These Canadian history nerds surpassed Oprah and This American Life with their podcast
A look inside the secret life of The Secret Life of Canada
Before The Secret Life of Canada podcast was released this past Labour Day long weekend, the show's producer Katie Jensen warned co-hosts and creators Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen that first-time podcasts often get no more than 100 listeners. At best, it's typical for more successful ventures to get 2000 downloads an episode.
"Katie prepared us that no one might listen," Falen remembers with a hearty laugh. "But you really learn to manage your expectations when you come from a theatre background. I'm going to make this thing and no one will come. It's going to be my one-woman show about my 20s in a black box theatre rolling around naked."
Leah, who like Falen, is a playwright, was just as casual. "I thought it would be like theatre. It's your friends and your family and six outsiders coming to see your show. You average 30 people a night and that's what you get."
But when the podcast, which aims to explore rarely told Canadian history, surpassed This American Life on the iTunes charts, Falen and Leah were anything but casual. They were over the moon.
It all began with their shared love of history. Armed with a variety of fun, quirky and tragic facts acquired from doing research for their theatre projects, they decided to create a podcast — only they didn't know how. Falen and Leah attended a free workshop hosted by Katie, which was focused on drawing more women and racialized folks into the podcasting industry.
I think the reason why it is so successful is because we are sorely lacking in the true stories of Canada throughout history. It's not that historians haven't done the work — many historians have. But what stories get chosen to be told again and again is very much a curated and colonial process.- Leah Simone Bowen, podcaster
"Katie really threw us into the deep end. She told us, 'You're going to record a 20-second teaser of your podcast and you're going to play it for everyone,'" Falen recalls. "We had to record in front of everyone and it sounded really bad because we couldn't figure out how to make the music play underneath it."
Despite their mishaps, they made quite an impression on Katie. She had been approached by Passport 2017's Matthew McKinnon to produce another podcast but quickly asked if The Secret Life of Canada could be produced instead. She emailed Falen and Leah with her interest, and three initial episodes were produced under this Canada 150 initiative.
The first episode, "The Secret Life of Banff," tells the untold history of this popular tourist destination, including the "Indian Days" where the Stoney-Nakoda tribe would be welcomed onto their stolen land once a year to be gawked at by white tourists. It is enraging and eye-opening, heartbreaking and necessary to listen to.
"I think the reason why it is so successful is because we are sorely lacking in the true stories of Canada throughout history," says Leah. "It's not that historians haven't done the work — many historians have. But what stories get chosen to be told again and again is very much a curated and colonial process. It is a positive marketing of how we want to think of ourselves as Canadians. We want to be good."
Due to the subject matters they approached, they hired a fact-checker and interviewed a variety of historians such as Charmaine Nelson and writers like Lawrence Hill to ensure their in-depth research was correct. "It's daunting because it's a ton of responsibility and we recognize that. Incorrect history has been put out into the world for so long that for us, especially as women of colour, we knew were going to be scrutinized in a different way. It has to be right, it can't be wrong — otherwise we are just continuing that vicious cycle," says Falen. Despite the pressure to deliver quality content, they added their signature humour. "This is heavy material but we wanted to make sure it was reachable. There needed to be lightness or people would just turn it off."
And people didn't turn it off. In fact, the show's first three episodes have been downloaded over 100,000 times.
"I just sat and watched the podcast downloads go up and up and up. We got to 21 and we were like, 'Yeah! 21!' and then it got into the top ten. It was at number eight, by Oprah. And then it surpassed Oprah. By the end of that weekend, it made it to number two. Only TED Talks was at number one and it stayed there for two weeks, which was amazing," remembers Leah.
"Surpassing This American Life meant so much because I have a weird love of Ira Glass. He's the master of podcasting!" laughs Falen. "I was pretty sure that there was a secret room that we were going to get let into and all the other podcasters would be there and we'd get a key and learn the secret handshake and have a cocktail with Oprah."
While they have yet to learn the secret handshake, they are now in discussion to continue the series with another 12 enlightening episodes for us to consume.
Listen to The Secret Life of Canada on their website.