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Ottawa’s Podcasting Renaissance

By Christina Vietinghoff on January 12, 2022

We can shop local and eat local, so why not listen local? More and more Ottawans have been producing podcasts since the pandemic began, on everything from bike polo to Canada’s healthcare system. Audiophiles now have endless hours of locally-made storytelling at their fingertips.

While data on podcast production and consumption in Ottawa is limited, JP Davidson of Ottawa podcast studio Pop Up Podcasting says 2021 was his busiest year yet.

But publishing a podcast comes with ethical considerations that can be difficult to navigate. Maintaining a podcast is also a labour-intensive process; many abandon the project after a handful of episodes. So why do some podcasters persevere?

Becca Atkinson is a local podcaster who has produced and published 35 episodes of her podcast “The Unashamed Alcoholic” since launching it in October 2020.

The busy mother and public servant created her show to counter the stigma of alcohol-use disorder and create the kind of community she wishes she had when she began sobriety.

Becca Atkinson. Photo provided.

Over a year into producing her show, she can churn out an episode in about four hours: “I don’t get nervous before [the interviews anymore],” she says. “[The guests] are not that different from me; they have way more money and they’re famous, but we have something in common… and that’s pretty cool!”

The popularity of her podcast took Atkinson by surprise. When she launched “The Unashamed Alcoholic,” she expected her mother and a couple of friends to listen. Now she has listeners from around the world. “When I see that someone in Japan downloaded this episode, it’s wild to me!” she says.

Although her subject matter is of global interest, her interviews with locals have been among her most popular. For example, the Doug Hempstead episode was one of the fastest to hit over 1,000 streams. In another recent episode that typifies her podcast’s impressive simplicity, Atkinson has a wide-ranging conversation with Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President of Carleton University, touching on everything from trauma to university culture.

Atkinson sees her podcast as a tool to reach people, rather than an art form. “My love for this is more having those conversations and getting the message out, rather than the form.”

By contrast, for Emma Labrosse Mitchell, podcasting is a form of storytelling and art. She launched her podcast “Beyond Black” in September 2021 and has published nine episodes so far.

“Beyond Black” is about active allyship in the anti-racism movement and is rooted in her lived experience, which makes for refreshingly candid conversations with her guests, including about racism in Ottawa.

“Part of why I decided to be so personal about it is that… it forces people to realize this is an actual person and those are their actual experiences. [Racism is] not these vague abstract concepts,” Labrosse Mitchell says.

Emma Labrosse Mitchell. Photo provided.

Topics range from growing up in suburbia to the responsibility White influencers have to use their platforms to combat racism, all rooted in the Canadian context. “In Canada there is still a problem with comparing ourselves, especially to the U.S.,” she says. “Racism doesn’t look the same [here] as it does in the U.S.”

Labrosse Mitchell aims to reach a specific audience to fill a gap. She says there are already many excellent podcasts unpacking the broader history of racism, such as Seeing White, Sandy and Nora Talk Politics, and the Canadaland series.

“My podcast is not a beginner level anti-racism podcast… it’s more for people who have already started their [anti-racism] journey and are ready to take on a more active role,” she says.

For Labrosse Mitchell, podcasting was a meaningful and deliberate choice. She says there is a lot of unseen and underestimated skill that goes into it: “I do think it’s an art. Especially if you want to create a mood or emotion, a recognizable feel.”

Ilyan Ferrer, an assistant professor in Carleton University’s faculty of social work and an expert on community radio and audio storytelling, says he’s not surprised that Ottawa’s podcasting scene is growing in popularity.

He says podcasts provide an intimacy between the storyteller and the listener and are a means of challenging dominant social narratives, because of their accessibility. “Part of the power of podcasts is that it offers a method to share oral stories that are outside of the mainstream,” Ferrer says.

That accessibility is important to Labrosse Mitchell as she navigates concussion recovery and confronts the inaccessibility of some media. She aims to make her content accessible by captioning her social media posts. In an ideal world, she would like her podcast to be fully transcribed in English and French.

Ferrer says the podcaster is not a neutral conduit for stories. “They are co-constructing the stories that are being presented,” through oral cues, asking follow-up questions, and the editing process. He recommends podcasters consider re-inviting guests to “disrupt the notion that once a story is told it’s …static.”

“That’s part of the double-edged sword of podcasting. Yes it’s widely accessible, and a lot of people are using it, but we don’t necessarily stop to consider: ‘What ethical responsibilities does [the podcaster] have?’ When you put stuff on the internet it exists in perpetuity. Does the podcaster have the responsibility to take down an episode if… [a guest later asks them to]?”

The challenge of relationship-building is something both Atkinson and Labrosse Mitchell have encountered. Atkinson says the hardest part is potential rejection by people she invites to be interviewed, although it doesn’t happen very often. “I shoot my shot anyways, because why not?” she says.

Thanks to this attitude, she has successfully landed professional athletes, reality TV stars, and local figures like Senator Patrick Brazeau.

Why keep going when producing a podcast can be so challenging? “I’ll do it for as long as I like doing it and that I feel that it’s not only a benefit to whomever is listening, but also to me,” says Atkinson.

With algorithms pushing us towards profit-driven media, Ottawa’s growing amateur podcast scene provides countless options for more mindful audio consumption.