Life / Technology

Why Canadian podcasters are being drowned out by American offerings

Canuck audio shows on the web are world-class. But making money — and getting noticed — is an uphill climb

Self-taught podcaster Hannah McGregor is wrapping up Witch, Please, a Harry Potter-themed program, and planning to start a new podcast soon.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Self-taught podcaster Hannah McGregor is wrapping up Witch, Please, a Harry Potter-themed program, and planning to start a new podcast soon.

When they see a new episode of Witch, Please in their podcast feeds and hear those familiar owl hoots, listeners know they can settle in for another hour or more of Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman’s funny, feminist banter on the Harry Potter series.

The Edmonton-based podcast hosts have passion, 3,000 listeners and a lively program. What they lack is any reliable way to make money from their work.

Despite a few breakout successes, like the media-criticism show Canadaland and its spinoffs, the Canadian podcasting industry is in its infancy and dominated by repackaged radio shows. The format — audio content delivered via digital syndication — has been around for more than a decade.

“I listen to almost no Canadian (podcasts), because they usually feel like edited radio,” McGregor said.

Podcasts, at their best, share features with great radio: Important stories with high production values and a reliable release schedule. But the two forms are not synonymous.

“The pleasures of podcasting have to do with the intimacy of the audience,” McGregor said. “You feel like ... a  specialized community of friends. Radio, because it’s supposed to speak to the nation, doesn’t really work in the same way.”

Only one of the top ten podcasts on the Canadian iTunes charts is Canadian: Love Me, a web-only CBC program that recently wrapped its first season with no plans yet to renew.

That 1-to-10 ratio is “expected,” said Lori Beckstead, a professor of digital media at Ryerson University who teaches a course on podcasting.

Canada is a small media market, and unlike TV or radio creators, podcasters aren’t protected by Canadian-content rules. At present there’s no Canada Council for the Arts grant for podcasts.

To have a hope of amassing enough listeners to make money, podcasters need “an existing personal or business brand, or a niche topic that isn’t serving audiences already out there,” Beckstead said. “If you are just an average Joe or Josephine, it is a tough, tough uphill slog.”  

Canada doesn’t have anything like the U.S. media companies that incubate, promote, and solicit ads specifically for podcasts, like Panoply, Radiotopia, Gimlet Media and the Maximum Fun Network, among others.

Some companies do sponsor podcasters in exchange for on-air ads. It can be quite lucrative, but it's not feasible without a large audience.

McGregor said when she looked into it, given their listener metrics, putting a sponsor break in every biweekly episode of Witch, Please would bring in $15 to $20 per month.

Patreon, a virtual tip-jar for artists, is “the only viable way to make money off a podcast in Canada,” she said.

Kaitlin Prest knows that reality all too well. In 2008, when she became the host of The Heart, an audio program about sex and relationships, it was still a show on university radio in Montreal called Audio Smut. It became an independent podcast based in New York City when Prest moved there in 2012.

“In Canada, it felt like you work at the CBC or you don’t do radio,” Prest said. CBC jobs weren't open to her as a non-journalist. Community radio didn't cut it either: It didn’t provide a path to create a profitable business or a polished sound.

“I needed an editor, I needed an engineer, someone to fix the show and make it sound good. Those were things I had to learn all by myself,” Prest said.  

In New York, she found those resources, and a community of independent audio storytellers. Radiotopia picked up The Heart in 2014; investing $24,000, she said.

Kaitlin Prest, the Canadian host and creative director of The Heart, a successful, NYC-based podcast, feels conflicted that her program took off when she moved stateside.

Contributed

Kaitlin Prest, the Canadian host and creative director of The Heart, a successful, NYC-based podcast, feels conflicted that her program took off when she moved stateside. "I believe in Canadian media. I believe in public media. I felt like a traitor," she said.

Canada has podcast networks, but they’re not throwing around that kind of money.

A notable one is the Toronto-based Never Sleeps Network, which founder Alex Ross describes as an “artists’ commune.” Members share the costs of running a small studio, and don’t have sponsors. But what they’re building — a base of devoted listeners with a variety of niche interests — is worth money, Ross said.

“I have every comic book nerd in Toronto at my fingertips. Hobbies are the best ways to connect people,” Ross said.

“Successful podcast networks are just floating,” he added. “If one company was smart enough, they’d scoop us all up.”

For now, Canadian podcasting is a labour of love.

“Success in Canada looks a lot different than in other countries. If we’re getting up in the morning and going to the studio instead of our (jobs), that’s success. If I can pay my bills, that’s complete success," Ross said.

Get listening  

Did you know Metro has some new podcasts of its own, with more on the way? Click here to listen.

A hilarious but rigorous show about the fastest-growing pop-culture phenomenon in the world: competitive video-gaming. Every week hosts Colin, Kevin and Samantha bring you the latest news and views from the world of eSports.

Nth Wave: A podcast a about women and the media

Every week Metro’s national columnist Rosemary Westwood sits down with a female guest to discuss what it’s like to be a woman working in, engaging with, and being covered by the North American media.

More stuff

Here's a partial list of other Canadian podcasts (and their subject matter) that Metro readers have told us are worth checking out:  

Sick Boy (Living with illness)  

Ottawhat (A satire of life in the nation's capital)

Metis in Space (Two indigenous fans' take on sci-fi)

The Work Report (Comedian Matt Wright interviews artists)

Pet Sounds (Human/animal friendship)

The Night Time (Haunted places and creepy happenings in the Maritimes)

First Day Back (Life after maternity leave)

Speech bubble (Comic books)

Taggart and Torrens (Music, pop culture and funny stuff)

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