How municipal governments are producing podcasts to tell a one-sided story
It sounds like a small-town afternoon radio show. There’s a bit of banter about an upcoming Canucks game, then an item featuring a warning about how rental scams are frequent in the community. People are desperate for housing, the host says, and are putting up money before they see an apartment or the seller in person. There’s a brief upbeat tune and a couple of minutes of lighthearted banter before the host asks his interview guests, “What are you most curious about these days?” New and evolving weather patterns, one says. How our youth will have hope despite each day’s bad news, the other answers. Without missing a beat, the host, referencing his co-host, Mountain FM’s afternoon radio show personality, Cole Stefiuk, asks, “If you were going to cook Cole and I dinner tomorrow night at your house, what would you cook for us?”
The icebreaker questions end and the guests discuss their roles at Whistler Community Services Society, talking about how the society began with a food bank 30 years ago, the challenges of the pandemic, and how the second-hand store they run contributes to helping the town reduce waste. A few more musical notes play, and then the host signs off with, “Thanks for listening. Catch ya next time.”
But that casual-sounding host is no ordinary media personality. He’s actually Jack Crompton, mayor of Whistler, British Columbia, and the broadcast is an episode of The Whistler Podcast, which the municipality has produced twice a month since 2019. It isn’t the only example of such quasi-news shows: there are nearly a dozen, perhaps more, across the country—but it takes some digging to find them. Promoted mainly through municipalities’ existing digital platforms—websites, Twitter, Facebook pages—these podcasts have names that range from the pedestrian (Shore Report, Waves, Community Matters) to the quirky (Big G in Conversation, Notorious Jawcast), and are advertised as offering a look inside local happenings to “tell you more about the larger context surrounding current issues, initiatives, and decisions that are shaping your community,” according to the city of Kingston’s podcast, Tell Me More. Episodes, which vary in length from 15 minutes to an hour and in frequency from every two weeks to monthly, are often structured like most bona fide podcasts—interviews, lighthearted chitchat between hosts, and discussions of topical issues.
Often fronted by city employees, frequently communications officers, they may feature interviews with community members, municipal employees, or both. What they have in common is the objective, as one city official says, “to find alternative ways to control our narrative and get our positive message out into the community and tell our story a little bit more effectively.” In reality, these podcasts are the audio version of sponsored content in magazines or newspapers. As Christopher Waddell, a professor emeritus of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, says, “What [municipalities are] trying to do is create something that replicates as closely as possible what looks like news and news information so you’re thinking that it’s following the same standards that news and information would follow. Their goal [is] to get their information out there that they think that the public will both absorb and will trust, and so they do that by trying to replicate the styles that mainstream news media uses.” In other words, these municipal podcasts use the familiar features of news podcasts to make what is actually municipal advertising credible and engaging. In the process, they are blurring the line between legitimate reporting and public relations.
All of the podcasts I found have a page on their websites describing their purpose and the fact that they’re run by the municipality. In the case of The Whistler Podcast, the logo and description clearly state that the host is the mayor, although throughout the episodes, his co-host and guests call him “Jack”—making him sound less like an elected official. “Our goal is not to replicate news radio or other forms of media, but to be a part of the conversations happening in our town,” says Crompton. The municipality also makes it clear on its website that the podcast is part of Whistler’s communication efforts. Except, on the actual podcast, it is only mentioned at the end of more recent episodes that the podcast is produced by the Resort Municipality of Whistler. Though in a town of fewer than 15,000, most people would know who Jack Crompton is, even if he’s just called Jack. Indeed, none of the municipalities misrepresent themselves in their podcasts, but they are vague about the role that municipal strategy plays in these informal productions.
“As they say in journalism, I feel like we have buried the lead a little bit here,” jokes Heather Hyde, Saugeen Shores’ economic development officer and co-host of the town’s Shore Report, during an episode of the show last November. “I’m not…I’m never gonna be called a journalist…” co-host Jay Pausner, the town’s supervisor of development services adds, trailing off with muffled laughter. The two hosts and their guest, Lauren Eby, a business development coordinator for a neighbouring township, all laugh for a few seconds over what sounds like an accidental reference. The laughter ends and the conversation returns to the municipal program Eby works on, which provides digital marketing assistance to local businesses.
