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Jesse Brown and Julie Shapiro of Canadaland

Jesse Brown and Julie Shapiro of Canadaland

· Time to read: ~10 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Jesse is founder of Canadaland; Julie is an advisor to the Canadian podcast producer — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

Jesse Brown: Canadaland is the first podcast network in Canada and the largest independent podcast network in Canada. We have built up a stable of podcasts focused on Canadian media, Canadian news, Canadian politics, but along the way, and we’re well into our 10th year, we have also expanded into things like serialized investigative shows. We did a food show, we did a branded podcast. We’ve sort of been here from the start of podcasting more or less, and as such we’ve sort of been forced to become kind of like a Swiss army knife of podcasting. We’ve taken part in all of the different formats and we are a listener supported network as well. Our main revenue source are direct monthly payments from our listeners.

James Cridland: You’re joined by Julie Shapiro. Julie, we know you from PRX and Radiotopia. You’ve also been involved down here in this part of the world working with the Australian ABC. What are you doing with Canadaland?

Julie Shapiro: I started working with Canadaland about a year ago when Alan Black reached out and said, hey, would you ever be interested in helping us expand the vision for what content from Canadaland might sound like? And I had a talk with him and Jesse, and I was really interested in what they were interested in doing, which was opening up to receiving some pitches from all over the place and trying to identify a few shows that we could work on together and support some outside producers in creating a new expansive slate of shows that would build on the Canadaland reputation and intention but also stretch the company to new places in content making.

JC: So you’re taking and shaping pitches and developing new ideas. What sort of pitches and ideas are you looking for, Julie?

JS: Well, we put the call out last summer and we were pretty broad in content desires. We wanted to hear from people with solid stories. They didn’t have to relate to Canada. If they did, that was interesting too. But generally we’re looking for alignment in tone and merit and impact. So there wasn’t a specific content mandate, but we were looking for, you know, great storytelling, original ideas, people with chops that could make these shows and something that would help put Canadaland even more on the map for supporting interesting, important content.

JC: Perhaps part of that is the new slate for 2024, which, Jesse, you announced earlier on in the year. The first show is called Pretendians, which came out earlier this week. What’s Pretendians all about if people haven’t heard it yet?

JB: It’s about people who pretend to be indigenous, which is going to be a new concept for a lot of people, but it’s actually a widespread phenomenon and it’s not simply a matter of almost always white people falsely assuming a native identity, but the people who do this are incredibly successful at it. Here in Canada we had a very preeminent indigenous novelist who was probably the most famous indigenous novelist in Canada. We had a filmmaker who was the most famous Indigenous filmmaker in Canada, and then we had a songwriter who you know, of course Buffy St Marie was one of the top songwriters in Canada and certainly maybe the best known Indigenous songwriter in Canada. And in the course of a few years all three were revealed to not actually be Indigenous. And we have two Indigenous co-hosts, Robert Jago and Angel Ellis, who are incredible researchers and journalists, and, as luck has it, our editor-in-chief, Karen Pugliese, is Algonquin and has the expertise to kind of edit and oversee these investigations. So this is like it’s just a fascinating show from an indigenous perspective.

Who are these interlopers? Why do they pretend? Why are they so successful at it? How is it that they’re able to go so far? And also, who are they hurting? Because when they take jobs and you know, positions in universities or awards that were intended for indigenous people. There’s an actual indigenous person out there who isn’t getting that opportunity, so it’s a really interesting topic, and one that we’re. You know, the Canadaland approach to things has always been to give people the most compelling, entertaining podcasts about things that really matter, and there’s this intense interest in scam stories right now and we thought that that’s a perfect opportunity for us to open up awareness of this topic to a much broader audience.

JC: Julie, Canadaland is full of stories about Canada, but you’re not Canadian, and I wonder whether the word Canada helps or hinders any ambitions for Canadaland to be more globally downloaded. What are your thoughts around that?

JS: Well, I know that putting out the call really caught interest from colleagues of mine all over the world, and I think it was simply at a time where there were very few podcast companies anywhere saying we’re interested in pitches, send us ideas, saying we’re interested in pitches, send us ideas. So I think, just by virtue of stepping up into that space, a lot of people understood and we made a point to say you know, we are looking for stories that will resonate all over the world, whether they originate in Canada, whether they have a sliver of Canadiana in them or whether they don’t. We just are wanting to tell these compelling, entertaining stories, as Jesse said. So I think it maybe creates an expectation that we’re quickly, I think, starting to dissolve a bit and people should be turning to the network for really high quality, top notch storytelling and podcasting.

