The Sound Off Podcast. The show about podcast and broadcast ... starts now.
Jesse Brown is the host of- and owner of- Canadaland. It started as a podcast nearly 10 years ago, and today is home to a number of podcasts, which makes it a network. The story of Canadaland is worthy of notetaking. Jesse could easily host any number of Podcast Movement sessions: How to build a podcast from scratch, how to build a podcast network, how to monetize your podcast. He's actually done those the last couple of years and will do so again next month in Denver. We're also going to dig into two of Canada's controversial bills which are actually now law. C11 is the law which is designed to roll Netflix and other online streaming services into Canada's content regs, and C18. That's the law, which forces Google and Facebook to pay for the links they use from Canadian news outlets. As I record this in July of 2023, Facebook and Google are in the process of blocking Canadian news outlets from sharing their links. As someone put it earlier this week, it's like creating a tax on lemonade, and then Google and Facebook saying, "Fine, we just won't sell any more lemonade." And if you're listening from the US or around the world, do not skip over this. There are similar bills before various forms of government that are going to be asking for the same thing. The Canada treatment may be coming to your Google and Facebook feed soon. Jesse Brown joins me from the home studios of Canadaland in Toronto. Jesse, how are you?
I'm good, Matt, how are you doing?
Good. What did you major in at McGill University?
English, a stream of their English department called cultural studies.
How many times did you close down the Peel pub?
Wasn't my hangout. I was one of the- those pretentious students who eschewed the standard hangouts.
How was the Montreal experience?
I loved it. I fell in love with Montreal, and I thought, this is my town. I'm not- I'm not leaving. And I stuck around there for another five years or so.
What do you do in that time in Montreal?
I was at McGill. At this time, right after they got rid of their film department. And I wanted to be a filmmaker, which was a strange thing to want to be at a school with no film department. But a bunch of us got our hands on the equipment that was left behind. And we found a few professors who were kind of like leftovers from the film department days. And they would allow us to make films and cartoons and animations in my case. And so I actually like was really interested in making comic books, but also animation and cartoons and fan films. And I had a buddy that I worked with, Josh Dolgan, who was also really- a really talented musician. And this also was during like the first dotcom boom, right when video was becoming a thing you could do on the internet, but before YouTube. So we were making these little cartoons instead of essays for our professors. And then we were getting them into like film festivals. And we were selling them to websites, like it really felt like we could be cartoonists, we could be filmmakers, we could be animators, and we got a government grant. And so when we got out of school, we were like, now let's get serious and make a real long, ambitious, animated film. And, Matt, we spent three years. We were supposed to spend eight months making like a three minute film, we spent three years making a 45 minute- There's a reason why people don't make 45 minute films. That's not a thing. You know? We had so much more success with like one minute films, getting them into festivals, because it's just a fun little cartoon to program, or you do a feature. 45 minutes, nobody wants that. So a lot of my time in Montreal was just on a grand folly. On a fiasco. Which is good. I highly recommend working on a fiasco, to you know, hammer out all of your early ambitions, squeeze them out of your, you know, soul.
How did you find your way to the CBC?
I initially was only doing journalism as a way of financing myself as I was, you know, more focused on making these cartoons, these films. So I was doing like humor writing for magazines. And one of the people who read my humor writing was Michael Enright, who is CBC radio host. And I got a call from my editor at the magazine, at Saturday Night Magazine and they said, Michael Enright wants to talk to you. And I said, Who's that? I had no idea. See, I wasn't one of those kids who was raised on CBC radio, I really had no relationship with radio. But he was interested in me doing humor work for the CBC, and that kind of opened the door and that's when I kind of found myself working, not just for the CBC, but working in the medium of radio and realizing oh, I'm much better at this than at cartoons.
And you also took some of that computer and web experience. Cuz I remember Search Engine was a show on CBC that you did. How'd that come about?
That was my second series that I hosted. I went from producing for Enright's show and making documentaries for him to hosting. And then the second show that I that I came up with, it's called Search Engine. And yeah, it was you know, I, I was a kid of the computer like the fir- Like generation one computers, and generation one Internet, of like, never like a coder, never really into the- like that side of it, never really had a math or engineering brain, but from the earliest age was interested in computer graphics and working with like Dulux Paint. And I remember I had Disney Animation Studio and I played video games. And then I got involved in modems. I can't say the internet because we didn't have the internet. We had bulletin board systems, BBS's. And I was interested in them just as a way of getting my hands on video games and graphics programs. But in high school, I had friends who sort of had similar interests. And we were just interested in how digital technology was opening up creative avenues. I remember HyperCard and QuickTime, early stuff like that, and playing around with cartooning. These guys were like, like me interested in animation and cartooning. And where does- where do computers fit into that? So anyhow, I saw the internet take off and was watching this stuff with great interest. So it was a natural thing for me to cover once I decided that I wanted to work in radio and wanted to work as a journalist. You know, this was like at the height of the first social media boom that I was hosting Search Engine for CBC. So you know, really interested in chronicling the policy side of tech. You know, I wasn't really interested in gadgets, I was interested in things like privacy and copyright, and all kinds of nerdy stuff like that.
You might have been ahead of your time, because all this stuff is really coming to fruition right now. And you also brought back some instant memories of Usenet and Merc.
Yeah. So you were there, too.
Actually I was hacking satellite. Satellite TV, I was making those- those bootstrap cards that you could use to decode satellite. I mean, highly illegal. I don't think they'll arrest me for it now. But.
That's cool. You're a criminal? What would you charge for that?
I did it for myself. I didn't charge anyone. I just did it for myself. So I could watch TV because I didn't- I wanted to watch ESPN. And I wanted to watch Fox Sports. And I wanted to watch a lot of things that I couldn't watch on conventional television.
How would it work? You have to have a satellite subscription, and then you could hack it? Or was this like on desktop?
You would take, you know, one of those simple reader cards, and you would put it in and then you would insert the code into the card and then slide the card into the receiver. And basically, I mean, it's- you're stealing from Direct TV in the States, and you're not supposed to have it in Canada, and I felt entitled to just watch the TV. I don't like this idea of broadcast signals being stopped at the border. I wanted to watch it all.