Near the end of the episode, Pausner says he’ll fix his slipup after he says “hell” instead of “heck” in a statement about others knowing more about the day’s topic than he does. Hyde and Eby laugh. Then the three sign off with complimentary closes, “thank you” and “take care.” Hyde and Pausner insist that the podcast’s laid-back style and local-centred content keep it within a municipal function rather than a media one. “We’re not wading into the issues that are covered a lot more closely by local media or even better done on our website, so you know I’m deliberately not talking about the subdivision that’s redeveloping downtown or something,” says Pausner. Although that’s not entirely true. In 2019, an episode featured a local restaurant owner who headed a group of investors proposing to build a large banquet hall on a popular public beach. Opponents, who called the project a “monstrosity,” were not interviewed and the project made headlines in local and regional media coverage.
Among the municipal podcasts, the Shore Report is one of the most basic in terms of production quality—but, just like the others, there is a clear current of municipal strategy under the surface of the carefully orchestrated community-information-with-a-folksy-vibe.
Robert Hosier, Kingston’s communications officer who came up with the idea for Tell Me More, characterizes the podcast as a project for getting information to Kingston’s residents. On the cloudy day when we talk Hosier is wearing a pair of black Wayfarer sunglasses and a black Abbey Road T-shirt under a suit jacket. He tells me that only interviewing guests who also work for the city separates Kingston’s podcast from the kind of content that journalists produce. “We’re not making opinions about anything outside our jurisdiction,” he says. Unlike the Shore Report, Tell Me More has a message at the very end of each episode that indicates the podcast is produced by the municipality’s communications department. Kingston’s objective is very different from the Report’s newsy town updates and The Whistler Podcast’s conversations with the community. Kingston’s website says that Tell Me More aims to provide “more than headlines” to give listeners a “broader perspective on local issues and initiatives.” What that really means is a broader explanation of the municipal perspective on an issue and a chance for the municipality to get a plug in for the work it’s doing, sometimes when its own actions have created headlines.
One episode in April 2021, for example, discussed the city’s programming for homeless residents in the context of a homeless encampment—a topic that received widespread coverage from local and regional media, and for which Kingston was criticized when it dismantled the encampment later that summer. Tim Cunningham, a sales manager, reporter, and podcast host at the Kingstonist, a local independent online news outlet, says he supports the idea of the municipality trying to explain to citizens where their tax dollars are going and humanizing the people who work there. However, he doesn’t see how the public can get much out of a podcast that focuses on promoting the municipality. “You have to look at it with the eye that they’re really not going to ask a lot of tough questions, it’s a promotional tool, and that’s about as deep as it gets,” he says.
It’s not surprising that Tell Me More is content from the perspective of the municipal government, because, after all, the municipality does have an obligation to inform its residents. The problem is that it and similar podcasts aren’t mandated to follow the type of journalistic standards that news outlets are supposed to require of their reporters—things like verifying information, being independent of those they report on, and offering varied perspectives—despite presenting information in the same way as news outlets. Municipal podcasts don’t claim to be journalism, but what they’re doing looks so much like it. At the top of each episode of Tell Me More, a track from a local rock band blares, then quiets for the city employee interviewee to introduce themselves, blares again, and fades out for Hosier’s introduction. His voice is smooth and energetic as he introduces the podcast’s production team: himself as host, producer Paul Whittingham, a communications officer (usually introduced with a quip, like when he was growing a goatee or drinking a pumpkin spice latte), and editor Julielee Stitt, a communications specialist and “journalist at large” who joined the podcast team starting in episode six of season one (Stitt has a bachelor of journalism from Carleton University). The whole thing makes it seem like what you’re getting is well-researched information, analysis, and the inside story—what you usually expect from journalism. In an episode that featured Kingston Mayor Bryan Patterson, Hosier teased listeners about revealing the “secret to Mayor Patterson’s endless energy.” The episode unveils that the mayor’s energy hacks are a passion for his job and the community, and multiple cups of tea. It also takes listeners back to the moment when the mayor first found out about COVID-19 and the series of actions he took to protect the public afterward (according to the mayor and told to his subordinate).
Still, Cunningham isn’t worried about municipal podcasts competing with journalism just because they’re dabbling in a journalistic format. “I look at it as them being in the business of promoting themselves,” he says. “I don’t see them competing with us at a commercial level because the host doesn’t have the freedom to ask critical questions. What would you rather have, me asking Bryan Patterson tough questions or somebody within the communications department lobbing softballs on him?” Jon Thompson, a former Kenora Miner and News reporter, sees something more sinister. “The particularly insidious nature of this permutation of state propaganda is that they are emulating the media,” he says. He argues that the style in which the media present information is a format that audiences know and trust, and when municipalities use that same style, they trade on the audience trust that comes along with it. Except when municipalities deliver information, they do so without any obligation to adhere to the journalistic “objectivity principles that form the basis for that trust and point of reference,” says Thompson.
