The first snowstorm of 2005 can’t stop Alex from speaking his mind. He enters the Speakers Corner booth on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto for the 10th time since Boxing Day. Alex puts a dollar in nickels and dimes into the slot and talks for the full two minutes allotted, responding to the reenactment of a Toronto break in he watched on the news the night before. After a nonsensical rant about Degrassi High and his nonexistent sex life, Alex finally makes his point loud and clear. “Instead of getting kids to reenact crimes, get them into community centres.”
Alex emerges, soaking wet, from the booth’s seat, and tells me he spent $250 on Speakers Corner in the last year alone. But when the show airs – Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Mondays at 11:35 p.m. – he doesn’t watch. “I come here to hear my own voice,” he says monotonously. “I’m real lonely and just want to talk to someone.”
As I watch him trudge away through the snow, I’m prompted to put my own dollar into the slot. It will go to the Chumcharitable foundation, an umbrella organization that donates to various causes. After a shameless promotion of this article, I tell Toronto what I just told you. And when my ramblings appear on television two weeks later, I immediately appreciate the booth.
By celebrating the cornerstone of Canadian democracy – our right to free speech – Speakers Corner gives a voice to the voiceless. The CityTV production prides itself on being the original reality show, encouraging Canadians to speak their minds about Canadian issues. “TV stations are always broadcasting out to people,” associate-producer Paul March says. “We allow people to broadcast in.” Speakers Corner is participatory democracy at its finest.
But giving power to the people is nothing new. CityTV named Speakers Corner after a public-discussion forum originating in London’s Hyde Park. The open space in England’s capital city has reserved a place for public powwows for centuries. Home of the infamous Tyburn hanging tree, this symbol of democratic discourse played host to orators such as George Orwell, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, and later became a suffragette meeting spot. Today, the royal park allows tens of thousands of ordinary citizens yearly to participate in open debate. Standing beneath the Marble Arch, the masses exercise their right to free speech, spouting controversial views atop soapboxes day in and day out.
Moses Znaimer, a cofounder of CityTV, brought the soapbox to Canadian television 15 years ago. He recognized the importance of letters to the editor and dreamed of an electronic editorial page for his station. Znaimer had involved the public in local programming ever since MuchMusic and the news were all that composed the CityTV empire. The original Speakers Corner asked Torontonians for feedback on the biggest news stories of the day, with responses appearing at the end of City’s nightly news broadcast. But Znaimer wanted more. He asked Peter Whittington – CityTV’s creative director, in charge of on-air promotions at the time – to compile the Speakers Corner footage into a half-hour pilot. Whittington divided the responses into 10 categories, from politics to relationships, opening each segment with a black-and-white comedic scene. The show’s essence remained. “Speakers Corner is true to itself. There’s no varnish on it,” Whittington says. “It’s right off the street and onto television.” A month later, Speakers Corner, as we know it, was born.
Since the first show aired, Speakers Corner has expanded across the globe. CityTV has added Vancouverand Victoria, British Columbia, and Ottawa, London, and Windsor, Ontario to its roster. Mobile booths are sent across Canada to community, cultural, and newsworthy events. Alberta’s variation of the show, Speaker’s Corner Alberta, was launched on Thanksgiving 2003. Like Toronto’s original show, the CHUM conglomerate and Access Media Group production is question-based. “This is your chance, no matter who you are or what you do, to make a difference,” says Jesse McLeod, the producer of Speaker’s Corner Alberta.
And North America isn’t the only place committed to making a difference. City has recently announced the newest addition to the Speakers Corner family – a booth in Bogot?, Colombia’s public square.
“Speakers Corner empowers people who are powerless without it,” says Whittington, the eyes and ears behind Toronto’s show. “They come out and say it when they want something done. The mayor isn’t about to make changes because he heard it on Speakers Corner, but it’s a grassroots movement adding fuel to the fire.”
In fact, Whittington may underestimate the power of the booth – our country’s prime ministers seem to have caught on to Speakers Corner’s potential political influence. Both Jean Chr?tien and Kim Campbell, during the 2000 federal election campaign, stopped by the show to urge Canadians to vote. Whittington explains why this mainly citizen-run forum has such a wide appeal. “In an age when people mistrust the media and politicians, people trust their fellow citizens more than anyone else,” he says.
Whittington adds that any news story promotes a civic response, but it takes about a week for people to get passionate enough to bring their views to the masses. It took even longer for people to respond to the tsunami crisis, but on Saturday, January 8, an entire segment was dedicated to the deluge of reactions.
By providing an open forum for the public, Speakers Corner prides itself on making celebrities out of common citizens. Speaker’s Corner Alberta ends each show with ordinary folk showing off their best dance moves, and The Barenaked Ladies, The Devil’s Advocates, and Scott Speedman made their debuts in the Queen Street booth. (Toronto also boasts star appearances by Mike Myers and Sam Roberts, while Nelly Furtado, Choclair, Michael Bubl?, and Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm performed in front of Speaker’s Corner Alberta’s camera at the 2004 Junos.)
Speakers Corner lures regular contributors like flies, and these regulars incite viewers to tune in each week. Toronto’s Jason Sensation became a familiar face after starting his Soul Mate Search on Speakers Corner in the summer of 2004. When I saw him strolling along Queen Street with a young lady, I knew his search had ended. But he still appears on the show week after week to promote wrestling in Welland. “I just love seeing myself on TV,” he says.
Those who watch the show – 18-to-35-year-olds and a good number of children and seniors – know that, like celebrities, ordinary people don’t say the most intelligent things. “Our regulars often speak with conviction on things that are completely inaccurate,” McLeod of Speaker’s Corner Alberta says. “It’s very editorial, but a columnist or anchor wouldn’t get the facts wrong.” Lesley Thompson, McLeod’s production assistant, agrees. She compares the regulars to bloggers: “It’s a visual blog via television, where people talk about whatever they feel like,” she says.
But that’s not the only way Speakers Corner can be likened to a blog – the show can now also be found online. The website provides clips from previous shows, a discussion board where fans can chat, and a comments sections that promises to “post the best of the best right here, for the entire world to see!”
The show?s most recent addition, Speakers Corner text messaging, allows viewers to have their say from the comfort of home. For 50 cents a pop, anyone anywhere can dial 24724 from a cell phone and the message appears on screen almost immediately.
Still, Speakers Corner thrives on its local content and local audience. “The broad spectrum of people watching us and contributing to us gives the show a hometown, historical, old-world flavour,” Toronto Speakers Corner-producer-and-director Paula Virany says. Years ago, Whittington tells me, there was talk of integrating the local Speakers Corner to the national level. “But it never went anywhere,” he says, “because the essence of the thing is local.”
Speakers Corner is a place where the community reigns as king and the everyman has his say. People like Alex gain a voice on this lonely planet, while others spread their views to anyone who cares to listen. Still others take over their TV sets in an act of liberation. “How would these people ever get their message out otherwise?” says Tamara Poirier, the associate producer of Speakers Corner Vancouver. “You say your piece and the city hears what you have to say almost immediately. It’s amazing.”