Yeah, for sure. Well, we're of the generation of like, basically, when it becomes technically possible to get everything, for anybody to be able to speak and broadcast and also to receive anything. There's something that never sat right with me about technology acting as a block. You know, the point and the promise of this, and the opportunity is that everything is possible. So for things to move towards locking things down, always felt like a move in the wrong direction.
Search Engine was cancelled by CBC, but then it continued on as a podcast. Was that your first podcast?
That was my first podcast, and I think in podcasting years, that makes me ancient, because I guess I was podcasting in like, well, I don't know, what's that 2007 or something? There were certainly people podcasting before that, though. It was really interesting at CBC. That was a weird time where they were not interested in podcasts, even though they were leading in the charts, because they would just put the radio shows out as podcasts. And at the time, if you looked at the, you know, Apple podcasts charts- or iTunes, as it was back then- in Canada, most of the big shows were CBC shows, but the executives told me, we've just invested in this proprietary video streaming platform. And that's where we're selling the ads. And podcasting is niche, and no one's going to listen to podcasts, they're going to listen to- you know, it was a weird, a weird idea that people were going to like, go on the web and listen to a radio show in a video format, where they could sell ads. Anyhow. Yes, I insisted that a show about technology needed to have a podcast. So even when we were on the radio, there was a podcast. And by the time the radio show was canceled, the podcast was one of the top rated CBC podcasts. And I said, How can you cancel this? Look at this, we're- we're doing like numbers that are as big as your biggest radio shows. And they said, well, we don't really care. And at first they reassigned me to be a technology reporter at large. And I said, I'll only stay on and do that if I'm allowed to keep hosting Search Engine as a podcast. And they said, you're certainly welcome to do way more work than we're asking you to do. So they let me do that. And then a year later, I was laid off with budget cuts. But I had retained the rights to the podcast of Search Engine. That was a condition I had when I first pitched the show to them. And I think they- they thought, well, what are you going to do with podcast rights? Nobody had ever done anything with podcast rights before. But I was able to sell the show to TV Ontario, who at the time, were looking at getting involved in podcasting. Why launch a fresh new technology podcast when you can simply pick up a very popular CBC technology podcast that CBC doesn't seem to want anymore? And so I went and I hosted Search Engine for a few more years until I was kind of ready to move on as a TVO Podcast.
That sounds like a similar story to Terry O'Reilly's, with Under the Influence where you get into a negotiation, and then it's like, that's fine, you can have that, we don't care.
It's funny you should mention, because Terry was somebody who was kind enough to give me advice when I was negotiating, because I knew that he independently produced a show for CBC. So you know, I'd had kind of a mixed experience with CBC on my first show. And I continue to have a tortured relationship where I love the place, I found my life's work through CBC and I was trained on how to make radio, on how to host radio, and how to make documentaries. And they gave me two shows, you know, they didn't have to do that. So I mean, I'm immensely grateful to them, and immensely grateful to specific people there who trained me, but they also canceled my shows. So I'm a bitter, disgruntled person. So anyhow, when I went back to them to pitch them a second series, I was like, I don't want to, you know, they broke my heart once, what do I- what can I do this time? Maybe I'll be like Terry O'Reilly, and I'll produce it independently. And he was kind enough to tell me how he did it. And you know, he had this whole company, I didn't have a company at the time. So I said, well, I'm going to do this within the CBC. I'm not going to do this externally. But if he was able to negotiate a deal for himself, then maybe so can I. And- and I was able to do that.
What did you see in the media market, or in the media stratosphere, that urged you to start Canadaland?
Something was rotten in Denmark. I really had this- I think about this from time to time. And if you go back and listen to the first episode of Canadaland, you'll hear me struggling to articulate it to Michael Enright, who was my first guest, who did me another great favor in coming on the show when I was just trying to get it noticed. I was trying to articulate to him, why do we need this- this Show Canadaland, where we talk about the Canadian media in a candid way, after hours, over drinks. That was the original concept. It was- I described it at the time as Canada's answer to things like Gawker, or On the Media, you know, which are two very different things. But they both are critically looking at the media, one was looking at the media in a very snarky, gossipy, let's take some shots at the powerful way. That's what Gawker did beautifully. And then On the Media, in a very thoughtful public radio way. And then I was reading David Carr, the late great media columnist for the New York Times, and I was watching Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, who was doing media criticism of cable news in a very satirical way. There were all of these different media criticism projects in the States, and there was nothing in Canada. So I thought we needed something like that. And I was unable to sell that idea to any newspaper or TV broadcaster or radio, I just couldn't get any traction with it. So I thought I'll do it myself. So I could kind of explain that to you in that way, that just Canada needed its own version of media criticism. But I also- I also was aware kind of in my bones, that something was wrong. And I could articulate that in the terms of why was Margaret Wente known to be a plagiarizing columnist for The Globe and Mail? For years, they knew that she was doing this, and it was kind of okay. Everyone looked the other way. Why would the same standards that would make that not okay anywhere else in the world, not apply in Canada? And then I knew a bit about Ghomeshi. You know, I knew from my friend Catherine Burrell, that he was a creep who sexually harassed her at work. And I knew he was not a good guy. I didn't know when I started Canadaland the full extent of his violence and predatory behavior. But this was one of the most revered famous people and he was, you know, considered like the greatest, most sensitive nice guy and you know, it was known within the industry that he was not a great guy. And then it was like known that there were problems with Peter Mansbridge. All kinds of whispers and things and no one was talking about it. And so I felt like, I don't know if- if I'm long for this industry. I don't know if I'm gonna get another shot at a show. I don't know if I want to work in this industry. It was just a really- I'd been freelancing for 15 years, it was harder and harder to make a living. I just started a family. And I thought, you know, if I end up leaving this industry, I want to at least, like, take a real big swing, and really try to say the thing that is most important to me. And what that thing was, was not even all that clear to me. But I had an instinct, I had a feeling that it was a some kind of a self reflection criticism. And it's at the essence of why you become a broadcaster, like, I have something that needs to be said, I have questions that need to be asked, why can't we have certain conversations? Why can't we talk about this stuff? And I think that that energy is why Canadaland succeeded is that it was needed.
