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Notes from Toronto’s Hot Docs Podcast Festival

I spent much of the past week attending the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in the great city of Toronto, and I brought back a scattered collection of notes and observations on Canadian podcasting that I’m ill-equipped at the moment to string together into some unified clarifying narrative. But I’ll share what I have in the form of scattered notes and collection because there are some ideas to stew over and, all things considered, I really liked what I saw.

(1) “The Canadian podcast industry here is a few years behind the US.” I heard this idea, and many variations thereof, quite a bit over the past week, and I almost always squirm when I hear it. Sure, I can see the data points and logical route supporting the notion, particularly when the analysis revolves around the subject of money and business creation. But I’m reticent to accept the statement in the way it’s phrased: somewhere in the back of my head, I hold out hope that different countries can, and should, go down their own paths towards ecosystem development — that the Canadian podcast industry isn’t behind anybody, that it’s just early in their own trajectory. (On an unrelated note: I’d be a great soccer dad.)

I was consistently told Canadian podcast advertising remained nascent, still negligible in volume and experimental in budgets, and that there has yet to be clear pathways for upstart podcast companies in the country to reliably progress from idea to operational sustainability (let alone exits). Occasionally, I’d try to rebut the claim by saying the pathways in the US aren’t super clear either, particularly if you’re an independent. The invariable reply from the interlocutor: if I had the choice, I’d still prefer the upsides of the US — more money, more jobs, more potential outcomes.

Fair enough.

(2) Some contextual numbers to set the scene. As always, Edison Research has our backs in this department: their Infinite Dial Canada 2018 report, published earlier this year, found that 61% of Canadians over the age of 18 are familiar with the term “podcasting,” and that 28% of that demographic report having listened to a podcast within the past month.

I know I just burbled something about non-comparisons, but in case you need a yardstick: the Infinite Dial US found that 64% of Americans over 12 report being aware of the term “podcasting,” while 26% of the demographic having listened to a podcast within the past month.

Cross-national comparisons with the US is tricky, of course, in large part due to the intense differences in population sizes and geographical dynamics. Canada has about 36.7 million people, which is slightly below the population of California. To put things some perspective: America, as a whole, has about 325.7 million people, and if you do the rough math, the number of monthly American podcast listeners is about twice the population of Canada. That has implications about the way you could think about advertising returns.

(3) Here’s a cliche about travel: sometimes you need to leave in order to see where you’re from clearly. (A curious device to apply to myself, a newly-minted American immigrant, but applicable nonetheless.) It’s true for podcast stuff as it is for anything else: poking around the Canadian scene made me appreciate the extent to which conversations in the US have been dominated by the podcast-as-IP boom, the increasing involvement of talent agencies, and the venture capital-backed shadow of Gimlet Media. Also: capitalism and anxiety.

Some things, though, are familiar on both sides of the border. One expression of this: the perceived podcast dominance of public radio in both the US and Canada. On the first day of the festival, I moderated a panel with the CBC’s head of podcasts Leslie Merklinger and NPR’s deputy director of programming and new audience N’Jeri Eaton, and there was a query during the Q&A that felt familiar to me. I can’t remember the wording, exactly, but it was something along the lines of: “Do you feel like the CBC’s dominance limits the ability of private podcasters to grow?” The sentiment echoes many emails I’ve received over the years from American readers about NPR, WNYC, and the wider American public radio system.

The perception is perhaps understandable: the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster and its biggest institutional podcast publisher, is said to bring in around 16 million global podcast downloads per month across a 40+ show-strong portfolio that includes broadcast repackages and original podcast content. In the States, NPR garners around 16 million unique monthly listeners in the US and over 140 million global downloads across a 41 show-strong portfolio. They look big, they feel big, and when you feel like a tugboat around tankers, the natural position to interpret threat.

But of course, life in a tanker is generally harder than you would think. Something that came across from both Merklinger and Eaton during the panel: despite the perception that the CBC and NPR are powerful and all-consuming in their respective countries, both individuals lead development funnels with budgets that are tighter than you would ordinarily imagine. Another cliche: people often look like they’re doing better than they actually are on the outside.

Does the dominance of a podcast-publishing public broadcaster generally inhibit the ability of private podcasters to grow? I tend to reject this notion. That would dominance is an actual thing in the podcast industry, and there’s been little evidence to suggest that at all.

(4) Another similarity of note: it’s always worth paying attention to individuals taking matters in their own hands. There was a panel that caught my eye featuring Vicky Mochama, co-founder of the independent podcast shop Vocal Fry Studios; Annalise Nielsen, a producer who’s trying to start an in-house podcast network at a large publicly-traded Canadian media and entertainment company called eOne; and Ryan McMahon, an Anishinaabe comedian, writer, podcaster, and proprietor of Indian & Cowboy, a listener-supported Indigenous podcast network.

Of particular interest from the discussion was a focus on non-advertising revenue streams, which significantly touched on branded podcasts — a trail well-blazed in the country by Pacific Content, and taken up by Mochama — and crowdfunding, which proved central to the development of a new investigative podcast by McMahon in partnership with CANADALAND, called Thunder Bay. The Ryerson Review of Journalism has a solid write-up on CANADALAND’s crowdfunding effort to raise taht production, which you should check out. The podcast, as well, is very good.

(5) The Hot Docs Podcast Festival is currently in its third year of operation, though the whole thing feels like it’s been around for much longer. The festival was well-executed, thoughtfully composed, and frankly one of the best podcast events I’ve ever attended. This probably has a lot to do with the fact it’s actually a spinoff of the quarter century-old Hot Docs international documentary film festival (no relation to Hot Pod, by the way); which is to say, they’re old hands at putting stuff like this together. But something has to be said about the organization’s general level of care in handling a new community: it’s a rare team that displays awareness and respect for a world not of their own. I’ll be glad to go back.

(6) Miscellaneous Notes:

  • Scribbled in my notepad: “Is there a moral argument for programmatic advertising?” Can’t quite remember when I wrote that, or the context of it. But interesting question, I guess?
  • Another scribble: “there’s a palpable ongoing tension between wanting to build your own thing and wanting to sell that thing off to another organization.”
  • From the panel featuring the New York Times’ Lisa Tobin: the windowing experiment with Caliphate was considered a “successful early experiment.”
  • The Thirst Aid Kit live show was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I don’t know what BuzzFeed plans to do with the show given the company’s podcasting wind-down, but somebody should really pick it up.
  • Toronto is probably my favorite city in the world right now. I mean, it’s no Long Island City or Arlington, but still. ¯_(ツ)_/¯