Talking Radical Radio was a weekly radio show and podcast featuring interviews with people involved in a wide range of grassroots political work across so-called Canada. It ran from February 2013 to February 2023, and over that time there were 510 original episodes (plus one or two re-runs each year).
The show was, more or less, a one-person operation. When I began to talk with people about the possibility of winding the show down, a couple of them independently suggested that I write something based on the experience. I decided that I liked that idea, and this document is the result. It is divided into two main sections. The first half focuses on the show itself and the work that went into making it, written with an eye to being useful to people who are considering doing similar work themselves. As such, it likely contains far more detail than most readers will care about. The second half is a somewhat arbitrary collection of political reflections based on my time doing this work. As one of those reflections describes in more detail, it is mostly not an effort to derive practical lessons about and for social movements that might then be taken up and applied in the course of struggle, but rather more diffuse political thoughts emerging from the work of making the show.
The Making of Talking Radical Radio
The Model of the Show
The beginning of what I later came to think of as the Talking Radical project was in the early 2000s, when I did oral history interviews with 50 long-time activists and organizers from across Canada. Eventually, I used some of those interviews as the basis for two books that were published by Fernwood Publishing in 2012.
I had done community radio between 1998 and 2001, and based on that experience, I had also originally intended to turn those oral history interviews into a series of radio shows. Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t feasible to do so, but I didn’t abandon my interest in some sort of related audio project at some future point. In the later years of working on the books, I began to piece together a model for an interview-based, movement-focused show with a (mostly) contemporary rather than historical focus. I knew I didn’t have time then to take on such a project, but it felt like an idea with potential, and once the books were out, I started figuring out how to put it into practice.
Here are some of the key elements of that model:
Long-form interviews – The centre of the show would be long-form interviews – so, not carefully culled short quotes set in some larger narrative, but an opportunity for people involved in activism, organizing, political art, and a range of other kinds of grassroots political work to speak at length. Even in left media, that is fairly rare. My hope was that it would give listeners a way to learn about issues and struggles directly from those who are in the thick of things, which most people rarely have the chance to do.
Manageable labour – The other reason for having a single, long-form interview as opposed to, say, a multi-voice documentary format was to keep the amount of labour required to make the show at a manageable level. Don’t get me wrong, it still ended up being a lot of work, but I knew that I was going to be doing the show on my own, and I knew I needed to find a format that wouldn’t burn me out.
Community radio – It is probably unfair to draw an excessively sharp distinction between podcasts and community radio – goodness knows that there are many different kinds of shows, even many different kinds of nonfiction spoken word shows, found in both contexts. Nonetheless, a lot of issue-focused or political podcasts have an informal, conversational approach organized around chit-chat and hot takes that I, frankly, don’t like very much. That plus my own background encouraged me to take my understanding of community radio’s sensibility as my starting point, and to aim for a format with a bit more formality that was interview-based rather than conversational. Despite the growing popularity of online-only audio distribution in the years leading up to the launch of the show, I also knew that I wanted to get it on the airwaves of community stations, if I could figure out how.
Scope – I wanted the show to have a broad scope along multiple axes. I wanted it to be pan-Canadian, but even more than that, as someone then living in northern Ontario, I wanted to put effort into including voices from outside of the Vancouver-Toronto-Montreal axis that so often dominates how we think of movements in this country. I wanted it to cover a wide range of movements and struggles, including those that are often left out of conventional left narratives and those that get treated as marginal. I wanted it to regularly feature the voices of people who are more often excluded from the media. I also wanted to include projects with forms ranging from the extremely grassroots to at least moderately institutional, and politics from the obviously radical to the more interesting-to-me subset of what you might call left-liberal. At least part of my motivation for a model emphasizing breadth of issues, movements, voices, organizational forms, and politics rather than a narrow focus was out of a sense that it would create the possibility for listening across those forms of difference, which felt to me to be politically useful.
I began work on the show in late 2012 by producing three pilot episodes. I did three interviews that I hoped were a start at sketching out the kinds of breadth that I wanted the show to encompass, and then began the process of figuring out how to turn those interviews into finished episodes. I used the pilots to approach three outlets – 93.3 FM CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario, which was the station where I had done community radio before and where I still knew some of the staff; 96.7 FM CKLU in Sudbury, Ontario, where I was living at the time; and Rabble.ca, one of Canada’s oldest left-ish news-and-views sites. At the time, Rabble.ca still had its Rabble Podcast Network, which it originally developed as a sort of aggregator and go-to source for left audio content in the years before podcasting/podcatching infrastructure fully matured. All three were interested in carrying the show. I can’t remember the details, but I believe the timing of the launch was determined by a delay in approval at Rabble.ca. When all of that was lined up, the show began its run at the end of February 2013.
I took a number of approaches over the years to finding interview participants.
- From beginning to end, an important source of show ideas was the (definitely excessive) amount of time I already spent on social media, particularly Twitter but in a more limited way Facebook, reading whatever I could find about social movements and communities-in-struggle in the context of so-called Canada. Both have become less effective for doing this as the drive for profit has pushed them to become worse in almost every respect, but they remain somewhat useful.
- Occasionally, I would also ask directly on Facebook or Twitter for suggestions, sometimes just generally but sometimes with respect to specific geographies, movements, or topics. This was hit or miss in any given instance, but it led to some great ideas that would never otherwise have occurred to me.
- After a given episode was released, my email passing along the links to the interview participant(s) would include a question about whether there were any other grassroots groups, projects, or organizations that they thought I should have on the show. Not everyone had suggestions, but lots of people did. And there were a handful of people who continued to occasionally send me ideas even years after I had initially interviewed them, which I always very much appreciated.
- For awhile, I had Google Alerts set up for a number of social movement-related keywords combined with the names of Canadian cities. While this did lead to a handful of show ideas, it was not very useful and at some point I discontinued it.
