Telling stories: U of T scholar discovers new role as radio host

In a new radio show, university professor Minelle Mahtani is creating a space where fellow researchers feel respected, honoured, and heard.

“And the weather today—well, it’s another rainy one, Vancouver—6 degrees in the city, with more rain anticipated for tomorrow. For more information, go to roundhouseradio.com…”

I still smile when I hear myself rattle off the temperature on-air these days. It’s one thing to lecture three hundred students intently staring at you as you stand at the podium in an auditorium, but it’s another experience entirely to sit in front of a microphone, banter with the news anchor, repeat time codes, and sit mere metres away from a stranger while having your intimate conversation broadcast across town. How did this happen?

I find myself in unusual territory this year, hosting a daily current affairs show at a commercial radio station in Vancouver. I am on leave from my job as a tenured journalism and geography professor as I try to complete some academic projects. I have worked in journalism before, as a former television hack from the world of national television news, but radio is an entirely new medium for me.

I had heard through the grapevine that a new radio station was opening in town—one that wanted to try something altogether different. It wanted to capture community voices and approach questions of social disparity through a more critical and constructive lens. The station is the brainchild of Roundhouse Radio’s CEO Don Shafer, who dreamed of offering Vancouverites radio that could best be defined by the tag line: Our City, Your Voice. Somewhere in scanning the city landscape for a host for their mid-morning show, Roundhouse Radio approached me out of the blue.

When they called me, I honestly thought, who are they kidding? I have no radio background! Plus, I have to get these three articles done and that book review. But I was intrigued. I cobbled together a short, and admittedly amateurish, audition reel using voice memos on my iPhone.

Next thing I knew, I was hired. Great!

But I also remember feeling, uh-oh. Now what?

After the initial exhilaration wound down, I realized what I was up against. Throw together a two-hour radio show daily, I was told. You choose the theme, the content, the approach. I would be on air at the same time as the vaunted Q on CBC. I shook my head to myself. No pressure!

In some ways, it was a dream come true, a role that many academics would covet. I found it ironic that I would be in front of a mic, when I had spent so much of my career behind it as a producer, happily helping other hosts shine. I had never wanted to be in the public eye as a TV reporter, nor as a host. But there was something about this opportunity that appealed to me. It would give me a chance to consider how I could amplify the voices of other academics, and act as a conduit for their voices to be heard.

Knowledge mobilization and knowledge transfer have become ubiquitous and almost vacuously bandied-about terms in the academy. Granting bodies like SSHRC require that researchers seek out innovative methods to disseminate research. Unfortunately, the practice is often riddled with problems.

I was struck by my colleagues’ disillusionment with the often-dismal experience of engaging various media to attempt and get word out about their research. Most of them dread media interviews. I don’t want to dismiss the opportunities we now have at our fingertips to produce podcasts and wrest agency to mobilize knowledge (as witnessed through the productive energetic force of social media vehicles like Twitter). I had noticed that too many of my researcher friends had at least one bad media experience that stuck with them (admittedly, they do make for great cocktail party conversation). Either the interviewer had not read the book, resulting in a superficial interview, or posed inane questions that only served to reinforce a repetitive narrative the interviewee was trying to quell. Or the interviewer just entirely missed the point of the research. It made the researchers shirk away from other media opportunities.

I wanted my show to create a space where fellow researchers felt respected, honoured, and heard. I also wanted to create a show that would appeal to listeners like me. I am a critical race geography scholar who focuses on matters of social justice. I kept thinking: what would an anti-racist and anti-colonial radio show look like?

I began by recognizing that journalism is no longer just about truth telling. It is, more than ever, about sense making. And one way we make sense of our world is by providing context. That sense-making, or presentation of context, is partly why I am a geographer. Nothing happens on the head of a pin—it happens in a place and it is my job to tell you where that place is. I knew I could most persuasively offer that deep context by telling stories about the communities we, as academics, work with, across, and in. That is why I called the show Sense of Place.

In dreaming about the possibility of Sense of Place, I wasn’t sure how to begin, but I sure knew what I didn’t want the show to be. I had already had too many frustrating experiences during my career as a journalist, where I witnessed decisions about representation made under the continuous rigid restraints of a racialized gendered hierarchy. Voices were ignored or discarded because of ongoing patterns of social and cultural capital, privilege, and power. Often, stories tended to legitimize hegemonic ideas. It is why sites of media intervention become critical to challenge the existing order.