Municipal podcasts may be relatively new in Canada, but there are plenty of them south of the border. Municipal podcasts in the United States are much the same as Canada’s. In FYI Salem, Salem, Massachusetts, Mayor Kim Driscoll interviews city officials and community members and offers updates on the latest news from the city of Salem. Larger cities have also taken up the podcasting trend: In The Mayor Greg Fischer Podcast, Louisville, Kentucky Mayor Greg Fischer talks to city employees about their work, and Chicago Stories, which wrapped up with 95 episodes in 2019, was promoted as then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talking to everyday Chicagoans, though guests ranged from famous Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
While the podcast platform may be relatively new, governments have been using communication platforms to stamp their own message in a style that presents their content as information, or an “inside look.” In Canada, the Stephen Harper government produced a series called 24Seven, videos that featured highlights from the former prime minister’s day, and showed his wife at their home, that were filled with inspiring music. More recently, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario News Now, a TV news-style video, was called a government attempt to cut the role of journalists out of the picture and undermine democracy by critics. Both productions were questioned not only for blurring the line between information and propaganda but also for using taxpayers’ money to fund their productions.
If municipalities are becoming a player in the media game, competition may not be an issue, but its potential effect on the role of journalism might be. Christopher Waddell raises concerns about the potential of municipal podcasts to limit journalists’ access to municipal officials. If the municipality puts its perspective and information on a given topic in a podcast, then why bother talking to journalists at all? Some journalists I spoke with shared their unease about accessing municipal officials as municipalities develop their own information channels that don’t require the media—but none had actually experienced any change in their existing access (journalists in small towns told me they had the mayor’s direct number). Perhaps it’s just too early to tell if these podcasts will shut out journalists. However, municipalities seem to understand how podcasts could be a way of putting their information on the public record. Hosier in Kingston, for example, said the podcast could be provided to journalists for “further context [and] for further information.”
The phenomenon of these podcasts is a sign that municipalities aren’t otherwise able to get their message out, says April Lindgren, an X University journalism professor and lead investigator for the Local News Research Project, which maps data showing the changes in the local media landscape across the country. One reason is that the number of news outlets has been shrinking. From 2008 to 2021, 450 news outlets in 324 communities closed across Canada, while only 177 local outlets in 125 communities opened, according to the project’s most recent report. Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, 12 community newspapers folded in Manitoba and 10 in Alberta were merged into three regional papers by Great West Newspapers. So it’s no surprise that municipalities are trying different ways to communicate—conventional local news coverage is generally slim in most of the communities where the podcasts are produced.
Sixteen years ago, the only newspaper in Kenora, the Kenora Miner and News, had a staff of 30. Now, at the time of publication, it’s down to one reporter. The Kingston Whig-Standard once held the title of the largest and longest-running independent newspaper in Canada. Now, following a $316 million deal with Sun Media in 2014, it is owned by Postmedia. The newspaper hasn’t published a Monday edition since 2018. The Guelph Mercury, one of Canada’s oldest papers, shut down its daily newspaper in 2016 after almost 150 years. All 26 staff members lost their jobs. Metroland Media, the company that owned the Mercury, continues to operate its website, pulling stories from its other papers in the region, like The Hamilton Spectator. The news website now has various local and regional articles, but doesn’t list a news team of reporters and editors. The municipal podcast Big G in Conversation was launched in 2020. The closure of the Moose Jaw Times Herald in 2017 after 125 years left a gaping hole in local news in the town of over 33,000. The Notorious Jawcast (now uploaded as an audiocast and a videocast) launched the next year. The closures and cuts to newsrooms and news media have created a void, while technology offers governments an opportunity to fill that gap: “Partly it’s because of the lack of local reporting in general and the need to get information out,” says Lindgren. “And then partly I think everybody’s increasingly savvy about the role of information manipulation and how it can be done to your advantage.”