And then comes the monetization part. Did you start this with an idea of how you were going to make money? Did you think it was just going to be ads at first? I don't know if FreshBooks was your first client. It was the first time I'd ever been served a podcast ad when I listened to a show. But was it going to be ad based? Or did you know it would splinter off into other things?
I mean, the idea of crowdfunding podcasts really did not exist at the time. So the only way I thought I could possibly monetize this was from ads. And I think I was listening to American podcasts that had ads. So I was like, Okay, this is possible. And I had enough hubris and ego that I actually held myself back in a way that I still regret. I felt like, I'm a national radio host, I can't be some podcaster. Podcasting- and this is before the podcast boom- you know, it felt like I was going from being a national newspaper columnist to some lowly blogger, you know, and not even a paid blogger, which is a job that I did for Maclean's, but like, you know, hobbyist. I was moving from professional to amateur status. And that held me back from just launching Canadaland for a good six months, it wasn't until I was able to convince Mike McDermott, the founder of FreshBooks, to be my founding sponsor. And then I thought, Okay, now, this is professional. Now I'm launching a podcast with a sponsor, I won't be laughed at by my peers. And really, that was just like, I would have been smarter to have just done it. And that was like Dumbo with the feather. You know, it was an unnecessary little totem that I needed to feel good about what I was doing. But I will always be grateful to him for I think, just being really true to one of the foundational principles of his company, which is like, Fresh Books- and I'm not being paid to say this, but I think, you know, he cares about entrepreneurs, and he likes when people have ideas, and he was willing to- you know, there was no real business case for sponsoring my podcast that had no listeners when I started. But that was the first, I guess, the first dollar, maybe it was the first podcast ad sold in Canada for all I know, I'm not sure that anybody else in Canada had sold a podcast ad. But I sold that sponsorship deal. And that floated my boat for the first six months, and then I ran out of that money. I was still doing some work for Toronto Life and Maclean's, but the podcast was gaining audience. And this show that was supposed to just be about candid conversations about the media actually became a home for investigative journalism, because once it was known, this guy wants to tell the truth about the media, people started bringing me stories. And the first stories that I was brought were that Rex Murphy and then Peter Mansbridge, were being paid by the petroleum industry to deliver keynote speeches. And they were simultaneously covering the oil sands and the petroleum industry as journalists, and they were not disclosing that they were taking pretty significant payments, you know, $10, $15,000, a speech, to speak for these industries. And then they would be, you know, in the case of Rex Murphy, he would be delivering these editorials on The National in favor of the oil sands. And in the case of Peter Mansbridge, he'd be, you know, moderating debates about the future of the oil sands and climate change. And the viewership did not know that these guys were being paid by, by this interest. So that was the first kind of scandal that we broke. And that attracted a lot of people to Canadaland. And so we had this growing audience, but I had this weird situation where it was becoming a very, very exciting urgent thing that people listen to every week. And guests was putting their hands up and saying, I want to talk, I want to come on the air and share my truths about this. And I was putting more and more of my time into it. And I was just operating at a loss every episode.
So I'm a FreshBooks user because of those ads that you did. I'm still one today.
All right. I'm glad to hear it. And you know, we are really a weird- you know, the way that a lot of podcast ads work is a sponsor will find a new podcast, and buy every available spot and you'll hear FreshBooks, FreshBooks, FreshBooks, or mails- stamps.com, until that audience has heard so much they want to hear another word about it, and then that advertiser moves on to another podcast, because it's a fresh audience. FreshBooks still does ads with us. It's been like 10 years. And they- they're still doing ads with us, because the ads continue to convert. So that's a really weird thing for a podcast company to have the same sponsor for that- for that long a period.
And the decision to start to crowdfund the show, it was a leap. I think the first time if I recall hearing, you kind of put out the tin cup, but you also justified it by saying, hey, you know what, if we get enough people to do this, our employees are gonna get benefits. And when I heard that, I said, Oh, that's- I get that. Yeah. Now I want to- now I want to contribute.
Yeah, I think that I, by accident, stumbled upon the winning formula for crowdfunding. At first, I didn't want to crowdfund because the only crowdfunding that I was aware of when I began was like Kickstarter or GoFundMe. And I felt like, first of all, you're afraid of failing, right? If you say, I need $1,000, or $10,000, whatever you say you need, and you only get $100, it looks pathetic. And who cares how many listeners you have? You just very publicly said, I need that- And then what? And then what do you do? Because if you say, I need $10,000 or I can't keep doing this podcast, and then you only get $10, do I have to cancel my own podcast now? Even if I like doing it, and even if people are listening to it? You know, I've backed myself into a corner. So that's one reason why I was afraid. But I was also afraid of like, if I succeed, so what if I get $10,000? I can't live for that long off $10,000. So do I ask for $100,000? That seems ridiculous. And even if I got $100,000, do I just spend that 'til I'm out of money? And then what do I do? It was a listener who informed me of the existence of Patreon. I didn't know about Patreon, and this is like 2014. And I'm like, well, that is the answer. That could work. If people sign up to give me- and at the time, I was like, I don't care. You know, I think I had 10,000 listeners. So I said, if I get $1 a month from each of these people, I'm laughing. That's amazing. So that was my initial pitch. My initial pitch, I didn't have any staff. You know, I've given this advice to other people, like how do I get crowdfunding to work for me? And, you know, one piece of advice as well, the first piece of advice is you need an audience, because only- you're aiming for one in 10, that are going to actually convert. And so if you wanted to have a full time job, I think you need 10,000 listeners to get 1000 people as your target. And then those 1000 people, you can't just say, give me money because I want money. Like, it has to be real, and it was real, it was like, Look, I can't do this for free. I just can't do it, you know. So if I get enough money for it to be a part time job, it'll be my part time job. If I get enough money for it to be my full time job, then I'm, I'm going to quit everything else. And I'm just going to do this. And if I don't get any of my goals, I am going to cancel my own show. And I meant it, you know, and it was rational, like I had- I saw from that point of view that you don't get paid in likes or follows. You can't pay your mortgage in internet clout, you do need revenue. So as much as I loved my show, and as exciting as it was to build an audience, I was prepared to walk away from it. And I think that that has to be real. So the first year it was like, basically, let's hit this goal, or the show will die. And, you know, I was just so amazed to see, in the first hours, hitting the first goal. And then it took just, you know, weeks to get to the point where it was my full time job, which I felt so grateful for. And then within months, we hit a fantasy reach goal, you know, they tell you in, you know, how to crowdfund- just have a stretch goal. It's just dare to dream, it helps your your supporters to know that you have some grand- and I hadn't put the first thought into it. But I put on Patreon, I think it was, if I get $10,000 a month, I will turn Canadaland from a podcast to a podcast network. And we'll start publishing other podcasts, and I'll hire other people to host them. And I swear to you, it was like, that's as much thought as I put into it. Like, do I want to be a publisher? Do I want to be somebody's boss? Do I want to hire people? Am I- you know, I hadn't thought through any of it. Because I never thought we'd get to $10,000. But we did. And then I had to actually make good on my promise, and became an employer and became the publisher of a network. And then in subsequent years, because I was at first, you know, we were not paying people well. We did pay people in stock in the company. And now the company is co-owned by some of those early employees. But then yeah, later, we added benefits and things like that.
