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Radio Renaissance

08 Mar 2015
Posted by Shannon

I’ve long said that radio podcasting is journalism’s future and I’m happy to note that my crystal ball is in good working order. (No, I don’t want to talk about all the times it was wrong.) 

As predicted, Serial turned out to be the podcast to change podcasts, mixing fine narrative journalism with true crime reporting. But Serial is just the podcast with the widest reach. I did a piece for Swerve magazine last month discussing the boom in professional, broadcast quality podcasts, which includes many former American public radio reporters expanding into the private podcasting business. 

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Posted by Shannon

For decades now I’ve dismissed the pundits predicting the death of broadcast radio, or as they call it “terrestrial radio.” Until this morning that is. On demand radio just killed terrestrial radio in my house.  

I’ve always been a radio listener, particularly on Sunday mornings. But this morning I flicked on my kitchen radio only to be met with third-rate content from the CBC. It’s Xmas week, so they’re recycling pieces from earlier this year. But that’s not the problem. A decade ago their documentaries were worth a second listen; now I often don’t make it through a first one. This doc was typical of CBC’s declining quality: a piece about online journalism that was woefully out-of-date and unsophisticated. Just irritating to listen to in its ignorance. 

In another era I might have flipped to Radio 2 (if I wanted music) or surfed the dial. But the commercial radio offerings are so bad as to have reached the point my broadcasting instructors called “unlistenable.” An ugly mix of artificially loud professional voices, dumb talk, idiot call-in shows, and/or cheezy music, all sandwiched between dense walls of commercials. I haven’t listened to commercial radio in decades.  


Instead, I fired up my iPad with an external speaker and listened online. First I caught the podcast of this morning’s CBC national news, then I switched to a series of BBC and NPR public affairs podcasts to catch up on the international news. Then I moved on to some of my favourite indie podcasts. 

I wanted a second listen of the final episode of Serial. Unlike the reporter Sarah Koenig, I do think Adnan is entirely innocent. You can’t manage that kind of strangling murder and bury the body in a forest without some sort of physical evidence tying you to the body.  There was nothing tying him to the crime other than the word of a drug dealer with a criminal record and a history of lying. 

Personally, I still think Jay did it and his motive involved the silent Stephanie. Serial fans know what I’m talking about: the way Stephanie stood by a guy who admitted to burying the body of one of her close friends and hiding it until the cops called on him is no one’s first choice in a boyfriend. Unless he did it to help her. 

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Posted by Shannon

Four more newspapers bit the dust across Canada over the last two weeks, and while the loss of three of the Metro give-away papers is no loss at all, Toronto's sharply written Grid will be much missed. 

The Grid is the rebranded version of the Toronto Star's Eye Weekly, a long-running alt weekly that changed direction in 2011, trying to catch a younger audience.

It was a much more interesting paper than the tired old Now magazine, but the latter also attracts the aged baby boomers, now in their early 70s. Meanwhile, the under-40 set leans heavily on mobiles, and advertisers know it. 

And the simple fact is that most of us view the give-away newspapers, full of advertorial, as birdcage liner. I haven't picked up one the street box freebies in years. If I'm in a waiting room, or a restaurant, I read on a mobile. I have the New Yorker in my pocket, along with dozens of novels and all the headlines from the last 15 minutes. 

So where I live, stacks of cheesy papers full of fat flyers go directly from the apartment building doorstep to the recycling bin. (We've given up trying to persuade the guy who drops them there to stop it, and now just trash them promptly.) Friends in the tonier neighbourhoods lobby to keep the euphemistically named "controlled circulation" junk off their doorsteps.  - Read more

Radio Daze

27 Jun 2014
Posted by Shannon

I listen to radio like it's 1935 and I live in London. I'm a huge fan of the BBC, which still delivers drama as well as superb coverage on culture with a huge library of beautifully produced podcasts. 

But I'm no anglophile snob when it comes to podcasts. I listen to lots of independently produced radio, both professional and hobbyist, and I'm always on the hunt for something new. Which is why I got recommendations from my podcast loving pals for a recent piece on how Canada is a radio nation, 

Here are the highlights: 


  • Welcome to Night Vale: it's a quirky kind of radio theatre disguised as a community radio announcements for the fictional desert town of Night Vale. It's a weird little burgh that sounds as if it's uncomfortably close to Roswell. 
  • The Nerdist: Chris Hardwick is a stand-up comic who has long, smart conversations with Hollywood writers, directors, and actors, many of whom are his pals. It's a treasure trove that includes interviews with legendary show runner Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, SHIELD) who now directs the Avengers film franchise and the surprisingly witty Jaime King. She's a super model turned actress, whose willowy blonde beauty lends itself to playing ditzes (hence my surprise she's not one). She's brilliant as Lemon Breeland on the underrated TV dramedy Hart of Dixie. 
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Posted by Shannon

Canada is undeniably a (public) radio nation, as I argued over at two weeks ago, and the poll of more than 800 people proved it. Sort of. 

What the Tyee poll lacks in science it makes up in passion, and the comments are far more interesting than the numbers.

I learned two things.

The first is that I really should be watching Murdoch Mysteries, since the enthusiasm for this show is right over the top. And the second is that while the respondents agree with me two-to-one that we should preserve radio over TV, if push comes to shove, the remaining third wrote an enthusiastic defence of TV. Many support it just on principle. They acknowledge that much of CBC TV sucks, but they don't want it cut; they want it improved.

It appears that the public -- or as much of it as is willing to respond to polls --  wants a genuinely Canadian alternative to the tsunami of crap content hitting our airwaves from the south.

In terms TV lovers can understand: they want a little more Orphan Black and little less Two-and-Half Men with Niqabs. 