Sometimes, a suggestion by a past participant would be accompanied by contact information for the group as a whole or for a specific member. Much more often, though, I would just have a group name and would need to track down contact information myself. Which you would think would be easy – certainly there are a few kinds of formations committed to struggle that have no interest in random people contacting them, but most are at least theoretically invested in opportunities to share their work, to recruit participants, and to get their ideas into the media. But it was a semi-regular source of frustration that more activist groups than you might think organize their online presence in a way that makes contacting them quite difficult. Another common irritation was groups that were no longer active but had not updated their online presence to reflect that.
My first choice for approaching groups was email. Some left little option but to message them on a social media platform. Very, very occasionally I would make contact by phone.
I would send an initial message, wait a week or so for a response, and then send a follow-up. If they still didn’t reply, I would move on. There were more than a few instances where a group finally responded months or even more than a year after I initially approached them.
In my opening email, I would give them basic information about myself, about the show, and about the interview I was requesting. If a group replied and was interested, it was usually a fairly straightforward process of answering any further questions that they had and then figuring out a day and time that would work. It did occasionally happen that we would be in the middle of corresponding about the details of the interview when suddenly they would stop responding. There were also instances where it took several months or even up to a year to find a time that worked.
The outreach process was unpredictable, and occasionally technology would fail or people would just flake out on the day of the interview, so it was important to be a few interviews ahead – sometimes I cut it very close, but I did my best to have extra interviews stockpiled. It also helped to be at different stages of the outreach process with multiple groups at any given time.
Recording Tech – The equipment that I used to do the interviews shifted significantly over the ten years of the show. At least a few in the first year, for instance, were captured by putting a hand-held recorder next to a phone in speaker mode. Needless to say, the audio quality was not good at all, and I cringe now to think about doing it this way, but it was what I could manage at the time. There were multiple changes between that point and the end of the show, but I will talk mostly about how I did things in the final few years.
Other than one that I did in-person and one episode based on an interview done by someone else and only edited by me, I did all of the rest of the interviews myself, at a distance. For a long time, I offered people the option of doing it by Skype or by phone. I use computers that run Linux, and there was a period of time when the Skype client for Linux was highly unreliable, so I began to use what was then called Google Hangouts. In the final years of the show, I offered Skype, phone, or what was by then Google Meet. Interestingly, at this point almost noone opted for Skype, though I used it on my end when the participant(s) wanted to be on the phone. Increasingly over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, people would ask to use Zoom. Like most people, I use Zoom for other things, but I found that it sometimes interfered in some way that I couldn’t figure out with my recording set-up – I think again it was an issue of how the client for Linux was implemented – so pretty quickly I stopped offering it as an option.
I recorded the interviews in two different ways. I used Audacity – the most popular free sound editing software on Linux – to capture the audio directly onto my computer’s harddrive. And I also pumped the audio out to a sound board and from there to an external recorder. The sound board was a Behringer Xenyx X1222usb – according to my musician brother, it would not be good enough to do high-quality music work, but it was more than adequate for my purposes. The external recorder was a Zoom H4N, which is a pretty robust and basic piece of equipment that I think is commonly used in lots of different professional contexts. The reason why I recorded the interviews in two different ways was that, for a couple of years before I started using this set-up, I was recording using Audacity only – which worked well until one time it failed in a way that left me with an unusable recording, and I decided I wanted some redundancy in the system.
The mic I used was an Audio-Technica AT2020. It currently sells for about $120-150, I think, and has decent enough sound. You could certainly spend more to get better sound, but most of Talking Radical Radio‘s airtime was filled by the interview participants, so the limiting factor in the audio quality was always the connection over which we recorded. Given that the majority of the show was always going to sound more or less like a phone call, it never felt like it was worth it to get a fancier mic.
Participants – Most of the interviews featured between one and three participants, and occasionally four or five. Particularly later in the show’s run, I actively discouraged more than three. A group that large often resulted in an interview that didn’t flow very well. Plus, interviews with more participants tend to be longer and therefore take more labour to edit. Also – again in the spirit of keeping the amount of labour manageable – I almost always insisted that all participants for a given episode talk to me as part of the same interview rather than separately, though I made a handful of exceptions to that over the years. Occasionally, a prospective interviewee would ask to participate anonymously or with their first name only. I was generally cautious about such requests but open to them, particularly when they were based in concerns about consequences or safety, though there was a frustrating period of a couple of years when one of the platforms hosting the show pretty much refused to allow this regardless of the risk it would have put participants in.
Prep – These interviews required relatively little specific background research or preparatory reading. I would familiarize myself with the group’s website and social media presence, and read whatever relevant news articles I found, but not much more. Partly, that was because there often wasn’t much more, particularly when it was a locally-focused, relatively small, or very grassroots group. Partly, it was because of the nature of the interviews – slow, long-form, and with the goal of getting them to tell stories, rather than in the pursuit of specific facts or short quotes. While there were certainly instances where I found myself wishing in the middle of an interview that I knew more about the specifics of their situation so I could ask better questions, mostly this approach worked well.
What was far more important than having lots of specific knowledge was, I think, having lots of general knowledge about the struggle or movement in question – so, having read or otherwise learned enough in general about, say, Indigenous struggles or trans organizing or the labour movement to ask good questions and understand the answers, and to have a good gut-level feel for the range of relevant politics and sensibilities. The obvious point of contrast here is mainstream journalists who so often have little general knowledge about grassroots movements and the politics that inform them, so they tend to ask poor questions on the rare occasions when they interview activists and organizers, and then show in what they make from those interviews that they haven’t really understood the answers.
Questions – As I would tell participants if they asked for a list of questions in advance, I generally did not enter into these interviews with a rigid list. That said, however, the interviews did usually end up taking on a similar shape. I wanted to know a bit about the interview participants as individuals, often including something about their political origins or their grassroots involvement before and beyond the main focus of the interview. Then I would ask about the group or organization or project that we were there to talk about, often starting with its founding and moving forward at least initially in a broadly chronological way. Exactly what I would ask and how would depend a lot on how they told stories, how much they needed to be prompted, and exactly what the interview was about. Later in the interview, I would generally ask more reflective questions. And I would encourage them to give me lots of background and context at every step along the way. Despite the similar shape to most of these interviews, careful listening and then crafting questions in the moment was crucial to getting good material.