One of the latest municipal podcasts, launched this year by the city of Brighton, Ontario, and hosted by Mayor Brian Ostrander, seems quite aware of the local media landscape. (Disclosure: Ostrander is also the client service representative at Maracle, which is the Review’s printer). In the first episode about infrastructure, Ostrander and his guest, Scott Butler, executive director of a municipal roads improvement organization, talk about the communication issues municipalities experience. “In small-town Ontario, our media are drying up—our local newspaper is eight pages, half of which is advertising,” says Ostrander. His guest agrees. “I live in Guelph, where almost 150,000 people do not have a daily newspaper. So, yeah, it does hamstring people,” says Butler. The podcast’s theme music returns, marking a pause in the conversation for an announcement from Ostrander about his book of the same name as the podcast, Community Matters. Visit Brighton’s local bookstore, “for your copy of Community Matters,” the mayor says before a clip of music returns listeners to the interview.
The theme of promotion runs through Whistler’s podcast, too, serving to boost the tourist site and its mayor. Unlike the Kingston podcast, Whistler’s is less about what the municipality is doing and the people who work for it and more about a local guy chatting with other locals. One episode, “Something Old, Something New: Marrying Technology with the House Call to Improve Primary Care in Whistler,” featured mountain-biking, skiing, and surfing ER doctor Clark Lewis. “Putting Dignity into the Housing Conversation” introduced Mary Ann Collishaw and Pete Crutchfield, long-time Whistler residents, who were moving away. They talked about housing and accessibility in Whistler. This episode is probably the most critical toward the town. The episode runs for almost an hour and a half, and Crompton makes sounds of agreement throughout the conversation. All of this content is, of course, brought to listeners by their own tax dollars. Brandon Barrett, a reporter, features editor, and the interim arts editor of the local weekly publication Pique Newsmagazine, the only newspaper serving the Whistler area, says, “The problem, with me, is this sort of blurred line. Is this just, you know, Jack, a local citizen talking about his favourite things, or is there a municipal strategy behind what’s going on and why these things are being communicated in this way?”
While Crompton’s show becomes a fixture in the digital airwaves, journalistic reporting on the ground in a tourist town isn’t easy, Barrett says. Publishing stories that would be commonplace in many communities—including stories about crime or violence—has led to backlash in the past from the Whistler community because of their potential to turn away tourists. “There is this culture of wanting to gloss everything up and maybe sweep some of the quote, unquote, negative issues under the rug,” says Barrett, although he notes that things are shifting. The pandemic has helped open the space for conversations about housing, labour, and socioeconomic disparities in the town, he says, but reporters in Whistler remain unable to simply pick up the phone and call higher-level municipal staff members. In 2013, the Canadian Association of Journalists gave its annual ironic Code of Silence award to Whistler because town officials stifled communications to the media. As a reporter in Whistler for almost a decade, Barrett says that while there have been improvements in local conversations and media access, the culture of candy-coating topics remains a strong force against complex issues. However, Barrett says that the podcast fits Crompton’s personality, which is true.
When I first spoke with Crompton on the phone, he was in his car because his phone had died. There wasn’t a communications person moderating the call and he had given me his direct number. While it does seem like Crompton is, as he says, trying to be honest in his conversations, The Whistler Podcast clearly reflects that it’s more than Crompton’s passion project for the tourist town. Earlier this year in May, after Whistler had been hit by a ransomware attack, the municipality filed a lawsuit along with an injunction against Pique to restrict the paper’s publication of details of the attack. The municipality claimed that it was seeking to protect the personal information of its staff. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Wilkinson declined to grant the municipality’s injunction and the municipality dropped the lawsuit against Pique in July. “I mean Jack’s not going to talk about the lawsuit anytime soon,” says Barrett.
In Northwestern Ontario, people may already be seeing through the city of Kenora’s podcast to its underlying public relations agenda. When the podcast was announced last September, the idea was so unpopular that one local even started a petition on Change.org in protest. “Kenora doesn’t need podcasts or rebranding…we need new roads. Please sign the petition to stop this ridiculous way to burn our money,” it read. So far, the podcast has been second-rate. “It felt like I was listening to someone read out a pamphlet that you pick up at a tourist place,” Ryan Stelter, then editor of the Kenora Miner & News, says about the first episode of Waves. “It felt very scripted.” “Glad You Are Here” was about 30 minutes long, featured hosts Josh Nelson, the city’s tourism and recreational manager, and Megan Dokuchie, the city’s economic development officer, and focused on the city’s Economic Recovery Plan for local businesses.