So in 2021, you're in Nashville- and I watched this through the wonders of the internet- and you're talking about your network, and owning a network and creating a network. Why a network? Why did you think a network was really the way to go? Other podcasts? Because I mean, networks are strange. I mean, I run into so many people who say, I want to start a podcast network. I'm like, Well, have you ever tried to get strangers to agree? So what were the parameters? You know, for you to start this network? What did it have to be, and right down to the IP? Who owns the podcast when it's done?
Starting a network, and building a network, is the hardest thing I've ever done. So much harder than building my podcast. I mean, I approached Canadaland the podcast with some rules. And one of my rules was a rule that I had learned in radio, which is just like, even though nobody really cares at first, whether you publish or not, or when you publish, treat it like it matters. Pretend that it's on the air, on the radio, from coast to coast, and the show is there waiting for people every Monday morning, whether you've got a good guest or not, whether you have an idea or not, the show must go on. And that's how I built an audience. Now, I can show up and work for free on those parameters. But when you start hiring people for very little, and I've seen people try to start podcast networks just based on like, co ownership, nobody getting paid, things fall apart really rapidly. You need a lot of people working in tandem and treating it like it's real, for that to actually function. And I won't claim that I did it particularly well at first. It was in fits and starts. And we tried a lot of different things. And I had an attitude of like, let's just fail early and often, taking a lot of- you know, I had been involved in a tech startup and I had some of those ethics of like, if something feels fun, if you- if you meet somebody talented, if you have an idea, let's just try it, you know, the cost of entry is low. And I learned the downside of some of those like tech bro values very early, because, you know, people put their heart and soul into a podcast. When- when somebody wants to host a podcast, they really care about it. And you know, the whole idea like, well, let's publish your podcast. And you know, we don't have much money for you. But let's just put it out there. And if nobody listens to it I'm going to cancel it, we'll try something else. Well, you know, that's- that- it's not a terrible way of finding out what can work. But you know, it's not a great way to make friends. People, you know, get bruised along the way. And meanwhile I was just learning how to be a boss and how to run a company. I don't know, I could probably go on and on about these things, because it's been such a challenge for me. But over the years, I've just tried to be equal to the opportunity. You know, the audience wanted the network, the supporters paid for a network, and I owed them a network. And that led to me owing my employees an equitable and fair place to work and all benefits and ultimately, they unionized. And I welcomed that unionization. So these are all things that I never really thought, like, part of my dreams were not- you know, I sometimes I'd feel self pity and think, Man, if only my stretch goal- if I had just randomly chosen a different thing, like, Oh, I'll make videos, as opposed to I'll start a network and I look at somebody like Maron, you know, he got bigger and bigger and bigger without ever saying, Oh, I'm gonna publish 10 other people's podcasts. You know, he just built his brand. And he built his audience. And I'm like, wow, my life would be so much less complicated if I just focused on my podcast, and I was just traveling around doing live shows and giving interviews and being a podcast personality and not having to worry about, how's the politics show doing? How's the art show doing? How's the limited series doing? Is everybody happy? How are these teams, you know. But I've come to peace with it. And I think that as much as the country needed Canadaland, there's a need for all these shows that we're doing. And we need an independent network like Canadaland. I'm glad that I forced myself into this corner. And now I've got to like bite off what I- you know, I gotta chew what I bit off. And I've just had the benefit, and the luck of working with some, you know, increasingly wonderful people. And now we're in this really rarefied special position, because now there's like, what, like 10 million podcasts? And the hardest thing in the world is to launch a new podcast and get people to listen to it. Unless you have a network. If you have a podcast network, that is like the most effective thing for building a new audience, is leveraging your old audience. So that's sort of just where circumstances have kind of delivered us.
I'd rather have a bank of radio ads to run somewhere. That would be my favorite. If I'm launching a show.
Have you done ads on terrestrial radio for podcasts?
Yes. And they were-
Have they been effective?
Yes, very much so.
We should talk about that. We've done a little bit of that. We did that in a test market. And we saw a little bit of lift, but it's hard to measure radio.
It's expensive. That's the problem.
Yeah. Did you do it for like regional? I guess you gotta do regional.
Yeah, I put it in Toronto for a podcast with known Toronto people on it. And it works. It's just expensive. It's just a good way to launch. It was just the launch budget, so.
Did you compare that to buying promos on other podcasts?
I have not compared it to that.