Doing the Interview – I am terrible at small talk, so my general practice was to be fairly quick and efficient in welcoming and thanking participants. I would offer them an opportunity to ask me any questions that they had before we got started. And then we would do the interview. At the end, I would thank them again, and tell them what I could about when the episode based on the interview would be released and when they could expect to hear from me again.
Length – I tried to end up with recordings that were between 40 and 60 minutes in length, and ideally 45-50. If an interview was shorter than 40 minutes, I would run the risk of not having enough material for a 28-minute show after the editing process, or at least of having to include material that I would rather cut. But the longer an interview was, the more time it would take to edit. I think the shortest interview I did for the show was about 35 minutes, and the longest was something like 80 or 90 minutes.
Preserving the Audio – I would save the Audacity version and move the recorder version over to the same directory. I had enough close calls over the years that I was pretty paranoid about losing interviews due to technology failures, so I would immediately back up the directory containing the recordings on another local hard drive. In later years, I also had my system set up so that it would back up to a remote service, and I had a sort of home-brew local automated script to back all my data up to an external drive once a day.
Transcript – In the first couple of years, the first step of the editing process was to listen to the interview and make a very rough map of it, usually just noting the time at which I asked each question and perhaps the major elements of the answers. At some point, I realized that the editing process would be faster and my editing would be better if I had a full transcript to work from. For a couple of years after that, I did the transcription by hand. This was not actually as horrible or as time consuming as you might think, but it was definitely not my favourite part of the process. Then someone pointed me towards otter.ai, which is an automated transcription service that does a pretty good job. I would take the initial transcript generated by that site and do a quick pass through it while listening to the audio to fix it up further. The resulting version still wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be more than adequate for use in the audio editing process.
General Intro & Outro – The first 30 seconds of the show and the last 45 seconds were the same every week. I think I used the same general intro for every episode, and had maybe three slightly different versions of the general outro over the years. The former featured me speaking about a dozen words to name myself and the show, and then the theme music. The latter was a longer clip of me giving more information about myself and about the show, then pointing people towards the show’s website and social media, followed again by the theme music. The theme was “It is the Hour (Get Up),” produced by snowflake and featuring Calling Sister Midnight and spinmeister, and I initially found it on a Creative Commons music site called ccMixter.
Introduction – Each week, I would write an episode-specific introduction to the show. I made the decision early on to make my introductions fairly long. I was never 100% certain about this decision, but positive feedback about the intros always outweighed the negative, so I stuck with it. Because of the broad range of topics, movements, and locations covered by the show, and because I couldn’t assume any particular specialized knowledge on the part of listeners, I wanted to make sure that the format gave me plenty of space to provide background and context, to introduce terms or ideas that the participants used that might be unfamiliar to listeners, and perhaps to introduce an idea or two of my own. My approach to the introductions evolved over the years, and I think they got clearer and more polished. For most of the run of the show, I aimed to make them about 4 1/2 minutes long. Once I had a written introduction of the right length, I would record it. I would go paragraph by paragraph, usually doing two takes and sometimes a third. I would then edit it to remove background noise, breath sounds, pauses, and so on, using the best bits and pieces from each take.
For the first 8 years or so, my words would start as the theme music in the general intro faded. In 2021 or thereabouts, someone suggested that it might be good to have the voice of one of the interview participants appear earlier in the episode, and I agreed. I started putting a 20-30 second clip from the interview between the theme music and my introduction. I tried to choose a clip that would catch listeners’ interest or exemplify something important about the interview.
The Body – Material drawn from the interviews comprised the bulk of each episode – usually from about the 5 minute mark or a little after to the 27 minute mark. As I said, the interviews were highly edited. I didn’t think it through this explicitly at the time, but looking back the editing was guided by three broad principles:
- I wanted the final episode to accurately convey the intent and ideas of the interview participant(s).
- I wanted to optimize the flow of the interview, both the flow of the sound (i.e. making sure that it felt natural and did not, through obvious disjunctures caused by editing or noise on the track, distract from the listening experience) and the flow of the content (i.e. making sure that the sequence of words and ideas made sense and organically drew the listener along).
- And, particularly given my long (and perhaps indulgent) introductions, I wanted to maximize the amount of airspace in the body of the episode given to the words of the participants and minimize the amount taken by my words.
I didn’t always succeed in all three of these, but they were what I aimed for.
Beyond using an Audacity tool to remove background noise, the kinds of editing practices required for each interview would vary, depending on things like its length, the quality of the connection/recording, and the way that the interview participants told stories. It might involve re-ordering the question or other large chunks of audio to improve flow. It always involved cutting – sometimes entire questions, and usually subsections of answers, sentences, phrases, single words. What to cut and what to keep was about finding the best way to honour the three principles above while getting the interview down to the length it needed to be. That involved developing a capacity to quickly assess elements of the interview for how important they were (to the participants’ vision, to my own sense of what was politically valuable about the interview, and to the flow) and how engaging they would be to listeners, and balancing those against the need to get the interview to the right length. I would do lots of lower-level cutting to remove breath sounds and verbal tics – except when that disrupted the flow or interfered with meaning – and to reduce pauses, as part of maximizing the space for participants’ words. I would also re-record my questions. I started doing that to make a little more time each episode for participants’ words. Sometimes, though, it was also a way to intervene in the flow – I could change my question to be able to use only part of their answer, to better reflect a question/answer being in a new place, or to just be more clear. Sometimes, I would also add short clips in my voice interrupting an answer to contextualize something that the participants had said, though I tried not to do that any more than absolutely necessary.