Mainstream media representations tend to fall back on the repetitive dissemination of dominant ideas. This formula is accomplished through particular discursive strategies tabulated by media scholars like Yasmin Jiwani. These strategies include, but are not limited to absences, displacements, juxtapositions, stereotyping, inversions, and reversions, to name just a few of the more blatant maneuvers.

In framing an anti-colonial narrative, I wanted to ask how these dominant frames could be debunked and contested. Would it even be possible to shift or flip the gaze—to show the impact of the colonizers on the colonized by seeing it through the latter’s eyes? I would not embrace an objectivist or neutral perspective. At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism. I knew I had to embed these strategies through a focus on the specificities, experiences, identities, worldviews, and representations of the colonized. I specifically consider agency and capacity as means to make changes to reflect myriad struggles and realities.

At its heart, the show had to demonstrate the violence of colonialism.

We try to do our homework. We approach background research differently on Sense of Place by doing deep dives (as much as possible given the daily deadlines). We also try to bring academics together in conversation on Sense of Place. A core value of the show is encouraging connection across interdisciplinary divides. We try to look at the almost magical relationship that can occur between strangers who share passions and dreams. We bring together two or three academics who may never have met, but who are eager to meet and engage them in conversation with one another. We also rehearse this format with writers. For me, one of the most joyful moments on the show was when Orange Prize fiction winner Anne Michaels met Kyo Maclear, another best-selling author, on air. They had both known about each other, but had never met. The resulting conversation was mesmerizing.

We also talk about race beyond what is called “calendar journalism”—the focus on fun, food, and festivals as a way of celebrating ethnic snapshots of identity. We try to present racialized peoples as storytellers in their own right, to capture the magical modalities of how people connect. An example of this approach is when I invited Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke to speak with his mentee, Adebe DeRango-Adem, author of the beautiful book of poetry, Terra Incognita. It was important to capture those innovative partnerships, because relationships matter for me, on and off air, to not only build a connection with the guests and offer them a respectful, generous space to tell their stories, but also to provide a space where they can create relationships with others.

Another core value of Sense of Place is engaging and encouraging equity. I didn’t want the show to become the diversity show with mixed race Indian Iranian rainbow poster child, Minelle Mahtani. It had to move beyond diversity, or even inclusion. It had to be about equity. To that end, I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation, and where that conversation would be amplified.

I wanted to create spaces where scholars on race could come together for a conversation.

That has been the great surprise of Sense of Place for me —learning that the show is now played in lecture halls across the country because of the kinds of conversations in which we engage. In fact, I receive letters from professors around the country. Here’s a snippet from one of them:

“Sense of Place is an exceptional show that does what my research suggests is very uncommon: it connects quality academic work with public debate and audiences. Most academics are uninterested in or incapable of bridging their scholarship with public debate, and when this kind of work is done, it often consists of simplistic popularization or appeals to sensational current issues. Minelle Mahtani and her producers do an excellent job in choosing timely topics, bringing in thoughtful scholars, experts, cultural workers and activists, asking probing but unintrusive questions and putting together a show that is both entertaining and illuminating.”

So what’s next? We are going to launch Sense of Place Skool—a kind of book club for radio. Once a month, a scholar interviewed on the show will be invited to lead a seminar with listeners at our station. We have a wonderful space at Roundhouse that includes a large oak table, and we want to invite regular Sense of Place listeners to sit around it, and join us in doing a close read of an article by a scholar, an author, or guest. Together the interviewee and I will guide a facilitated conversation with our in-person listeners. I see it as a kind of graduate class for our listeners, and an opportunity to blur the spaces between experts and audiences.

And what have I learned? Well, I am no veteran broadcaster like Anna Maria Tremonti, that is for sure. I have a lot more to learn. I think I’m the most significant beneficiary of the show, given that I’ve now interviewed over a thousand guests and been privileged to hear their stories. I have watched as they wiped away tears, or laughed uproariously about events in their lives. I think it will shift how I teach in the classroom and how I engage with my colleagues. I am looking forward to bringing what I have learned back to the academy. In the meantime, I hope you will tune in. AM

Minelle Mahtani is an author, journalist and an Associate Professor of Human Geography and Planning, and Journalism at the University of Toronto-Scarborough.