By Dan Speerin
You could forgive fans of hip hop if they hadn't heard the origin story of a moniker that begins with "There's this mall in Scarborough...". But that's exactly where things began during the 100th episode recording of Karim Kanji's Welcome! podcast. Maestro Wes Fresh took listeners and an intimate audience gathering on a journey through the pre-"6ix" days of hip hop. Complete with Scarborough in-jokes and name checks from Michie Mee to Saukrates and even a Tuxedo Royale in the Parkway Mall.
As the podcast celebrated it's 100th episode, one got the feeling that Welcome! was just hitting it's stride. The podcast's creator and host Karim Kanji, is a social media marketer by day and host on Girth Radio by night. But don't be fooled by the day gig, Kanji manages to defy what one might expect from a social media marketer doing a podcast.
His interview style is compelling because his compass is set to whatever he's curious about - and often that's what a listener will be curious about too. It results in conversations that stray away from the soundbite arena and instead can stick on a topic that strikes Kanji as compelling right there in the moment for a full episode.
Like most podcasts, Kanji has no producer or guest booker. The way to get on the show is pretty simple - do you interest him? In an era where digital success hinges on finding a micro "niche" that one can plant their flag and scream for signal - Kanji could quite literally care less. That rule leads to an interesting tapestry of topics and guests. Some week's it's Gord Downie's brother talking about legacy and charity - other weeks it's political names like Steve Paikin, Desmond Cole or Jagmeet Singh talking about the most urgent issues in Toronto. You could just as easily listen and hear an episode surrounding TIFF and art as you could about children caught up in Canada's no fly list or the story of a proudly gay Muslim gentleman who serves in Canada's Armed Forces. Because Kanji isn't chasing the clicks, just simply good stories - it's allowed his show to become a hidden gem in Toronto's podcast scene.
It's also carving out an interesting road map for the future of the much maligned "CanCon". 2017 was again a rough year for those that treasure being attached to the stories and heart of their local community. Whether it was the shutting down of local cable stations or the vanishing of community papers throughout the country - the once dependable sources for local stories were quickly losing their footing. And though the digital shift takes part of the blame, it will also provide part of the solution.
Shows like Welcome! have no deadlines or obligation to bring the clicks - and they're also not hamstrung by a clock. Conversation can flow naturally - and just like in life, sometimes it's fascinating and some times it isn't. But when an episode falls flat, nobody rushes in with a ratings report. The freedom to go out on a limb and have a real conversation - has long made podacasting the top medium for in depth conversation. Though it can't be a replacement for in depth journalism, it can be a place that tells the stories of a community.
Across the country we're seeing the rise of the 'Podcast' network. From Niagara region to Alberta - podcast networks are combining resources and talent to bolster local talent and businesses. The model allows podcasters more pull with local advertisers and gives local businesses a place for that ad spend once again that can reach their local community. Kanji's show belongs to one of those such networks.
He records the show out of Girth Radio studios inside the King Street hangout The Pacific Junction Hotel. The network gives a reliable studio space to invite top name guests, as well as an ambiance that is far more enjoyable than your garage. It's given Kanji's show a reliable schedule and recording space for over 100 episodes. I caught up with Karim shortly after he reached the milestone to talk about Welcome! and his take on the podcasting scene.
The #Creatortown sit-down with Karim Kanji host of Welcome!
D.S. - First off, congrats on hitting 100 episodes. What does hitting the milestone mean to you?
K.K - Thanks. It means a few things: First, enough people have humoured me to agree to being on my show. Second, I'm enjoying the process: The process of learning to listen and ask questions. Sometimes I do a good job. But most of the time I realize that I could have done better
D.S - So many podcasts fall off after their first ten episodes, clearly you love doing this if you're at 100. What is it about Welcome! that keeps you coming back every week?
K.K - One of the great parts about sitting down with people is learning about them. For example, I met Mike Downie and all I knew was that he is Gord Downie's older brother. But after sitting down with him for over an hour I got to know the other side of Mike that few people know. Mike is an accomplished TV producer and documentarian.
Then there are those people whom I feel everyone needs to know. Bruce Livesey comes to mind. He's an investigative journalist and documentarian here in Toronto who has written some very important pieces speaking truth to some of the most powerful people in Canada and the U.S.
D.S. - The live taping was a great night, what made you decide Maestro Fresh Wes was the right guy for your 100th Guest?
K.K. - For people from my generation Maestro Fresh Wes was our Drake. The hip hop and rap that we'd listen to on Much Music and CKLN was dominated by RUN DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Biz Markie, De La Soul, NWA and so many others. When we all heard Let Your Backbone Slide it flipped our world. Toronto was on the map! The dance clubs, Top 40 radio and even the Junos could not ignore Canadian hip hop anymore. So the opportunity to get Maestro Fresh Wes was obvious. And although many people have interviewed him, no one was going to ask him the questions a live audience was going to.
D.S. - I actually first heard of Girth Radio because of an article that mentioned your show - long story, long that ended up with the IWCC launching Creatortown at the Pacific Junction Hotel. But I'm curious how you got involved with Girth Radio.
K.K. - I saw a Twitter discussion between Sammy Younan (our "boss") and Karim Awad (he designed and built the current Girth Radio website). They are both my friends. And they were talking about being on a radio station! I grew up with CFTR 680. Before it was all news it was the best Top 40 music station in Toronto. I've always dreamed about having my own radio program. Months later I found myself alone in the studio recording my first episode!
D.S. - Do you have any tips for podcasters? Any tips on reaching 100 episodes?
K.K - Stop trying to learn everything before you get started. Just go! Learn along the way. Find your voice and your audience will find you. If you learn after every episode and enjoy the process of creating you'll be sure to hit 100! And more.
D.S. - Will there be 100 more? What's next for you and the podcast?
K.K - A couple of things. First off, we're seeing the total destruction of local news. Which means it's more important for me to feature local people doing interesting things. Second, I'm creating a monetary prize/award to give away annually to a young Torontonian who's doing interesting stuff in their community. The goal is to encourage young people to follow their dreams. So they'll get a little amount of cash to help themselves out as well as a dedicated episode to tell others about their journey and work.
Thanks to Karim for inviting us to his 100th episode and for the chat, to find out more about his work check out his website and his show on Girth Radio and subscribe to his podcast via however you do that kinda thing.