Outro – Between the end of the body and the general outro I would place a short episode-specific outro in which I would reiterate the names of the participants and their organizational affiliations, and give a link to some element of the organization’s online presence.
Finishing Touches – I would use Audacity’s ‘compressor’ tool and perhaps some manual tinkering to even out the volume across the episode. Then I would listen through the whole thing one final time to make sure it all worked and that I hadn’t screwed anything up. Finally, I would produce an MP3 of the episode.
Preview – I was largely unwilling to give interview participants a chance to hear the show before it was broadcast/published, but I made an exception in perhaps two or three cases over the ten years. These were not meant as a way for them to give detailed input into the content or the editing, but were a sort of last-minute opportunity to withdraw consent if I had made any major errors or had acted in bad faith. I made these exceptions for interview participants from groups with a particularly pronounced history of being treated in abusive ways by the media, including by left media – so, once or twice for sex worker advocacy groups and once for a trans activist.
Radio – For the entire decade of the show, distribution to campus and community radio stations felt…well, a little chaotic. At the start, I used Dropbox to get each week’s MP3 to the original stations that carried it, CFMU and CKLU. Because I knew the staff, communication from the former was usually pretty good, but because of their mandate to prioritize locally produced content, during the early years, sometimes CFMU would carry the show and sometimes they wouldn’t (though they carried it consistently in later years). But CKLU was a lesson in how I could not count on communication from most stations. At some point early on, they hired a new person for their only paid staff position, and the station was simultaneously going through some pretty intense challenges related to budgetary and technical problems. Even though I was local, they just stopped broadcasting the show without telling me. I never listened to it over the airwaves, so it was six or nine months later when I actually discovered they were no longer carrying it. It was something of a challenge to get it back on the air, though I’m pretty sure they carried it consistently after that point.
If I remember correctly, my first big push to reach out to other stations involved digging around online to find the addresses of all of the English-language campus and community stations in Canada, sending them some promotional material via snail mail, and following up by email. As I recall, I got no response from most of them (which did not surprise me), active interest in broadcasting the show from a few (which made me happy), and an email from one who got in touch just to say some unkind (though probably deserved) things about my sound quality. At some point, I learned about the National Campus and Community Radio Association, which brings together many though not all of the English-language campus/community station in Canada. One of their resources is an online distribution system for audio content – originally it was called the Community Radio Exchange, though recently they upgraded to a new platform called Earshot. For a chunk of time in the middle of Talking Radical Radio‘s run and then for the final few years, I also distributed the show through Radio4All, an old US-based site for distributing grassroots audio.
Despite the existence of a national platform for doing so, my impression is that a licensing requirement that campus and community stations in Canada prioritize locally produced content means that we do not have the same culture of grassroots circulation of community radio programming as in, say, the United States. It was also quite difficult for me to know exactly when and where it was being broadcast. Sometimes, when a new station wanted to pick it up, they would get in touch and let me know or even ask permission. But often, they wouldn’t. And they almost never let me know when they decided to stop broadcasting the show. So periodically, I would have to scour the schedules of stations and do online searches to determine when and where the show was being broadcast. This was never a high priority activity for me, so I think my list was almost always out of date. In any case, a few years in, the number of stations carrying it every week seemed to stabilize at between 8 and 12 at any given time, though exactly which stations would shift. And other stations would occasionally use individual episodes. In my experience, it was stations in mid-sized cities that were most likely to consistently carry the show. My guess is that the stations in the largest cities always had far more people who wanted to make content locally than they had slots to fill. And some stations in smaller communities definitely carried it, but that was less predictable – probably a product of the politics of whoever at that station made programming decisions.
My sense is that the largest chunk of the listenership of the show came through its presence on community radio stations, particularly its consistent presence over many years in cities like Halifax, Hamilton, Winnipeg, and others. But because most community stations have no solid numbers for their listenership, I was never able to give people who inquired a good number for my own likely audience.
Rabble.ca / The Media Co-op / Podcasting – Distribution of the show to listeners online went through several phases. I will forego the details, but I was not always happy with the role that Rabble.ca played in that process in earlier years, and in retrospect I wish I had taken responsibility earlier for distribution to podcasting platforms. But, nonetheless, in the later years of the show’s relationship with Rabble.ca and then after it switched to The Media Co-op at the beginning of 2021, things worked more or less the same – I would upload the show to whichever of those sites was carrying it at the time, and some listeners would find it there, and I would upload it to SoundCloud, which would then be the source for platforms like iTunes, Stitcher, Tune-in, and so on.
As far as I can tell, most audio that is distributed online these days primarily reaches listeners through podcasting infrastructure. That includes show notes of some kind, though usually they are quite limited – the necessary production info and enough about that week’s episode to hook listener interest. Because, throughout its run, Talking Radical Radio also circulated as a post on a left news site, it was always accompanied by a somewhat more elaborate write-up. That generally looked like a modified version of the text for the show-specific introduction that began each episode, but the nature of the modification to turn it into a post shifted substantially over the years. I was happiest with the approach I arrived at in the final year and a half of the show, though it did take quite a bit longer each week to write. In that final period, I would extract good quotes from the interview as I was doing the editing, and then on the day that I posted the show, I would use those quotes to turn the intro text into a full interview-style article. This seemed like a good way to make the interview useful to people who don’t like consuming audio content.
Circulating it this way also meant that I had to have an image to include with the show. Things got substantially tighter in terms of observing copyright restrictions over the run of the show. Occasionally I could use a photo I had taken myself, but usually I would search online for some relevant image licensed for free use, or I would identify an image on the social media or website of the group featured in the episode and ask their permission to use it. I would then need to produce several versions of the image with different dimensions and with or without added text, for use in different contexts.
YouTube – For several years, I posted the show to YouTube as well. I know some podcasts do this by posting video footage of the interview, but I just used the image for that week’s episode with the audio over top. This was never a major way that people listened, and because of some technical challenges I was having, I dropped it in the final couple of years.