And judging by the shows they defended most and loudest, it struck me that it would be as much as the lives of CBC management were worth to kill the superb TV documentaries including shows like my personal fave, Marketplace

So I was surprised an this week's announcement that management is proposing to cut CBC TV news and docs as part of its investment in "digital." That means they're going to concentrate on technology's bells and whistles -- the delivery system -- and give up on producing the stuff to be delivered. 

Let's call it the broadcasting equivalent of a smart bomb strategy. Save the buildings; kill the people. 

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Posted by Shannon

oleannaoleannaThe Mamet on Main collective's production of Oleanna has turned the controversial two-hander about the clash of power and gender politics into a thrilling three-hander. The audience functions like a subtle Greek chorus in the confines of the Little Mountain Gallery theatre. 

And I'm so sorry you'll never see it. The last show is on Sunday night. Maybe you can bribe someone to hand over his reservation? 

The 50-seat theatre-in-the-round setting puts the audience in that claustrophobic office with the professor and his female student and the show pulls some of its energy from us.

When the vile professor says he loves teaching, you can hear a skeptical chuckle. When the action turns angry, there's a gasp. And throughout the intense 80 minutes you can feel sympathies shifting from teacher-to-student and back again as David Mamet's carefully weighted script reveals fact-after-damning-fact about both characters.


This production made me see the play differently. Director Quelemia Sparrow draws out the nuance in the 22-year-old text, which has a reputation for misogyny. Many (most?) versions pit the feminist student against the male professor and make him the victim of political correctness. That's not what we see here. 

John and Carol are more like a couple of rats in a bag. Vicious, sure. But it's not personal or political; it's their nature. The play becomes less about political fashions than about power and its abuses. The real villains of the piece are the institutions on both sides of the debate that grant some people the power to turn their self-serving whims into law. 

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Posted by Shannon

The hazard of being on the trend-spotting beat is that my editors often cast a skeptical eye my way. 

"Artisanal toast at $5 a slice? Really?" one of them asked in January, when I filed my prediction that Toast Will Be the New Cupcake. Browning gourmet bread is all the range in San Francisco, so it was a safe bet that soon Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver would be embracing the carbs. 

This week I'm delighted to report that it really is a thing. Matchsticks Coffee Roaster on East Georgia launched a new cafe with a menu featuring a toast bar. Their own naturally leavened organic bread will be turned into classic cinnamon toast, or slathered with seasonal preserves and walnut butter. 

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication and the right to say, "I told you so." 

I emailed an editor that we should add a tagline to The Tyee: "Now with prognostication." 

So far, no word back. But now maybe they'll take me and my crystal ball seriously. 

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Nostalgia & Moonshine

10 Feb 2014
Posted by Shannon

Are we reliving the 1920s and '30s all over again? I suspect so, and I wrote a think piece -- Awash in Nostalgia and Moonshine -- about our weird society-wide fetish for that era, at Swerve magazine last week.  

I've long had vintage tastes, and at 20 I could quote Cole Porter lyrics along with the Clash, but I thought it was odd when the rest of the world began to share my enthusiasm. Oh sure, the period from roughly 1912 to 1940 delivered innovative dance, brilliant literature, and stylish clothes. Not to mention a roster of great films and ukulele tunes. 

And no one in journalism could fail to see the parallels between the explosion of broadcast radio in the 1920s and the growth of the Internet. Even the complaints are the same, as artists grouse about how the new tech gives away their old art form free. (Not so. It's called advertising. And it also began as an industry in the 1920s.)

But I think it's fair to say that we feel just as overwhelmed by technology as our great grandparents who coped with cars, phones, movie palaces, and mass media in the space of a few short years. And I suspect there's also a secret, nagging question at the back of our collective unconscious: given all this technical disruption can another Depression and Nazis can be far behind....

No wonder we all have the urge to bring on the moonshine. 

By the way, that fabulous illustration for the piece was done by Toronto artist Blair Kelly and you'll find his website here. 

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Posted by Shannon

I was amused to see Salon magazine harden-up my views on the slick marketing of engagement rings and call the sparkly things "barbaric." That's not quite what I said.

I love sparkly things, and just to be clear here: I will turn down no gifts of jewellery, as long as the terms under which the baubles are given are entirely clear. 

And that's the rub, as Shakespeare would say. He also suggested that there's nothing in a name, and that's where he and I part company. Call a diamond ring an "engagement ring" and it comes with decades of social and legal baggage, courtesy of its social origins and the twaddle marketers are peddling. That just turns us all into potential litigants. 

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Bring on Bezos!

31 Aug 2013
Posted by Shannon

There's no way for the current crop of mismanaged newspapers to change how they do business unless someone new buys them, which is why my Salon piece is cheering on Amazon's Jeff Bezos snagging the Washington Post.

The people currently running newspapers don't seem to have the skills to profit outside of the monopoly environment they once enjoyed, which until recently was giving them 20 to 40 per cent profit margins. All they know how to do is cut the quality of the product, which is absolutely the wrong strategy in a competitive market. Even worse they're erecting paywalls while reducing the quality of their newspapers, trying to squeeze a few more pennies out of their ever-dwindling pool of loyal customers. That's just cheating them. In a monopoly market that kind of thinking is safe and in some circles might even be advisable. But exploiting and abusing customers who have options outside of such cynical environs isn't just stupid -- it's suicide.

Bezos, on the other hand, knows how to compete. So I think he will do what I would do if I had $250 million to spend on a journalism experiment.  I'm betting he will launch a variation on the old-fashioned newspaper model of selling eyeballs-to-advertisers, using good journalism as the bait. Only he'll replace display ads with online shopping, which Amazon does so well. 

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