At Sparksheet we’re interested in the ways media are converging. You’re in the unique position of hosting a show about new media that used to be on the radio, but that’s now produced for a public television station. What’s that like?
It’s very confusing. I try to explain to people that it’s a TVO show that’s not on TV. It used to be a CBC radio show about the Internet, but now it’s an Internet show about the Internet. It’s taken a winding path, but at the core of it is a really dedicated audience that seems to keep growing in one way or another.
It’s an interesting tale amidst the chaos of the media upheaval. Search Engine was a traditional radio show and the on-air ratings were really good. But the podcast ratings were extraordinary.
The show was doing this interesting balancing act of explaining Internet culture to whoever might be listening to CBC radio on a weekday morning, which is a very different generation from the podcast audience.
At the time when it was cancelled, it was the most popular CBC podcast. But then, at the height of the show’s success, and amidst all the excitement of what the Internet is doing to media, the show was cancelled.
How did you maintain your audience after the radio show was cancelled?
I realized that the audience that had grown around the show was the most important asset that I had as a communicator. It just seemed like I had been building it up just to drive it off a cliff.
I think TVO made a really savvy calculation, which is rather than just come out of the blue and say “Here we are, this TV broadcaster is now online,” they realized there are existing, dedicated Web audiences. CBC had this audience and didn’t know what to do with it.
TVO saw an opportunity to instantly have a very dedicated, very active audience associated with a new program that fit with their brand ideals. I had to get on the last episode and say, “This show is not ending, you need to re-subscribe to a new feed,” and we were able to retain a significant portion of that audience.
And in the year that has passed since then, we were able to build it back up to where it was. Last I heard, there are about 50,000 people listening every week.
What’s your relationship like with TVO?
It’s a really interesting relationship; they acquire Search Engine and I produce it independently. They release it under their brand, but the copyright remains with me, and that allows me to release it under a Creative Commons license.
It’s funny, because I used be to working out of the CBC radio newsroom, surrounded by all these veteran journalists, and I would be interviewing these strange blogger type people out of their basements. And I’ve slowly become one of them.
Let’s talk about the idea of the journalist as brand. Would you say that we’re living in a world where the media outlet matters less than the personality, or brand behind the content?
I don’t think of myself as a brand. I’m not against the term, but I think it’s become a stand-in for people saying, “What are my values?” You’re really just talking about your reputation, what you stand for.
What the shift from CBC to TVO taught me is that the person who signs your cheques is important, but perhaps more important, especially if you’re a communicator, is your relationship to your audience.
You only have this one, consistent relationship and you have to be really careful not to do anything to betray that.
I think it’s about time to bring out the M word: monetization. How does Search Engine make money?
Well, it’s public broadcasting, or public webcasting, whatever you want to call it. That’s something that I take really seriously, that there is a decision in most countries in the world that some public money should go towards media that might otherwise not be created.
I don’t think it’s the only way to fund a program like ours, but what is unique about Search Engine is that we are a tech show that doesn’t talk about gadgets. There’s no obvious tie-in for a sponsor. There’s no specific discussion of this phone over that phone, and as a result it retains some autonomy.
There’s been some talk about finding new revenue streams. TVO does fundraising from their viewers and I would love to give that a shot. I know that podcasts like This American Life and Radio Lab have a lot of success doing text message donations.
When you’re talking about Web audiences, they’re used to donate buttons, and they understand that if you want to keep a show alive, five bucks is a pretty good deal.
You’re also a cartoonist and documentary filmmaker and have been working in media since you were a teenager. Do you see more or fewer opportunities to be creative – and get paid for it – than when you started out?
Way more. It always felt like these things were separate and distinct career paths and that unless you can make a full and complete living at one of them, you should just give it up completely.
Today, you can not only do a bunch of things, but your audience will probably move with you from one thing to the other, and you might be able to make a little bit of money at five different things.
I remember as a kid being terrified of being bored, of finding myself in a profession where I had to do the same thing every day, monotonously, and losing interest in it. I’m really inspired by the fact that that doesn’t have to happen anymore.