Posting Routine – My routine for posting involved putting the episode up on Dropbox on Sunday night, which functioned as my deadline each week. A number of stations downloaded the show from Dropbox beyond the initial two. Another radio station wanted me to upload it to a specific Google Drive folder, which I also did on Sunday nights. Then on Tuesday mornings, I would adapt the intro to a post, put the show up on The Media Co-op, and upload it to SoundCloud (the source, as I said, for the podcast platforms, as well as for several radio stations), YouTube, Radio4All, and Earshot.
I’m not sure I ever really figured out the optimal way to promote the show. I suppose – and I am saying this while rolling my eyes – I could have grown my social media reach by getting into meaningless high-profile disputes on Twitter, and I certainly could have done a better job of networking with other people doing grassroots media work in so-called Canada, but neither of those particularly play to my strengths. In any case, most of my promotion involved a fairly basic social media routine.
Each week, I would post the episode a few times each to my personal Twitter account, the show’s Twitter account, and (in the last couple of years) The Media Co-op‘s Twitter account. I would post it once each week to my personal Facebook page, my author page on Facebook, and the show’s Facebook page. For a long time now, organic reach on Facebook – for anything, but seemingly particularly for left-leaning grassroots media – is basically zero unless you pay to promote it, so each week I would put a few dollars into doing so for the post on the show’s page. As much as I resented giving Mark Zuckerberg my money, this did get it in front of eyeballs and helped to gradually build the following of the page. Even this became less useful when Facebook stopped allowing you to target content to people with political interests consistent with that content. And there was sometimes a high density of obnoxious right-wing reactions and comments, though it did help after someone let me know that for Facebook pages you can set up a list of words whose presence triggers the comment to be hidden. If you pick a list of common words, basically everything is hidden automatically.
I would also post it each week on the show’s page on Instagram. And I maintained an email list of supporters, whom I sent the link each Tuesday. My sense is that it is a good practice to funnel people from social media to your email list, because email is not subject to the arbitrary tyranny of social media algorithms, but this was a slow and highly uneven process.
During the run of the show, the most anxious time for me in any given week was right before and after that week’s episode was publically posted – those hours were my final opportunity to catch any errors I had made and the time when, if I didn’t catch them, other people would bring them to my attention. I was, I think, pretty diligent in trying to make sure I didn’t make mistakes. But no matter how extravagant your precautions, you are still going to screw up. It didn’t happen often, but there were still times when I managed to mispronounce or misspell names, get basic facts wrong, and in one mortifying instance misgender someone in about the most jarring way possible. As well, there were also times when the show write-up was fine when it left my hands but an error was introduced by my editor at the main online venue then hosting the show, including one memorable and horrifying instance when they managed to reverse the meaning of my words into something that was blatantly anti-Indigenous. In all of these situations, once you notice the problem or someone points it out to you, there is nothing to be done but apologize genuinely and unreservedly, and then fix it as soon as you can.
Any time you act in the world it can be a form of research, if you pay the right kind of attention. And experience of all sorts can be an important starting point for thinking and theorizing the world. I am writing this too soon after the end of Talking Radical Radio for that decade of experiences to have undergone the necessary metaphorical composting (or, more optimistically, alchemy) to have turned into anything very profound, and I haven’t done the kinds of additional reading and research required to give any of this much in the way of rigour or reach. Nonetheless, making a radio show involves a lot of time sitting quietly on your own and engaging in very repetitive tasks with nothing else to do but think, so there are a few observations and reflections that emerged from that work and from the contemplation I’ve done since. These are somewhat random and far from exhaustive and I’m not sure how useful anyone else will find them, but I will share them nonetheless.
For and about movements
When I decided to write this document, I had vague thoughts about this perhaps being an opportunity to use my ten years of doing interviews with activists and organizers to derive some insights that are directly about and applicable to movements. These, I imagined, would be things that movements could take up to inform their work. They might be of the form “There are problems with X way of doing things” or “Hey, there’s this big issue Y that we don’t talk about enough” or “Tactic/practice A in contexts like B is preferable to tactic/practice C,” or even just “Question D is important, and here and a bunch of considerations related to it.” And in principle, I still think that’s possible – to treat these 510 interviews as a sort of qualitative data set, and listen to them in a way that is oriented towards extracting that kind of insight. But it did not take much reflection for me to decide that I do not feel well positioned to do that, for a number of reasons.
Partly, I’m too close to the work, and will be for some time. I think a bit more distance, a bit more opportunity to process it all, would be necessary before I could usefully do anything like that.
Partly, it’s because I think doing it well would require an investment of effort that I’m not willing to make. It would be very easy to approach doing this in a way that just cherry-picked stories and examples to confirm the ideas I already hold, and I don’t see much point in that. I think doing it well would require me, first of all, to spend a lot of time thinking about how exactly to approach the work – that is, how to listen to these interviews with that objective in mind, which is quite different than listening to them with the goal of making a good radio show. And then there would be many, many hours spent re-listening to interviews as well as re-reading transcripts, extracting themes and quotes, and all of that. And I just don’t want to do that.
And partly, it’s because I am very conscious – I think in part precisely because of my work on Talking Radical Radio, actually – of the fairly widespread tendency towards a kind of ungrounded pontificating on the left about what ‘we’ (whoever that might be) should do, in a way that is detached from the actual material questions facing people on the ground. Not that offering opinions about how movement should do things is inherently bad, and not that I have never done so myself. But the way that lots of us do so is pretty unhelpful, which pushes me to be even more cautious about how I do it.
