentator Satya Das’ book The Best Country: Why Canada Will Lead the Future in anticipation of moderating a panel talk for ACGC. I love hosting events like this, because there’s so much research and craft that goes into guiding a conversation among speakers with vastly different perspectives live with an audience.

And my last blast of preparatory reading this summer was for Terra Informa. We had a summer reading club, where we reviewed wilderness journey Being Caribou, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Year of the Flood, and the dense eco-poetry book Kill-Site. It’s exciting to have a springboard in front of me with sticky notes and scribbles in the margin, from which I can leap off into questions about That Moment You First Heard Pierre Trudeau Speak, or What Stories From Your Childhood Inspired This Battle Scene.

In summary, feel free to give me homework that I can turn into a story or an engaging conversation in front of an audience. I crave it.