JB: You know it made my heart sing to hear Julie say that, because for many years I just felt like, come on, people are not that provincial: “I won’t listen to that podcast because it has Canada in the company’s title.” I mean, in Canada we listen to things from the BBC, from from NPR. You know, we were, we listened to things from all over the world and they don’t have to be about that part of the world. And for a long time I had a dream that maybe Canadaland could be a brand that’s synonymous not with a country that people find boring but with great podcasts, and I think that for our listenership it is that.

We’ve had some success with shows like Thunder Bay that have received millions of downloads in the States. But ultimately the argument was made to me and maybe it’s one that you’re pointing towards like why fight with one hand tied behind your back? Like there is a significant portion of potential listeners out there who are going to see Canadaland and then they’re not going to try it out because they just think it’s not going to be relevant to them. And I want to sit them down and explain to every one of them that that’s a silly prejudice, but I’d rather just get people listening to our stuff.

So a couple of our new shows are going to be released under an imprint called Double Double Podcasts and I think, for whatever it’s worth, you’ve got an exclusive here, James, because we haven’t talked about this yet but we’re going to roll that out and test that against a couple of other new shows we’re putting out in which we’re staying true to the Canadaland brand.

JC: Well, you heard it here first! Talking about Canada, Jesse, we’ve seen a lot of talk about how hard it’s been over the last few years in podcasting, but that talk, so far as I can work out, has mostly been from the US. Has the Canadian podcast industry been a little bit different in terms of how the last couple of years have fared?

JB: What we’ve had in Canada has been a proud tradition of public broadcasting and in the early years of podcasting, the podcast charts were dominated by CBC radio shows that were just offered as podcasts. There was no one pursuing podcasting as a sustainable commercial enterprise, except for us. This is not a boast, this is just a fact. The early years, as we saw the model prove out in the States that somebody’s podcast could do so well that they could get a sponsor and start reading. You know promo codes for discounts and they could start to build businesses and the. You know the low cost of making these shows and then the incredible audience size that you can reach when you’re in America, which has ten times the population of Canada, created an economy. That created an industry and it grew into something else that was speculative and you had other things like branded podcasts that were not necessarily just selling audience against ads. That was never possible in Canada because of our population size, unless you were making podcasts in Canada that were reaching international audiences which wasn’t happening either. So what we did see, and what we’ve always seen in Canada, has been “they’re doing this in the States, so let’s do it too”. And so the major media companies that make their money off of things like offering internet service, like Bell Canada or Rogers Canada, launched podcasting wings that were not ever expected to turn a profit. We had successful companies - one in particular Pacific Content, a successful branded company - but we did not see the proliferation of independent studios that were actually sustainable.

So it put us in a strange position and that forced Canadaland. As I said earlier, we had to basically do everything. Should you have a serialized show with a limited run season or should you be always on? Our answer was both. Should you do advertising or should you do direct listener support? Our answer was both, and we were one of the first podcasts ever to turn to our audience for direct financial support through Patreon in, I think, 2014. So I’m being a bit long winded here, but what happened when the bottom fell out in the United States? It’s had a strange effect in Canada because we weren’t necessarily relying on those dynamics. We never fully moved out of the direct advertising relationships. We never moved to automated ads. We’re still reading promo codes and I’m still endorsing the products myself as our other hosts, and we didn’t see a downturn in advertising because our ads convert.

I had FOMO when I saw all of these other podcast companies getting wild valuations and capital investments and sometimes acquired for ridiculous sums, but ultimately I don’t think that’s been good for the industry or for those companies and we sat the whole thing out and we’re in a relatively safe position. And now we have some of these American players coming to us asking for advice on how they could build out a subscription offer. You know we started with a subscription offer and then moved into advertising, and they’re kind of doing it the other way around.

JC: So what else is coming up from Canadaland later in the slate.

JS: We have a limited series called A Field Guide to Gay Animals, launching in June that I’m working very closely with a wonderful team from New Orleans on, and I’m also very proud to be helping a show called the Worst Podcast come to life and it has been a delight to work on.

JC: I’ve been on that!

JS: Oh yes, we all have! We’ve all worked on them too, but this is going to take the cake, I promise!

JC: Jesse, Julie. Thank you both so much for your time.

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