I happened to read Homage to Catalonia,George Orwell’s memoir of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, while I was writing this document, and his account of the left press of the 1930s shows that this is nothing new. I observed a different sort of ungroundedness when I was first politicizing in the 1990s and encountered dense analytical pieces by socialist academics that read as if they were engaged in debates about strategy in party newspapers in early 20th century Germany, with little care for how material conditions and the state of struggle in 1995 Ontario made what they were saying pretty much irrelevant. And these days, we have a media ecosystem that incentivizes hot-take commentary, and that shapes what those of us on the left do no less than anyone else. There are countless examples, ranging from the most casual of social media posts to much more carefully crafted analyses, of left opining about what some group or the generic ‘we’ should be doing that are just so obviously disconnected from the circumstances in which real people are making real decisions. I remember being particularly struck during the far-right-led convoy occupation in Ottawa in 2022 by all of the unhelpful pontificating coming from people (mostly men, I think) on the left who were not based in Ottawa about what the locals there should and shouldn’t be doing to oppose the convoy, usually delivered in ways that were not only clearly detached from the everyday realities that people were facing in Ottawa in that moment, but that usually showed no interest in thinking about what the pontificator himself should be doing to oppose the far right where he lived based on the lessons that could be learned from listening to what people were actually doing in Ottawa.
So while there probably are things I could say for and about movements based on my time working on Talking Radical Radio, I don’t think the ways that I could say them at this juncture would be principled or useful.
Like most people on the left, I have had moments over the years of falling into casual sectarianism or just being plain ol’ politically judgey – particularly, I suspect, when I was newly politicized, and also sometimes when pints of beer with other leftist/radical/activist mostly-men were involved, but not only then. Still, on the whole, my baseline inclination has much more often been to reject that sort of thing, and to orient myself towards what you might describe as a both/and approach to movements rather than an either/or approach. By “both/and,” I mean a rejection of the idea that there is always some singular correct line or action in any given moment that you can find through analysis and debate, and a recognition that not only is it inevitable that different people and groups are going to come to different conclusions about how to act, it’s actually a good thing for movements.
I’m not sure to what extent my affinity for both/and can be attributed to temperament, and to what extent it is about having the right kinds of early encounters to both push me out of my own certainties and to demonstrate examples of behaviour in movement spaces that I definitely did not want to emulate, but it is something I already had by the time I started to work on the show. Even so, spending so much time listening deeply to the words of people engaged in a wide range of grassroots activities informed by so many different politics only reinforced it. The practical work of conducting an interview and turning it into a finished radio show meant listening to their words multiple times, including slowly and repeatedly in a fine-grained way during the editing proper. And the need to both write a suitable introduction and the imperative to not just make a show but make a good show pushed me to really think about those words and to take them seriously. That didn’t mean that I never had critical thoughts about the work and choices of the people I interviewed – I didn’t generally share them, but of course I had them. There were certainly instances where, by the day the episode was released, I knew exactly how I would argue against some element of the interviewee’s activities if someone in a group that I was part of suggested that we do something similar. There were even a few times where I was a little embarrassed by the worry that doing a show on a given group might be perceived as stronger endorsement for their politics than I actually felt. Nonetheless, even in those situations, and certainly in the case of the vast majority of episodes where I felt no such thing, the kind of attention that the work of the show forced me to give to such a breadth of ideas made me appreciate even more deeply than I did already the value in a wide range of approaches to grassroots political work.
And, sure, I have heard over the years the critique of a both/and orientation that boils down to accusing it of being mushy and unstrategic, and I get where that is coming from. But it seems to me that the kind of openness required by a both/and orientation to movement politics actually points towards a better and more materialist way of assessing your options in a given context – you are not just dismissing a given approach out of hand based on pre-existing certainty, but are able to be both generous and critical in assessing what the various alternatives would do and what kind of synthesis beyond your own comfort zone might be possible. As well, while we will always face circumstances that require us to make a definite decision about our own actions, we much more often encounter grassroots politics that differ from our own when we are observing what other people in other contexts are doing. And I think we will learn more in such circumstances if we approach them with open curiosity rather than with sectarian dismissal.
Listen to the less radical
Part of the premise of Talking Radical Radio was that there is value to listening to people talk about the grassroots political work that they do across various kinds of difference – in movement, in experience, in politics, in place, and so on. There is a lot that I could say about why I think that is important, and about the quite different ways that it works in different contexts and directions. Here, though, I particularly want to highlight the value I see in people listening to activists, organizers, and other people involved in grassroots political work whom they consider to be less radical than themselves. (I think the opposite – i.e. listening to people we consider to be in some sense more radical than ourselves – is even more important, but the reasoning for that feels obvious, so I’m not going to bother exploring it.)
I don’t really care what the specific content of “more radical” and “less radical” might be in any particular instance. I’m not even interested in establishing whether it is ever a useful rubric for thinking about differences in politics – I think it can be, though often it isn’t, but it doesn’t really matter for what I’m saying here. What matters is not whether it is valid, just that it is commonly used. Lots of people on the left will rhetorically identify a difference between their own politics and someone else’s using some version of “less radical” vs. “more radical”, and use that to mark themselves as politically more sound. Probably the most common way of doing this is to dismiss someone else as a “liberal,” but there is lots of other language used to make essentially the same rhetorical move. It can be a thin mask for sectarianism based on tiny differences or it can be a genuine recognition of a real gap between politics committed to working within the liberal political order versus organizing to overthrow it.
The point I want to make is that however substantive the difference or hand-wavey the rhetorical gesture, I think there is still often a lot to learn from people who are (in whatever sense) “less radical” than you think you are. Even if that categorization is substantive and relevant, it often encompasses people who face things you don’t, people who have developed knowledge or expertise that you haven’t, or even just people who have good-faith critiques of things you consider to be self-evident. In making the show (and, honestly, in lots of other contexts) I have learned a lot from people in all of those categories whom I could easily have not listened to because they were “liberals” or otherwise failed to meet some sort of political standard. That’s not to say that you have to pay any attention to people who dehumanize you (or anyone else), and it’s definitely not saying you should give up the transformative character of your politics, but there are still often things to be learned.