That was going to be what we were going to be doing going forward, was those promo swaps and putting them on other net- doing the ads on other networks.
You know what I wonder about is, radio stations, since you know time immemorial, have found it to be worth their while to do out of home advertising, bus shelters, billboards, really expensive. And I always find the ads really low value. It's just like, you know, mornings with Jimmy and the Chicken, you know? Just like the faces of two hosts, and telling you to go listen to their talk show, but they must work, because they keep buying the things. So I wonder, I don't think I've ever seen- like, I've seen some ads in subway stations for podcasts, like in New York, you know, but I've never seen podcasts advertised on subways, and then bus shelters. And you know, on the- on the expressway, I'm kind of curious if that would be effective.
I actually saw the stats for a podcast that was being heavily promoted through Bell Media. And I could tell it was working simply because they always tell people to use the iHeart app. And the iHeart app for this particular podcast was scoring way above the average. So right there, you can tell that it's working. People are going to check out Celebrity Podcast on the iHeart app. That percentage was- it was like 15, or 20% of the listens came from that app. So the only people who would tell you to go use that app is, would be Bell Media, because it's iHeart television or radio property. So you could just see the direct correlation right there.
And where were these ads? What kind of advertising?
They're on TV and radio.
So there's no other reason why anybody would use the iHeart app to go and listen to the celebrity podcast other than they were told to by the TV or the radio, because you and I are probably scoring well below 1% with this app.
Yeah. I mean, that's how CBC very quickly built a podcasting audience. After shunning podcasts for many years, they very quickly built a listenership. And, you know, it felt like I grumbled about it, because they have, you know, a massive audience on the radio, and they were even using TV ads to leverage their existing TV and radio audience to podcast and then once they had a podcast audience, they would do what we do and advertise, you know, if you like this podcast, maybe you'll like our other podcast. They had this incredible advantage when they got in, like, it was- I grumbled, because like, man, they're coming late. And they're, and they're- it's not fair. I don't have a radio network, you know, but, but they were doing exactly what I would have done in their shoes. And they did a good job of it.
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Was the Jian Ghomeshi story what really- Did that propel Canadaland to another level?
Yes, and no, the timing of things is really interesting. But it's also really specific. And there is this I think, misconception that that's sort of what made Canadaland. The timing of it was just off enough that I can say with total confidence that we were fine without that story. We moved to crowdfunding right before that story. And I succeeded in crowdfunding, like the episode of Canadaland before the Jian Ghomeshi story broke, you can go back and hear it, is where the crowdfunding had succeeded. And it was clear that I was onto something and I was going to be able to do this professionally. And then the story hit. And definitely there was a huge spike in listenership. Now there was not a spike in Patreon support, not immediately, most people who were joining us were hearing about me and about Canadaland for the first time. And you know, they read the story in the Star, but I was continuing that reporting on Canadaland. And if you wanted to know what was going to happen next, you had to listen to Canadaland. So we, you know, we went from, you know, wherever we were at, we had episodes that had like, you know, hundreds of thousands of people listening. And some of those people left after that story died down, and some of them stuck around. And then the next year, when I asked people, because I only really do crowdfunding once a year, the next year, a significant percentage of those people decided that Canadaland was worth funding. So that's sort of how the show has grown over the years, that big stories be it Ghomeshi or you know, Mansbridge and Rex Murphy, or our miniseries Thunder Bay, or WE Charity. And there have been a dozen, you know, smaller but significant stories along the way. Our audience spikes, people check it out for the first time because they're interested in that story. A certain percentage of that audience sticks around and then like a year later, a certain percentage of them become supporters.
So who broke the story? If I remember, it was a September of 2016. I think the Toronto Star was holding on to the story and you were waiting for it, or they ran a story and then you added to the story.
I'm one of the many who misremembers.
That's okay. What you realize when you get into investigative work is that everybody's memory is shit. You know, if you fact check people's memories, nothing ever holds up. Or you know, there's usually just small discrepancies. And it's just it's not- no one's ever doing anything intentionally. But here's the nutshell of it. It happened much sooner than that, it happened- The story broke in the fall of 2014. The story came to me initially, a source came to me because of Canadaland, somebody who had been involved in a relationship with Ghomeshi wanted to talk to the press about non consensual violence that they alleged he was responsible for. And I got- I got an email from this person, a source saying, and there are others, there are other women who he has hurt in this way. And they had been referred to me because I covered the media. And so I had this story burning a hole in my pocket, and I received some legal advice. I didn't have libel insurance at the time, I shopped the story around to a few different possible partners, the Star is the one that said, Yes, we're interested in that story. And I was partnered with Kevin Donovan, and together with Donovan, we went and we investigated and we spoke to these women. I had already been speaking to some of them, but we spoke to more of them. And we thoroughly investigated it. And we also just sort of did our diligence on his history and whether or not it was possible, like did these people, in fact, know him, and evidence of the relationship and photos of bruises. And we were convinced that this was real. And then finally, we went to him for comment. And we received a legal threat in response, and the legal threat, singled me out. It said, our client denies this completely. We'll sue you if you publish it. And we'll sue you if Jesse Brown continues asking questions about it. And that's when the Star dropped the story. And this is a part that a lot of people forget. But the Star was not interested in investigating further. Now, they didn't tell me we dropped the story. They you know, I was calling Kevin and saying okay, we've got his answer. We knew he was going to deny it. What do we do next? He said, Well, the story's just not there yet. I said, Okay. Well, we've got three different women saying that this happened to them. How many do we need? Because I'm sure there are more out there. I'll go find some more. And I was never given a straight answer as to like, what does the story need? If it's not if it's not there yet, when will it be there? And the months went on. And eventually I said to Donovan, listen, our deal was, you know, there's been no movement on the story. We haven't been working together on it in some time. And my deal with the Star is that if you ever drop the story, I'm free to take it elsewhere. And he said, okay, go take it elsewhere. So that was confirmation, they were dropping the story, they were ready to let it die. And I did go try to take it elsewhere. And I couldn't find anybody to take it. And I was trying to figure out how to get the story out anyhow. And, Matt, the way this happened is so wild. The week that our Patreon was successful, I spoke to my listeners, and I said, Thank you so much for funding Canadaland. I am now working for you. I'm fully independent. I'm working full time, I'm not working for any other media. And that gives me so much freedom to investigate stories. And I have a huge story that I'm going to break next week. And it was true. I had just met Glenn Greenwald. And he had told me this incredible story about how the Globe and Mail had dropped a story about the Snowden files. Okay? That was the story I was talking about. The Globe and Mail had Snowden files that pertained to Canada, and they had let the story lapse. And I was going to break that story. And I was very excited about it. And I promised- I teased it. I said we're going to break this big story next week, and it's going to be worse than embarrassing for certain people. Maybe I was over hyping it. But you know who heard me, promising that I was going to break this big embarrassing story, this scandalous story? Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi knew that the Toronto Star had dropped the investigation of him. He knew that I had been investigating him because we sent him questions. And he knew because the publisher of the Toronto Star was one of his panelists, and he was back channeling with him. And he said, Why are you guys investigating me? Are you going to actually publish this stupid story about me? It's not true. And he knew from the publisher that the Star had dropped the investigation. And now all he had to worry about was this Jesse Brown character, and Canadaland. And when he heard me promise that this investigation was going to be published, he thought I was talking about him. And his ego is what did him in. And that's when he went to his bosses at the CBC and told on himself, and said, Hey, there's this freelance journalist who hates my guts, and he's going to be trying to humiliate me but these are all consensual relationships. And he showed these executives videotape of a woman with bruises on her body because her rib had been cracked by him. And he thought this could exonerate him. And instead, the CBC's executives said, you're done here. And security walked him out the building. And that's when he went on Facebook, because word was getting out that he was out the door. And he went on Facebook and tried to get ahead of the story, which he still thought was going to come out on Canadaland. And if you read his posts on Facebook, he says, there's this freelance journalist who doesn't like me. And you know, there's a bitter ex of mine, and they're trying to do me in. And once the Toronto Star read that on Facebook, they said, okay, now he's made this public. So now we can publish the story. And they're- now they're calling me. And the Star is saying, come back to the Star. Let's break the story together. And I still needed their protection for a libel claim, which had been promised. And I came back and the story is written by me and Kevin Donovan. And it's, there's two stories, where we basically blew the lid off of this investigation. And that's the story of how this all happened.
Okay, so that's an incredible story, I did not know all that. I feel like I should have, but that's absolutely incredible. And I guess, to the point where I can ask about this, because it costs a lot of money to do journalism, I think of all the time, and all the money- investigative journalism, especially, because it could turn up nothing, right? Which brings us to your company and where we are now in Canada, with this conundrum of Bill C11, and Bill C18. And you've spent two years really, you know, a little bit worried about this, and where it's all gonna go. And now both of them have passed, and you weren't going to sign up for it. And now you've signed up for it to be, we're a news organization, we want to qualify for funding. So how are you looking at this today with Facebook and Google effectively threatening or in the process of turning off the tap for Canadian news?
I mean, it is a mess beyond comprehension. We haven't actually submitted ourselves for, you know, QCGO status yet. Nor have we submitted ourselves for- I mean, I saw the writing on the wall that Google and Facebook, were going to shut off news. So it sort of became a bit moot. I initially said, I oppose this whole scheme. But then, who cares what I say, it was all moving ahead anyhow. And in anticipation of C18, Google and Facebook were striking deals with publishers, and they were giving my competitors money. So at a certain point, who cares what my opinion is of this bill, we're being left out, and our competitors are being armed to you know, poach our staff and undercut us on ads and compete with us for audience, and I'd be a fool to not try to take free money. So you know, can't beat 'em, join 'em. I said, Okay, if this is going to happen, anyhow, let's try make sure that it's fair. And that small players like us don't get left out in the cold. But now that Google and Facebook have promised to shut off news, they're canceling their deals with those publishers. So the future is looking very uncertain if they don't relent, which they might, if the government blinks in the regulatory process, then there'll be no money for news publishers from Google or Facebook, in which case, I'd rather stay clear of the whole thing. All of this gets very, very wonky and detail oriented. But I think what you're hearing is, there is great uncertainty in the market. Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, you'd have to be an idiot to invest in media in Canada right now, with this level of uncertainty. You know, who would take a risk- you don't know if you're getting involved in an industry where the legacy players are going to be propped up indefinitely, forever, you don't know if new players are going to have access to subsidy, you don't know anything. So it's just basically put a freeze. We're in a better position than most, you know, we're lucky enough that we're not a web based media company. So even though the majority of our web traffic comes from organic search, or from social media, well, we don't make money off of our web traffic, we make money off for podcast listenership. And that doesn't get mediated by Google or Facebook, you know, that traffic comes to us, you know, via Apple Podcasts, and via Spotify, and a bunch of other places. And it's solid and growing. So I feel really bad for a lot of my fellow publishers who are trying to do news on the web, because this is an existential threat to them. I have no idea what's next. I mean, you know, Canadaland was always built with the notion that nobody's going to help us. The relationship has to be between the podcaster and the listener, and we can help each other. If people want this stuff, then maybe they'll pay for it. And we can help you with the information and the conversations that you want. And you can help us either, you know, giving us the attention that we can sell to advertisers, or preferably you can help us directly. So that's always how we've operated. That's always been our biggest revenue source. And that continues to be what we're- what we're banking on.
So Bill C11, that's the one that sort of wants to promote more Canadian content to the front of your Spotify and maybe Apple, and your television and your Netflix, and C18's the one where Facebook and Google are going to be funding Canadian journalism. And we've already done a round of this where the Canadian government has handed out money to organizations. You published the list. Thank you for doing that, by the way. I truly appreciate it, you get to see which news organizations got what money from the government. It's strange, though, it feels nefarious to have government funding media, and journalism.
