Podcast To The Working Class

Scott McWhinnie and The Labour Show

Most days Scott McWhinnie can be found doing his electrician's job at the University of Guelph, roaming the southern Ontario campus doing urgent repairs and general maintenance. Sometimes, if you're a trade unionist in the strip along Ontario's 401 highway west of Toronto, you may hear McWhinnie's bass lines in the music of Rebel Girl, the band he's part of. It specializes in Wobblie tunes at union gigs.

McWhinnie, a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1334, also has other, more conventional, pastimes, though he puts them to unconventional use. "I also play golf to annoy elitist corporate types. My people invented it so it's in the blood," he says with a chuckle, referring to his father, who grew up in Scotland.

"My father grew up in a mining village but became an auto mechanic, which was his ticket out," says McWhinnie. "My mother was the youngest of 10 in a family of tenant farmers. These origins imbued me with a working-class sensibility that is a part of me at a genetic level. It gets passed on."

"I grew up in the shadow of Lakeview Generating Station, near Toronto," says McWhinnie. "Industry loomed large over my childhood. Many neighbours worked at Goodyear, Pittsburg Paints and other plants in Etobicoke, near Toronto. "My first summer job was putting the ends on concrete reinforcing rods for $4 an hour. I was 15. I worked a metal press that was five centimetres from my fingers, with a shaky plexiglass guard. Some older co-workers were missing at least one digit. I started drinking coffee to stay alert. The rod ends burnt my arms a few times; it was like being branded. I still have one lingering scar. There was no hearing protection at first, and it was hotter than hell. That leaves an impression."

These days, every couple of weeks or so McWhinnie pursues another passion, putting his media-mogul top hat on and using his working-class sensibility to produce and host another episode of The Labour Show, a podcast.

If you're not one of the hundreds of listeners who have subscribed to the show, let me explain: it's an audio podcast: an audio file that can be fired across the Internet from a host computer to a remote. From there it can be played using any number of free players, or copied to an MP3 player like the ubiquitous iPod, and played back for your listening enjoyment at the gym, on the bus, or during a long drive or flight. What differentiates a pod from any old MP3 file is that MP3 files are usually music, while a podcast is more like audio newspapers or radio shows, with flexible playback times. Plus podcasts can be subscribed to. New editions of your favourites arrive each morning or week.

McWhinnie was first employed at the University of Guelph as an agricultural researcher, in the Cropping Systems lab. He loved the work but cutbacks continually threatened it and so he migrated into an apprenticeship as an electrician. Still, the agriculture gig wasn't a total loss for McWhinnie, who worked for years on farms before coming to the university. "I grow specialty potatoes and field crops in an urban setting to try and maintain my aggie skills," says McWhinnie, who, like so many of those he grew up with, is an advocate of local food. "People in my hood have been doing it for 100 years. But I wish more people would take it up."

In 2003 Guelph's community radio station, CFRU 93.3 FM, was looking for a sound editor. McWhinnie wanted to get involved in the station, and was looking for an off-air slot. Being an urban farmer electrician trade unionist, with a bass in one hand and a golf club in the other, apparently wasn't enough.

"It was a bit of a fluke," says McWhinnie. "I started as an editor when Janice Folk-Dawson and Terry O'Connor started The Labour Show as a broadcast show." (Folk-Dawson is now president of McWhinnie's union local, as well as chair of CUPE Ontario's University Workers' Coordinating Committee. O'Connor is president of the Guelph and District Labour Council and a member of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union Local 244.)

McWhinnie's role in the show's production expanded regularly. A campus-based community station, CFRU depends a great deal on students who graduate and move on, and for labour-related shows they depend specifically on union members, who tend to disappear into bargaining on a regular basis, or move into more time-consuming positions in their local unions.

Not long after coming on board as an editor, McWhinnie was news-gathering for The Labour Show. Even while the show was still a broadcast rather than a podcast, the Internet had an important role in the show's production.

"Local labour news came to us. The labour council and the area NDP riding associations were good sources, plus we'd get media releases and CDs directly from area unions and labour musicians. There were a lot of stories not making the news in the mainstream media. I'd find material for short items about national and international stories on union websites or by trolling through LabourStart."

As well, The Labour Show became a focal point for the angry voices of laid-off workers. "It was almost as if the town was shutting down as the show went on," says McWhinnie. "Shutdowns were happening all over." The show became a call-in favourite for workers looking for a place to vent their frustrations about what was being done to them. And there was lots to be frustrated about in Guelph. "Within a few years," says McWhinnie, "we lost Imperial Tobacco (550 jobs), ABB transformer left (280 jobs), and there was the Collins and Aikman auto parts plant (500 jobs), Engel Canada (225 jobs), Plant #2 at WC Woods (200 jobs), among other smaller firms. Almost the entire manufacturing heart of Guelph was being ripped out and everybody at a government level was just throwing up their hands and blaming each other, the dollar, China, the price of fuel, blah blah blah. "They were mostly unionized firms, too."

By 2006 McWhinnie was alone at The Labour Show. By February 2008 the CFRU board had eliminated the spoken word department so McWhinnie was looking for an alternative to CFRU's transmitter to get the show out and he was thinking podcast. "I knew what a podcast was, but not much more," he says, "I certainly knew nothing about producing and distributing one." But he was pretty sure he wanted to give it a try.

