During the June finale of Search Engine, listeners learned the radio program had been cancelled. Sort of. The show, which launched in September 2007 on CBC Radio One and focused on the effect of technology in public life, would now air exclusively on the web. And instead of a team producing the program, host Jesse Brown would manage most of the podcast in his PJs at home.
The logic was that CBC liked the show—which presented such stories as a look inside the unregulated online casinos hosted at the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve near Montreal and an interview with a Chinese blogger whose site had been shut down 48 times—so much it wanted Brown to bring these types of stories to programs with wider audiences, such as The Point, Metro Morning and The Sunday Edition. But that left Search Engine‘s audience wondering if the show would survive without the resources of a radio program.
The RRJ Online talked with Brown about working solo, integrating his audience, and why he “lost his shit” on air.
On how the changes have affected the program…; and Brown:
It’s much more fly by the seat of my pants. It’s Wednesday today, I have no idea what’s going to be on Monday’s podcast. When I was on FM radio, it really felt like we were a team of producers and journalists working at the CBC like any other radio team— working in this professional big corporation, working with studios, working with technicians, and talking to weirdos in their basements sitting by their computers. Well this year, I don’t have a team, I don’t have a lot of clout to fight for studio time, I’m working on Pro Tools, I go into the office about three times a week, for about 12 to 15 hours. I’ve become a weird guy sitting at home on the internet.
On Search Engine leaving the radio waves:
I knew the show wasn’t coming back. If CBC didn’t bring classical music back, after the kind of response it got for the changes to Radio 2, Search Engine wasn’t coming back to FM radio.
If I didn’t feel there was a chance of doing this stuff well, then I wouldn’t have taken the job and I wouldn’t have told my audience to work with me on it. So [I asked] “is there a legitimate commitment to these issues on the part of the network?” And I was told that there was, and I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so far the will has been there to get these stories on the air. It really depends on the listener’s point of view. My listeners are getting less of a show than they used to. There’s no way of mitigating that. But, they’re getting more attention and audience for the issues they care about.
On the audience as a producer of the show:
There are so many ways that the audience makes the show better, and especially now that I don’t have a team. It almost feels as if the audience has taken that role up.
They’re not just pitching me stories, at this point the majority of the stories come from the audience, but they’re furthering the accuracy of those stories, my ability to find new voices. I don’t think it’s a shocker to anyone that CBC has a Rolodex of pundits who you will hear again and again and again and again on every show. And I don’t know that you heard one of them—maybe with the exception of Michael Geist—on Search Engine. We were always finding interesting people to talk to who hadn’t done a lot of media before. That meant speaking to a lot of bloggers who didn’t have the greatest verbal skills, but on the whole it made the show feel very different.
On experts in the audience:
On any given topic, anything that I’m talking about, somebody in the audience is much smarter than me. And my job is to be kind of a general source and filter of just discussion and information and editorial, but it’s a little daunting whenever I get on the microphone to know that somebody is listening to this is and going “That’s not quite right.” And I think if I have anything to say to the journalistic profession as a whole, it’s that we need to integrate those voices more and work with our audiences more. I think people get that finally.
It took a lot of job cuts and a lot of newspapers going out of business for people to get that. I think people are warily moving into it. I don’t think you can do too much, but I fear that if you do integration the wrong way it’s unwise. “Okay, now it’s the news by you! Send in your news, we don’t matter anymore it’s all about you!” And it falls flat and it feels very false, because people don’t need a news network to give them a platform. They have a platform: it’s called the Internet.
So really the onus is on us to prove to the public where we fit in. And I think that’s where it’s like “tell us the stories that matter to you most, we’ll do the leg work.” We’ll bring your pet issues to a wider audience if we think that they’re newsworthy.
On respecting audience feedback:
One week, I spazzed out on the air. I keep getting hammered on grammar and pronunciation stuff. I was having fun with the story, I was only sort of half annoyed and half amused, but with the level of mania the audience has with this kind of stuff, I kinda lost my shit and I was like “Enough, Enough!” And afterwards I was listening to the show the next day and I thought I sounded really harsh.
It felt as if I had hurt my friend’s feelings. There was this guy who had sent in some audio tape, and I wrote him back and I said listen I think I went too far. I’m forced to respect my audience because if I don’t, they’ll call me on it. And if I don’t have that back and forth, the goose is cooked.
Listen to journalist Daniel Kaszor speak about his experiences writing “Solo Mission” on the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Podcast