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Unless you’ve been completely tuned out for the last decade, you’ve probably at least heard of podcasts by now.

Based on information from the 2019 Canadian Podcast Listener — an extensive annual study of podcast media in Canada — nearly 11 million Canadians over the age of 18 listened to podcasts in 2018, and almost half of all Canadians over 18 have listened to podcasts at some point in their lives.

While the 2019 Canadian Podcast Listener survey indicates that Albertans might not be as dedicated listeners as their more metropolitan neighbours in Vancouver and Toronto, we are nonetheless keen content creators. There are 48 local podcasts listed on the Alberta Podcast Network, but as these are part of a sponsorship program with ATB Financial, they represent only a fraction of what is being produced in-province. From church sermons to crime dramas, sports analysis to science seminars, if there’s a topic you’re interested, we can almost guarantee there’s a podcast for it that’s made locally.

MacEwan University also has its own collection of podcasts. The Common Ground, which we featured online in October, explores narratives of hate, while Artful Conversations and Clock Radio focus on issues in the arts and culture sector, and campus matters, respectively. But not everything coming out of MacEwan is official to the university. One MacEwan student, Natalie Shaw, and University of Alberta instructor and PhD student Brent Saccucci, have been making their own podcast since the fall of 2019.

Their podcast, The Prairie Kweens, is marketed as an open dialogue between friends, with the goal of navigating topics at the forefront of millennial concern. The verbal chemistry between Shaw and Saccucci is immediately apparent, and their close relationship is ultimately what prompted the podcast’s production.

“Brent and I have been friends for years,” Shaw says, “and we’ve always had this running joke that we could be a reality TV show. As we got older, we got more interested in something that we could cultivate around Brent’s research and my interest in media and social studies.”

“There’s lots of people that I’d want to do a podcast with,” Saccucci notes, “however, I needed someone who could be (the person) I call to get this shit done because it’s going to take work.”

And it does. In addition to booking time at a recording booth at their local library and actually conducting the conversation which makes up the body of their episodes, there is also editing to be done and social media to be managed. Fortunately for The Prairie Kweens, Shaw is a savvy editor and has cultivated a dedicated international following through her personal social media, many of whom she says have joined the core group of listeners for the podcast.

“I think it’s really hard to gain traction when you have no real existence in social media, unfortunately,” Shaw says. “We do have an Instagram for the podcast but … (when we get feedback) it really flows through my business page.”

This is an important consideration for any would-be podcasters. Between them, Shaw and Saccucci have a substantial following — their combined Instagram followers clock in at 7,321 — and according to the Canadian Podcast Listener survey from 2018, that built-in social media audience is the second most popular way by which listeners discover new podcasts. Recommendations by family and friends are the first.

“Humour first, everything else second.”

— Natalie Shaw, co-host of The Prairie Kweens podcast

Even with their substantial social media presence, at the time of their interview, The Prairie Kweens podcast was only averaging 137 unique downloads per episode. It’s not an inconsiderable number, but for a podcast to be considered successful (read: lucrative), it needs to average 50,000 downloads, according to Jordan Harbringer, host of The Jordan Harbringer Show, and former host and co-founder of The Art of Charm podcast. For Harbringer, 50,000 downloads is the magic number not only because it indicates a stable audience, it’s also the minimum for landing a contract with a network, which then yields major ad revenue.

For now, though, Shaw and Saccucci are motivated more by creative desire than by capital. “It’s a passion project hobby,” Shaw says, and also something that might support their careers. “In applying for masters programs and in talking to professors who could refer me, I’ve asked them: Is a podcast a valid thing to put on my CV? And they’re like: Yes! One hundred per cent! Especially for creative writing stream programs. So I think that there’s a lot of really positive things that have come out of it for us already.”

Saccucci feels similarly. “I saw a really startling statistic,” he says, “that three to eight readers is the average for a peer-reviewed article. So on our podcast, having hundreds of listeners … that makes me think seriously about what my role is as a researcher and educator, and I think podcasting as a form of public pedagogy becomes important.”

“That’s kind of my goal in making time for (The Prairie Kweens),” Shaw continues, “it has to be worth it. It can’t just be Brent and I shooting the shit for an hour. I want people coming out from listening to have learned something, to feel strongly about something.”

When choosing just what their listeners might feel strongly about, Shaw and Saccucci used themselves as models. The first three episodes are predominantly rooted in the pair’s own personal experiences with adult friendships, work, and ending relationships. While the co-hosts acknowledge that these experiences might not be universal, they figured the topics were nonetheless generationally relatable, and would therefore automatically engage the “millennial malcontent” that Shaw and Saccucci have named as their target audience. “It’s our lived experience of the topics that listeners want to listen to,” says Saccucci, adding that, “The content matters to your life because you’re living it, as a millennial.”

As serious as some of their considerations have been for the podcast, neither Shaw nor Saccucci want it to be a straight-faced production. “That’s also always been at the centre of our friendship: humour first, everything else second,” Shaw says.“We are bringing that. We’re not sitting down seriously with a cup of tea talking about stuff in a textbook way.”

It’s a wise choice. Comedy is the number-one ranking podcast genre for both male and female listeners, according to the 2018 Canadian Podcast Listener survey.

There is, however, a downside to something as subjective as comedy. While Shaw and Saccucci draft a skeleton script for each episode and focus on a culturally relevant point, their conversations can veer off-topic and become “kind of obnoxious… politically incorrect … (and) vulgar” according to Shaw — as happens in the fifth episode when Saccucci asks Shaw and their guest host to estimate the size of Jason Kenney’s erect penis.

“I think we really try to bring that (humour) onto the podcast, but we do monitor it a bit in order to make it accessible to other people because before we edit, it’s like the Brent and Nat show. We edit a lot, I’ll say that much,” says Shaw.

Saccucci claims that the choice of leaving such comments in the final version of the episode is done out of “an effort to put public who you are in private with your best friend,” and this is in keeping with The Prairie Kweens’ description as “raw, authentic conversation.” The authenticity of Shaw and Saccucci’s easy rapport is undeniable, but just how raw the conversation can get is sometimes a point of concern for both co-hosts.

“I am (worried), personally,” admits Shaw. “I don’t know what I’m doing after my degree. One of my options is doing an after-degree in education, but I think I could probably never be a teacher while I was doing a podcast like this. Maybe it would be something in my past that I address in my interview.”

While Saccucci’s own experience within the field of education has been more permissive, he too wonders what kind of consequences may arise from the podcast. “I’m not against Jordan Peter- son and other really detrimental free speech activists,” Saccucci says, “but I don’t want to become a part of something where I just say things to say them. Like, there are just certain things that you can’t say and that you shouldn’t say, and I always wonder where I am on that line. It’s often people who think they’re on the right side of that line saying the wrong thing.”

“I would rather say something than not say it, a lot of the time,” Shaw adds, noting that when she listens to other podcasts, she appreciates when hosts and guests are able to openly express issues that they may struggle with or be ignorant of.

Though podcasts don’t allow for the same kind of audience engagement as radio, Shaw and Saccucci’s content and delivery is likely to stir up conversation, which is ultimately all part of the goal. You can listen to The Prairie Kweens on Apple Pod- casts and Libsyn. 

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