Amplifying the voices of people who have done harm
The work of Talking Radical Radio involved amplifying the voices of people in movements. Like people in every context, sometimes people who are involved in movements and communities-in-struggle do harm, even quite significant harm, including to the movements they are a part of and to other people in those movements and in broader communities. This is inevitable, and it is an ongoing process for people in movements to figure out how to respond when harm happens. Given the scope of the show, often I was interviewing people based in contexts that not only was I not a part of myself but that I was very distant from. So even the kind of imperfect and sometimes problematic but nonetheless very important whisper networks that might let you know that a person you’ve never met directly in your own community is someone you might want to stay away from would have no chance of reaching me.
With that in mind, I can think of at least two or three instances where I later learned that someone I had as a guest on the show had done significant harm in movement contexts. In at least one, the harm had happened before I interviewed him but I only learned about it later, and in the other two they caused this harm after we talked. (And, no, I will not be going into any more detail than that.) No doubt there are others as well that I haven’t heard about, and won’t.
I’m not sure I have a clear lesson that I can draw from this. Certainly I don’t think there is anything that I could have done to avoid it – I did my best to trust my instincts and avoid interviewing groups or people who gave off obvious signs of being politically toxic, but especially when you are not in the same community (and even when you are) there is no magical way to know for sure. An important lesson from transformative justice activists and abolitionists is that we are all capable of doing harm. I suppose the observation here is just a reinforcement of that very common piece of wisdom – that even people who are (or who appear to be) doing good, radical political work can sometimes also do toxic, harmful things, and our ways of working in movements and our ways of engaging with material produced about movements should keep that in mind even when no instances of it are immediately evident.
Individual or collective
Like I said above, Talking Radical Radio was, from beginning to end, a one-person project. Each episode was in a sense a collaboration with whoever was interviewed, and there was an element of (fairly minimal) editorial attention to the show write-ups from specific people at first Rabble.ca and then The Media Co-op. It was also integrated into the social flow of doing in the same way that everything is, in that it depended on the labour of those who created the infrastructure that made it possible, from the coders who created the podcasting platforms, to the program managers at community radio stations, and all the rest. There was even one young interview participant in the early years who expressed interest in becoming involved in the show, but then, when I offered very cautious openness to exploring what might be possible, he silently faded away. But, basically, it was just me at the heart of things.
Along the way, I would occasionally ask myself whether this was a good thing or not. We live in an era in which the social atomization inherent to capitalism is being taken to ever-greater extremes, and I believe that the single most important thing that we can do as we act in the world is to counter this neoliberal erosion, not necessarily through adopting any particular tactics or social forms, but rather through doing whatever we do to with other people. That’s not always easy – our lives are often organized in ways that make this difficult, and I hate meetings as much as the next person, maybe more. But I think it’s essential. So, given that, perhaps it would have been better to start Talking Radical Radio not as a me-only thing, but as a collective effort.
In addition, when I started thinking very seriously in mid-2022 about moving on from the show, it occurred to me that it would have been easier to do if I was just one person in a collective. After all, when a project is based on the work of multiple people, then any one of them can move on without the project ending. I even spent some time contemplating a range of scenarios that might have allowed me to turn it into a collective project at that late point, though none of those were even remotely practical.
However, despite the fact that there are good political and practical arguments for why approaching the show in a collective way might have been better, my honest assessment is that if I had tried to start it as a collective project, there is a good chance that it either would never have happened at all or it would have ended much sooner. Talking Radical Radio happened in part because economic and other forms of privilege give me a bit more breathing room than a lot of people when it comes to the imperatives of the capitalist market, and in part because I see making grassroots media as a politically important and personally satisfying way to spend my time. All of those things are rarer than they were in, say, the 1990s. In general, it is harder to make a living than it used to be. As well, people in and around social movements seem less interested in using their time to make media than was true 30 years ago. Even in grassroots media projects that are able to pay relatively well for, say, an individual piece of writing, it can be a struggle these days to find people who want to do it. So I’m not convinced that a collective, time-intensive, shoe-string media project, even if it got off the ground initially, could have made it to ten years, unless it somehow managed to find substantial funding – which it would not have.
I could go on at great length about the grassroots media environment in so-called Canada over the ten years of the show, but I will try to restrain myself. (I encourage people to check out the final episode, which featured an interview with three long-time media activists who made similar points to what I say below plus many others.)
The main idea that I want to convey is an endorsement of making (and consuming) media that, at least to an extent, deliberately refuses to do what is optimal or expected given the constraints of the currently dominant media environment.
Any media-making that you do is going to be in an environment defined by institutions that you don’t control, whether you are writing for your high school paper or the New York Times, whether you are churning out blog posts or making a podcast, or whatever else. Even if you are just writing random reflections on your own and publishing them on a website, or if you are part of the group guiding some collective but autonomous online or print publication, you are still to a great extent at the mercy of privately owned, for-profit social media platforms when it comes to building an audience. And regardless of the medium you are working in or the immediate organizational form in which you are doing it, you are going to be faced with audience expectations and consumption practices that have been socially produced as part of the overall media environment.
All of which means that regardless of the specifics of your media-making, there is an extent to which you have to tailor what you do to the requirements of the institutional environment. That might mean, for instance, being guided by the Times‘ institutional definition of what counts as newsworthy and their particular way of defining ‘balance’, or it might mean being attentive to what the algorithm of your social media platform of choice amplifies or constricts. You can’t escape the need to cater to those requirements, at least to an extent. But what I’m suggesting is that it is worth pushing back against them, or just plain ignoring them, at least some of the time, particularly when it means you can make something useful that would otherwise not be possible. So, for instance, that might mean outright rejecting the way that the Times classifies some important story as not newsworthy and deciding to write for another outlet instead, or it might mean sticking around there and finding smaller ways to push boundaries. Or it might mean making a particular kind of YouTube video that isn’t what the algorithm likes even though it’ll get you fewer views and make you less money, because it communicates something you think is important or experiments with the form in some interesting way.
I didn’t set out to do this deliberately with Talking Radical Radio, but there are a number of key ways in which it is what I ended up doing – and once I realized this, I stuck with it.