Pulling together the equipment needed to make the move to podcasting the show didn't take long. The software McWhinnie uses is an open source freebie called Audacity (see www.audacity.sourceforge.net). McWhinnie taught himself to use it, but makes the learning curve sound pretty straight-forward. Having some sound editing experience probably helps, he says, but Audacity is plenty user-friendly.

It didn't take much hardware to get started, though here McWhinnie ran into more problems than he had with the software. "The built-in mike in my Mac made me sound like Lorne Greene in his CBC days: the Voice of Doom.'" Less than $30 bought a replacement mike and The Labour Show was ready to pod. Harder to find was a portable MP3 recorder for out-of-studio interviews that worked properly with McWhinnie's Mac (Windows- compatible recorders are much easier to find).

One big chunk of the podcasting equation was easy to solve: the progressive, interactive website rabble.ca offered to host The Labour Show as part of its podcast network. This means that when McWhinnie finishes a show he simply sends it off to the good folks at rabble.ca, who file it away in their webspace and make it available directly off rabble.ca. All McWhinnie had to do is register it with iTunes, Apple's hugely popular podcast (and other stuff) online service. This leaves McWhinnie free to concentrate on producing new shows.

Episodes from The Labour Show now posted online include an interview with labour historian Craig Heron, by Erinn White, on the history of the Canadian labour movement. And English musician Billy Bragg speaks with McWhinnie about labour, politics, and music. These are just some examples.

"rabble.ca takes care of all the hosting and distribution," says McWhinnie. "I wouldn't know how to do any of that and, thanks to them, I don't need to learn."

"The most difficult thing about the podcast is finding the time to do it," says McWhinnie. "When I was on the air it was a go at 18:00 on a Wednesday no matter what material I had. Now that there is no deadline per se sometimes it gets put aside. I am glad there is a team evolving now so it isn't always just me."

"The best part is helping keep community journalism alive when it is clearly on the decline, at least in North America, and trying to cover the stories that the big media guns could care less about." Stories from a worker's point of view.

"Plant closures are generally covered as business news, not community news," says McWhinnie, "and strikers are portrayed as spoiled whining babies, with no one digging deeper into the big picture for perspective and insight. I always tell union critics, Well, do you like the 40-hour week, and weekends off, and eight-hour days?' That is all the product of those who went before and fought for the rights of working people. Things that many of us take completely for granted. Things that the vast majority of the workers in the world don't have and that we are at great risk of losing here. It is a continual fight."

"There are well-known voices of the people out there such as Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow.org, and filmmaker Ken Loach. But if a few more voices can chime in and reach 500 people every couple of weeks from a truly grassroots shoestring situation, then that is a success. The failure is that it is exclusive to people who have access to personal computers, which is a tiny minority of the world's population."

If labour podcasting in general has a future, what about The Labour Show itself? McWhinnie is cautiously ambitious (after all, he has a day job, too). "We started at one podcast every two weeks, and I'd like to do more. I'd like to see us do more than interviews: get volunteer reporters with recorders out there covering events. And it would be great to have workers across the country producing small personal documentaries like the ones done on CBC's Out Front."

McWhinnie's commitment to The Labour Show goes beyond his personal investment of time and energy. He's convinced that the show can make a real contribution to working-class and community organizing.

"I want to help working people realise that they have a helluva lot of power when they work together and that they are not alone in their struggle to make a living. It is a global reality and we have to build links to achieve success, whether is it by radio, Internet, newspaper, word of mouth, books, or a good old hand-written letter."

I asked Scott McWhinnie how podding was working for The Labour Show after six months online, and what conclusions he'd come to that might help other trade unionists in deciding whether a podcast would be a useful tool for them. Here is some of his feedback.

* The technology isn't something most union activists would be familiar with. But it is growing simpler and simpler, and there are sites like rabble.ca and commercial hosting sites that can carry a lot of the load.
* Content volume can be problem. Ideally, for The Labour Show, McWhinnie would like to have a small army of volunteer reporters across the country with MP3 recorders. Right now he relies on Erinn White (CUPE Local 1281) and Maria Olaya, a Spanish-speaking community-based journalist.
* McWhinnie thinks there's an age line with this technology. "You say podcast' and they say, whaaaaaaaaaa?' I produce a podcast, but I can remember buying records and tapes. But change
is just a matter of time."

* It's cheap but with high-quality results.
* The equipment and software is easy to use.
* There aren't the same constraints (tight time slots, etc.) as there are in radio and TV.
* It appeals to an audience unions are struggling to reach (youth).
* Compared to radio, better audience numbers are possible because people can listen to a podcast at their convenience and not just at set times.
* It has the potential to become a democratic medium, with large numbers of volunteer rank-and-file member- reporters e-mailing in segments of shows.
* And just to repeat: It's cheap but with high-quality results. Really.

Public broadcasters like the CBC are among the most prolific producers of podcasts. Their radio shows can go straight to pod not long after, or even before, broadcast without any worries about sponsor reaction. unlike commercial broadcasters who worry that listeners will skip over commercials. The next most prolific pod producers are the straight-to-pod crowd, many of whom are basement podders, producing pods about everything from films to model airplane building to stand-up comedy.

Union pods are few and far between. The Spark, produced by the electricians' union in Australia, lasted about two-and-a-half years. It was a fun show but went under as the host couldn't continue to put the required time in. Most of the union-friendly content you'll find amongst the pods is a repackaging of community radio shows. This is a shame really, since an MP3 recorder and a computer can make a journalist out of any of us.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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