I'm not a fan of it. And we've done our best to add transparency, but we don't have all the information. I think that at a minimum, if government is going to fund the media, like, of course, the public needs to know which media and how much, but that's not the way it is. So we get the information for certain funds, but not others. And some companies are public. So they publish some of this information. But we don't know how much money, say, the Globe and Mail is getting. You know, if you think about what the Globe and Mail has to do, they have to hold the government to account and they have to hold Facebook and Google to account. Those are two major companies. And who is giving the Globe and Mail money? Has been giving the Globe and Mail money? Government, Facebook and Google and we don't know how much. That's not right. I have my own kind of old fashioned ideas that the primary purpose of the news media is to hold government to account. And when you talk about the independence of the press, I don't know how you can make the argument that we are independent, and free to hold the government to account, when we are literally dependent on them for our very existence. So we have refused to pursue government money. For me, that's a fundamental and a lot of people disagree with me on that. And they disagree with me out of that out of necessity. You know, it's just like a simple fact that a lot of places would just go out of business if it wasn't for these government handouts. But I don't know that the government subsidies are going to keep these places in business, it's not enough money. So the majority of the industry has decided they can live with it. At that point, I think you get into a question of well, who is the government deciding gets the money? Which is the government deciding who's a real journalist and who isn't. And when you get into Facebook and Google making those decisions, that's pretty messed up to me. And then you get into this discovery question, which people need to read between the lines there as well, because we hear that C11 is about making sure that Canadian content gets discoverability, and is prioritized on Spotify and places like that. Well, Canadian content already is getting that, you know? Netflix and Apple Podcasts and Spotify, they already have their editorial teams in Canada, and they're trying to show that they're good, you know, good corporate citizens, and they're trying to show, and there maybe there's even like, the audience wants that I'm not so sure. But all of those platforms, give extra algorithmic juice and extra editorial placement to Canadian content. What C11 is going to do is not simply prioritize Canadian content, it's going to prioritize CanCon. And CanCon and Canadian content are not the same thing. Even content is content made by Canadians. Right? Anybody in Canada who makes a podcast in Canada, you know, that's Canadian content. Or if you're a Canadian, and you're making a podcast, but you live somewhere else in the world, you can still make a show and it's Canadian content. But CanCon is an industry designation. Basically, it was created for the legacy film and TV industries. And C11 is a bill for the legacy Canadian film and TV industry. That's who lobbied for it. That's who crafted it. That's who it benefits. So I am really, really skeptical that this is going to help new innovative companies like Canadaland, unless we want to go and submit ourselves to, you know, be considered CanCon and check off the boxes of you know, all these different bureaucratic red tape- like, you know, maybe we will do that. But we've seen an incredible proliferation of Canadian creativity on YouTube, on TikTok, on podcasts, from people who are completely outside of the legacy Canadian CanCon system and this is not a bill for them. This bill is for the production companies that have been putting out you know, if you look at like Telefilm Canada, every year, they're funding you know, dozens of movies that you've never heard of, that nobody sees. There's no good distribution. These are not movies that break through. Television's a bit more successful, but there's tons of TV that would not be made without the subsidies. Reasonable people can disagree on whether this is a good scheme or not to have these subsidies and to have this industry that is like propped up forever, you know, on kind of external funding, not based on the audience. But when they start to encroach upon this new media environment that I think pioneering digital publishers have created, we've actually found a way to make Canadian content- not CanCon, but Canadian content- that people want to consume, that people will pay for, that advertisers want to buy ads on. And now we gotta deal with the legacy players trying to edge in on our platforms. And that concerns me.
I'm very concerned, it's one of the things that does keep me up at night. And how vague Pablo Rodriguez and his department were about disclosing what this means. So does this include YouTube? Ehh, no. Oh, yes it does. And, well, that doesn't bug me as a podcaster until I put my podcasts up on YouTube, and YouTube is still trying to figure out how to do pod- They've created a bill for things that haven't been invented yet. Oh, and this will include musicians and Spotify. Well, our podcasts are on Spotify, and people are probably listening to it right now. So you know, not being able to get an answer from this department, does this include podcasts? And then the other thing is what we call the algorithm. Now, if you want to have a laugh, the CRTC has a Myths and Facts About C11, and they're asking for comments. And in brackets on three of them, they're like, this does not affect the algorithm. But anything you do does affect the algorithm. So I feel like we're still in no man's land.
Yeah, that's exactly right. The debate has been taking place in a really dishonest way, in a way that is- basically it feels to me, like the heritage minister has been, with C11, taking this as like, a conversation between so-called regular Canadians uploading videos of their kids. And he's like, don't worry, don't worry, this doesn't affect you, you're just a regular. This is for the pros out there. The networks, the film companies. So he's kind of created these like sort of imaginary two categories. What is not considered is this no man's land, which is like the modern internet. Everybody lives in this no man's land, unless you are NBC or you're just a hobbyist. There are people who have YouTube channels, and they turn on monetization, or they get a sponsorship. They're still regular Canadians, but they're, they're creative Canadians who are making stuff. Podcasts are still a small enough industry that I guarantee when you ask the question, and when I asked the question, where do podcasts fit into this, they don't have a clue because they haven't even considered it. So you know, we are doing this professionally, we are doing this as our business. But we are neither the amateur who they're trying to console, oh don't worry, this doesn't affect you, nor are we the legacy industry that they're trying to placate. We are caught in the middle. And they have introduced again, you know, nothing so much as uncertainty. Nobody knows. Nobody knows what this is going to mean for us. And that is itself, introducing so much uncertainty into the space that, you know, like, I never really understood when you'd hear people talk about like Gah, Government, get out of my business. And it always seemed to me to be this reactionary right wing thing of like, people who just don't want to be taxed or something. But I'm appreciating, for the first time, what business people and entrepreneurs go through. When you put up your own capital, you risk your own time and money to launch a business and like, you get there, and you're employing people and you're paying your taxes. And then government regulation steps in and starts to- usually from a place of ignorance, not really understanding what you do. So now I understand like, the organic dairy farmer who wants to make raw milk cheese. Like I understand a lot of people who are saying Government, get out of my business.