During the first episode, the hosts talk about what the podcast is for, introduce themselves, then discuss going to the farmer’s market and the open-air market—a market where business vendors set up on a street that’d been closed for a portion of the day earlier in the summer. The episode cuts to segments of both hosts interviewing business owners and organizers at the markets. At one point, children at the farmer’s market are interviewed about their day, what brought them to the market, and what their summer has been like. There’s inaudible chatter in the background as one of the children shows Dokuchie a bison tooth. Then a cut back to Nelson and Dokuchie talking about places and terms that, as Dokuchie says, “if you know, you know, Kenora kind of thing.” Then a final segment where the hosts interview Mayor Dan Reynard about what the city is doing for business and his favourite things to do in the summer in Kenora. The episode’s sound quality is clear, the theme music is lively, and the humour comes across as a little cheesy, but the whole thing feels like you’re being taken live to the bustling events in Kenora.
“This podcast will not stop the Miner from telling the news, no matter what kind of light it sheds on the city,” wrote Stelter in a Miner editorial, “If you want cute, curated, sugarcoated messaging from the city, tune into their podcast.” Kenora resident James Williams was also underwhelmed with the first episode: “The content itself was kind of disappointing if their intent was to explain some of the more complex, controversial things that had got them in trouble. It seemed more like a marketing pitch for their future visions.” Williams works for the provincial government and says that he understands the government’s perspective in trying to get information and context about how they make decisions and why to a public which, in his opinion, often relies on social media, skimming headlines, and only has access to one local newspaper. “I thought it was mediocre at best,” he says. “It seems like propaganda to me.”
Kyle Attanasio, the city’s chief administrative officer, who brought the idea to council, says that the podcast is not meant to only be about the city’s decisions and initiatives. “We will also be trying to use it to leverage certain things about history or special events and things that happened in a community or just other good stories—you know, if a local Chamber of Commerce business has success or if one of our community groups, like the soccer club, has a success,” he says. “Also, just providing an alternative opportunity for them to maybe tell their story.” The city’s new aim to tell stories to residents is a sticking point for Stelter. “They’ve got one part of what we do. And they think that they’re telling stories—they’re not,” he says.
The second episode featured Attanasio answering questions that were submitted by residents. The hosts ask Attanasio icebreaker questions, ranging from his preferences in music to his favourite sports teams, before asking him six questions that Kenora residents submitted to the city. It’s clear from the 40-minute episode that the city had time to carefully construct answers—the hosts mentioned they had a meeting about whether to present paraphrased versions of the questions, which explored topics such as the installation of public washrooms and moving the location of the downtown LCBO. Stelter, who wrote another editorial in the Miner about the podcast, called it a “corporate slideshow,” and questioned the city’s honesty and transparency in responding to residents’ questions in this way. “It allow[s] Kyle [Attanasio] and the city to gather all this information, pack it up into a nice, you know, corporate-size communication chunk and then just regurgitate it for us—and we’re just supposed to accept that?” he says.
The question is: Is anyone even listening? The municipal staff I spoke with didn’t have much in the way of metrics, and the ones who provided me with statistics just had breakdowns of numbers of episodes and listens or downloads. Season two of The Whistler Podcast had an average of 163 downloads per episode. One hundred listens per episode is the benchmark for Saugeen Shores—but as Lindgren says, “One hundred listens is not a huge threat to local democracy.” Among its first three episodes, Waves had a total of 856 downloads on the hosting platform Buzzsprout, with the first episode receiving the most downloads, 541, and the second dwindling to less than half of that. Criteria for measuring a podcast’s success are less than concrete. For example, Craig Hemingway, a communications manager in Moose Jaw, Ontario and the former radio broadcaster who hosts Notorious Jawcast, says that hearing people new to town mention the videos helps to let him know people are watching.
These podcasts could just be a passing trend among municipalities that will be forgotten at the back of the closet next season. However, with the number of news outlets continuing to shrink, it’s likely that municipalities will keep looking for ways to communicate through their own channels that skirt the news media. Even the style of these podcasts shows how capable governments are in presenting information—they can tell stories, they can provide context, and they can interview people, just like traditional news media. It’s municipal promotion replicating journalism’s ability to provide the information, context, and analysis that citizens need to make sense of the world. “There actually is a difference between a personality and a journalist,” says Thompson. “Well, there certainly is an interesting difference between a personality who is the economic development officer as her day job.”
About the author
Geena Mortfield is Chief of Research at the Review of Journalism.