#onpoli newsletter - What Steve Paikin wonders about podcasting

Steve Paikin weighs in on an issue he's been stewing about
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 02, 2019
Two men talk at a desk with microphones
Peter Bethlenfalvy invited Steve to his office to talk about his life outside Queen's Park

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Hello, #onpoli people, 

Steve Paikin here. With the guy who regularly writes these newsletters — Eric Bombicino — getting a well-deserved vacation, I’m pinch-hitting this week, with a chance to touch on an issue I’ve been stewing about.

Can I tell you one of the dirty little secrets about podcasting? We’re really not sure how many of you are listening to the #onpoli podcast. We know how many people download each episode. That we can count. But whether you listen to the episode after downloading it — that we really don’t know.

I presume there are ratings organizations that will charge you an arm and a leg to do a deep dive on the analytics and figure this stuff out for you. But at TVO, we’re very mindful of spending our limited resources intelligently, so that’s not on.

Instead, we rely on other ways to find out whether we’re having a positive impact with our work. So, we keep our eyes and ears open for those metrics. 

When it came time to interview Peter Bethlenfalvy, the president of the Treasury Board of cabinet, for the #onpoli podcast, he opened our conversation with a nice compliment. He said he’d listened to our episode in which we interviewed Vic Fedeli, who at the time was the finance minister, “and I learned all sorts of things about Vic I never knew.”

“I found that surprising,” he continued, “because I sit beside the guy in the legislature every day and yet there were so many things about him I didn’t know.” 

We appreciated that feedback, then proceeded to learn a whole lot of new things about Minister Bethlenfalvy. For instance, he told us that his mother and his godmother both left Hungary in 1944 — his mother came to Canada, while her best friend went to Venezuela, where she became a university professor. But after a long career, the friend has seen her pension become all but worthless because of Venezuela’s economic chaos. So that’s one of the major things that motivated Bethlenfalvy to get into politics — his fears that Ontario’s economic situation is deteriorating and putting us on a dangerous footing.

"These decisions we make today matter," he said.

Frankly, when I’m down at Queen’s Park or talking to others involved in provincial affairs, I get frequent and encouraging responses about the podcast. I guess that’s not surprising. After all, the podcast covers provincial politics, so if you work in that world, you’re more likely than not to be interested in the subject matter.

But one of the reasons we’re doing the #onpoli podcast is to try to attract people who aren’t already Queen’s Park watchers and get them more in touch with provincial affairs. We’d love to reach people who have only a cursory awareness of the people and issues that make Ontario politics fascinating and get them listening. We’d love it even more if people under the age of 50 subscribe and become regular listeners. Studies show the largest chunk of any current affairs audience are those over age 55

But how do we find out whether people are listening, or whether we’re making any headway with those less obvious audiences?

Dear reader, I have some hard information I can share on that front. And I have the Toronto Raptors to thank for it. 

Steve Paikin
Steve took to the streets after the Toronto Raptors clinched the NBA championship.

The night the Raptors won it all, I was at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto, attending the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s annual awards dinner. The organizers were smart enough to provide a bunch of big-screen televisions outside the ballroom, knowing that as soon as the event was over, people would need to find a place to watch what turned out to be the decisive Game 6 right away. (Truth be told, some of us didn’t wait for the event to end before we parked ourselves in front of those TVs. The championship was at stake, after all!)

As soon as the Raptors emerged victorious, my friend Elamin Abdelmahmoud (now of BuzzFeed, but previously a producer on The Agenda) walked over to me and said, “I’m going to Jurassic Park. You in?”

“Damned straight!” I said. And off we went.

If you participated in that celebration, you’ll know I’m not overstating it when I say it was one of the most memorable nights of our lives. The combination of a first NBA title for the Raps, and the first major sports title for Toronto in 26 years combined to inspire just a massive outpouring of joy.

When I hit the streets, something instantly became apparent. It seemed that 99 per cent of the people celebrating were half my age and younger. Of the tens of thousands of people I saw that night, there might have been five who were as old as I am. I’m not exaggerating.

Which made the next thing I’m about to tell you so gratifying. In the midst of this orgy of celebration, with people cheering, high-fiving, and recording it all on their smartphones, a young man saw me and said, “Hey, Steve, I’m loving the #onpoli podcast.”

My jaw dropped. I started laughing. This was possibly the last place in Ontario I expected anyone to mention the podcast. So I couldn’t resist doing a little deep-dive analytics myself.

I asked the fella how old he was and I think he said 27 or 28. Awesome, I thought. At least some young people are listening. Did he work at Queen’s Park? That would certainly explain why he listened.  Actually, no, he explained. He just wanted to know more about provincial affairs, had somehow heard about the podcast, and started listening. And what did he think of it?

“I love it,” he said. “Keep it up."

I assured him we would, and then stopped again to consider the odds of having that conversation amid the joyful chaos of the most massive sports celebration the country has ever seen. 

Man holding Toronto Raptors flag

Strangely enough, he wasn’t the only one. As I made my way from Jurassic Park north to Yonge and Dundas, many other people stopped me — yes, to mention The Agenda. (That makes sense: the show has been on the air for 13 years, after all.)

But several others mentioned the podcast, too, and how much they were enjoying it — and they were all in their 20s and 30s. Come to think of it, one was in his late teens, just starting university.

Of course, I can’t say that what I encountered was a scientifically conducted survey. But in a world where more than 700,000 podcasts are trying to find an audience, the fact that anyone had found our offering and enjoyed it was tremendously gratifying. The science behind public opinion research does suggest that if one person is watching, listening to, or reading something, they aren’t the only ones doing so, but rather are representative of a larger audience.

So, to come full circle here, I don’t know how many people are listening to the #onpoli podcast. But I know I got the shock of a lifetime to learn that at least some people, in the least likely circumstances, knew of it, were listening to it, and apparently were liking it.

That’s good to know, because over the next few weeks, we’re going to start recording episodes for our new season — which as you might imagine, will focus on the October federal election (naturally, through an Ontario lens).

’Cuz that’s what we do.

As always, if you have any feedback or story ideas for us, tweet at me at @spaikin, or at my co-host John Michael McGrath (@jm_mcgrath), or email us at onpolitics@tvo.org.

Looking forward to hearing from you online — or you can tell me in person at the next championship parade. I’m easy, either way.

Best,

Steve
#onpoli co-host

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