I think where the show fit best was on community radio stations. The commitment to weekly, year-round original episodes with very few re-runs, the format and sensibility, the consistent quality, and the breadth of what it covered worked well for community radio. And while, as I mentioned, there were factors that limited the show’s spread in this context, it found and held a consistent niche.
On the other hand, I made choices that did not fit as well with the requirements of a podcast or online-distributed show. In some cases, adapting to these requirements would have necessitated me making a fundamentally different show. In other cases, that would not necessarily have been the case, but it could well have made the work less sustainable for me and driven me away from making the show much sooner.
Breadth – In contrast with 20th century broadcast media, which generally succeeded by constructing as broad an audience as possible for any given piece of content, development of a consistent audience in the 21st century online environment often benefits from having a narrow focus – you do a specific thing consistently and in an interesting way, and it attracts a narrow but enthusiastic slice of the online attention economy. Any kind of weird or specialized or niche interest you can dream up probably already has online media devoted to it. And while I certainly wouldn’t dispute the fact that Talking Radical Radio was niche in its own way, it was also oriented towards breadth rather than focus in its content. If, say, you have one episode about Indigenous language learning, the next about prison abolition struggles, the next about feminism in the labour movement, and the next about the slow grind of faith-based anti-poverty work in a small city, there certainly is a population of people who will want to listen to all four, but there are plenty more who might stumble across one, listen, like it, but then not take any steps to stay connected to the show because a lot of the other topics just don’t interest them.
Timeliness – The online attention economy has its own rhythm. As much as it caters to niche interests, it also regularly sweeps segments of the online population of varying sizes towards paying attention to the same thing, at least for a week or a day or an hour. This might be the latest antics of a president in the country to the south of us, it might be an awards show, it might be a wave of Indigenous-led blockades across the country, it might be a violent police action to clear a homeless encampment out of a city park. If you depend on social media to drive people to your content, catering to this dynamic can really benefit you – that is, working hard to latch onto the fickle waves of the attention economy and ride them. While Talking Radical Radio did sometimes do quite timely episodes, often it didn’t. The fairly long and extremely grassroots production process just made it practically impossible to do it consistently. And, frankly, it wasn’t the point of the show. I was much more interested in telling thoughtful, politically interesting stories regardless of their relationship to whatever was gripping the internet in that moment, including stories that would likely never be the focus of mass attention on social media.
Movement journalism vs. op/eds – It would be very easy to put this one too starkly, or to exaggerate it for rhetorical effect, and I’ll try to avoid that. But (as was also observed in the interview in the final episode), a lot of left-ish media outlets are more likely to publish op/eds (read: hot takes) on the high-profile issues-of-the-day, often written by someone with some level of name recognition on the left, than they are to publish movement journalism. Partly, they do this because the former is quicker and easier to produce than the latter. And partly, they do it because the former gets consumed and circulated more than the latter. Talking Radical Radio wasn’t quite movement journalism in a classic sense, in that it wasn’t multiple voices from multiple perspectives integrated into a journalistic whole, but it was long-form attention to a single movement-based voice (or two or three grounded in the same context), so in spirit and sensibility it was on the movement journalism side of the spectrum.
Long form – This is a somewhat trickier one. In a way, it is related to the last item – the kinds of op/ed content that circulates farther and faster also does so because it tends to be quicker and easier to consume than movement journalism or longer-form analysis. But plenty of high-profile podcasts have episodes that are longer than Talking Radical Radio‘s 28 minutes, and you can find video essays on YouTube that are longer and that get huge numbers of views. Some of this is just because none of the things I’m saying here are absolute. Some of it is because of a specific choice on YouTube’s part about how to use its algorithm to maximize time spent on the platform. But I think some of it also makes more sense when you understand that this is not just about length of time to consume in a direct sense, but also about the sensibility of the piece in question. Some popular podcasts, for example, may be quite long in terms of number of minutes from start to end, but will arrange themselves internally to reproduce the rhythm of short, snappy, variegated content. In that sense, Talking Radical and its commitment to a fairly slow and thoughtful engagement with a single topic over 28 minutes was long-form.
Neoliberal maker culture – There are a variety of other things that the tyranny of the algorithm has made integral to the neoliberal culture of online content creators that I just couldn’t be bothered with. I didn’t organize my presence in the show and on social media around an effort to cultivate a parasocial relationship with listeners. I am not someone who likes to engage in conversation with strangers on social media, so I just ignored the common piece of wisdom that generous engagement with comments/responses on your social media page increases visibility and followers – like I said, once I discovered how to automatically hide comments on the show’s Facebook page, I did so with enthusiasm and relief. And I made little effort more generally to adapt the show itself or my show-related presence on social media to the ever-changing demands of the algorithm.
Not all of the above were good choices. In particular, it would have been useful if I could have done more in terms of engagement with comments and staying current with best practices in online neoliberal maker culture. I chose not to do those things because I knew that I would hate doing them, and if I forced myself, I would have made my work on the show less sustainable. But making a show that was long-form movement journalism, broad in focus rather than narrow, and oriented towards stories and struggle that we usually hear little about rather than whatever happened to be centred by the attention economy in a given moment, was deliberate and, I think, a politically sound choice. While it meant that what I made was not as well suited as it could have been to the online media environment, it also meant that I was making something that, at least in my analysis, was both distinct and politically useful.
I’m not arguing that we should refuse to pay any attention whatsoever to the constraints of the media environments in which we are operating – obviously we can’t do that. But I think we need more grassroots media on the left that deliberately flouts at least elements of what the current media environment favours. And we need to cultivate independent grassroots media and social media infrastructures that operate differently than their mainstream counterparts, as well as media consumption practices among movements and their supporters that enable this refusal and subversion of a dominant media environment that doesn’t serve our movements. If I could have one wish, it would be that more people would make, more outlets would publish, more people would consume and circulate movement journalism, particularly in its longer forms.