Can the problem be solved if we put a 3% tax on foreign digital advertising?
I think that's an elegant solution that's better than what they're doing now. I think that you know, if you want to tax Google and Facebook in order to give money to news companies, then just tax them. And they've actually said this, they've said, like, we would prefer it if you just taxed us, created a fund and paid it out. What we're paying for here is the cowardice of the current federal government who want to be able to claim that these are market based solutions. It's a very complicated thing that they've gotten themselves into. Nobody wants the job of determining, okay, Canadaland, you're news media, Rebel Media, you're not news media. And then there's something in between. Who's- nobody wants that job, you know, and governments should not be in that business, right? So the government thinks they can basically farm that out by putting a lot of the burden onto Facebook and Google, or onto some other part of your body. If you want to subsidize the media, you are going to have to decide who deserves the subsidies and who does not. And in crafting this really weird scheme, they have complicated this in a way that's hurting everybody. If they just had a tax, that would be simpler.
I mean, the money went from radio, TV, newspapers, and then moves to Google/Facebook. We do this with steel, we do it with whiskey, we do with a whole bunch of things. You put a levy on it. It's a form of protectionism. So we would just do this again, the Liberal government would put a 3% tax on your advertising, which is going to Facebook. That money gets redirected back to Canadian journalism. It is cowardice, I think, by the government. They don't want to come out with another tax because they're always unpopular.
That too. They don't want to say, Oh, here's the new- you know, I remember when Stephen Harper campaigned on the No Netflix Tax, that became a dirty word. Ultimately, though, I think the solution is not quite so simple. I think the solution that governments are moving towards around the world is breaking up the tech giants. And you know, Canada is not going to be brave enough to take a leading position on this, we'll probably do it at some point after the United States does it or some other country does it. But that's really the problem here. The problem here is that these companies, they've been able to grow unchecked under the idea that they're just so innovative and wonderful, that governments should just steer clear. In fact, they're just doing the same types of predatory things that any monopolist does. And they're actually stifling innovation. So we need to break them up. And that's going to happen sooner or later, I want and hope, and then Canada will follow suit. after that.
You made a very, very impressive hire in the podcast world recently. I believe her name is Julie Shapiro?
Julie is- is excellent. Julie is one of the most respected people in audio, she's worked at the top of everything from PRX, to Radiotopia, Third Coast. I didn't even know the story until we started collaborating. I knew that she was one of the minds behind Ear Hustle, I didn't know that she picked that needle from the haystack. Ear Hustle won a contest. And it was the one show out of I don't know how many hundreds that were submitted, and Julie said, that one. So she is helping us build our slate of new shows. And we've got a similar process underway, and we've received hundreds of pitches for new programs. And she's helping us go through them and pick the next incredible winners, the needles in the haystack. And you know, there's no one more respected with a greater network, no one with a better ear. So couldn't be more thrilled than to be working with Julie.
What sort of podcasts are you looking for?
We're looking to be surprised, and we're getting it. You know, on the one hand, we kind of know what our values are, we're looking for- you know, Canadaland, I think has a history of finding really shocking stories that are Canadian stories, but like never in the boring way, more in the like, oh my god, I can't believe that's happening in Canada, kind of a way. We definitely are looking for stories that are, you know, challenging to the status quo, challenging to the establishment that are like, you know, important stories, not just- not just thrilling stories, but stories that really like cry to be told, we always want stories that are told by people that you haven't heard from before. It's just interesting to hear from people who haven't had a chance to tell their stories. Like, there's all kinds of stuff that we know are consistent with our brand. But we also want to be surprised ourselves. So we're getting it. We're getting such great stuff from people. We're curious about kind of spreading out a little bit. What would a comedy podcast from Canadaland sound like, you know? Questions like that. I hate the term lifestyle programming. But you know, our stuff typically is about media and news and politics. That's only one small part of life. There's a lot more to it. And we're curious about other- other types of things that you can talk about on a podcast. So we're finding these incredible creators, we're finding these incredible ideas. And it's, it's fun again, you know, it's kind of back to the square one of just, you know, who are the people we most want to be working with? And what are the ideas that we find most exciting?
So I had this question down. I didn't ask it. I forgot to ask it. But at the same time, I can also solve one of your problems, and you should get a comedy podcast on Canadaland. How do you know Sugar Sammy, and when does he get his podcast on Canadaland?
Ah, Sugar Sammy can write his ticket. I'm sure he can get a podcast with whatever, whoever he wants. So Sugar Sammy, come talk to me. I know Sammy from McGill. We went to school together. So we were like, you know, I guess 19 years old. And I had him on the show. And I didn't mean to embarrass him. But I remember, you know how I told you earlier that back at McGill, I would hand in films instead of essays? Well, Sammy was a brave soul. He was just starting at stand up. And he asked one of these professors, I was in the same class as him, Can I do stand up instead of an essay? And he got in front of a little workshop class of about 20 pretentious university students and delivered a set of stand up in this academic environment. And he... I mean, I don't even know if you can call it bombing, you know, you bomb at a comedy club. Like this was just not the place to be telling dick jokes. You know, it was- it was painful. And when I, some years later, started to hear, Oh, that guy's doing really well, and then saw him perform at Just For Laughs. I was like, oh, man, that guy stuck with it, and that guy got good. And then you see the kind of career he's- he's built for himself in this really interesting place that he occupies in the culture in Quebec. And, you know, that's a Canadian original right there. If Sugar Sammy wants a podcast on Canadaland, he's got it.
Jesse, thanks so much for for doing this podcast. It's been a couple years in the making, and I'm so glad you took the time to do it.
Thank you for having me, Matt. It's been fun talking to you.
The Sound Off Podcast is written and hosted by Matt Cundill. Produced by Evan Surminski. Edited by Chloe Emond-Lane. Social media by Aidan Glassey. Another great creation from the Sound Off Media Company. There's always more at https://soundoffpodcast.com