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Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe comedian and writer and founder of Indian and Cowboy, an Indigenous multimedia network. The network, which features some of the most creative podcasts on the web, has its one-year anniversary on October 6, 2015.
Roshini Nair spoke with McMahon about the creation of Indian and Cowboy, the influence of Idle No More and what to expect from Indigenous media in the future. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What is Indian and Cowboy?
Indian and Cowboy is a digital media network. Right now, we're focused on building our foundation. So the podcast platform is our first step in establishing a digital space for Indigenous content. We set out on an 18-month beta period and on October 6 we turn one year old. In that year, we've managed to produce seven podcasts, five that run on a full-time basis and two that were sort of special miniseries presentations and the foundation is really important to us.
The podcasting space we targeted on purpose because it is such a new medium. It is relatively inexpensive to run podcasts and they are flexible and we're able to send them to community radio stations and we're essentially opening our content up… we're telling people to steal our shows so they can play them in their community and continue these conversations on the ground, at the grassroots level. The foundation was really important and we'll continue to publish other things digitally. We are producing video, a web series -- but that is going to happen through 2016.
How did you find the podcasters for Indian and Cowboy?
That's a great question. We're still finding them really. Those that know about podcasts are crazy about podcasts. Those that podcast obviously have to be very excited because there's little to no money involved.
I've been podcasting since 2008. Myself, I've always loved radio, but I fell in love with podcasting because it allowed me to be a stay-at-home dad -- it allowed me to be a comedian to throw stuff on the wall and see what would stick. And it was so exciting to be able to self-publish and not get caught up in being wrangled by the CRTC or slow television development process. You could come up with a good idea, record it, and hit send.
When I started Indian and Cowboy, I looked around the space. There was very little Indigenous podcasting happening. In fact, I would say there was only a couple on the Internet and I just got lucky that Métis in Space -- Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain -- saw what I was doing with Indian and Cowboy and they said hey, why don't we come over there and we'll join forces and just kind of organically found people who were passionate about radio and that's the way Indian and Cowboy started.
Now what we're doing is developing shows, developing content and developing producers, so we're more active in the process of finding people with unique voices that we think could offer really great insight into these little niche ideas that we come up.
When you say niche ideas, what are some examples of that?
Métis In Space is a perfect example. A couple of Métis women sit down with a bottle of wine and watch an old sci-fi flick and talk about the colonial tropes in the sci-fi genre and how that has sort of informed that moment in television and that industry by propping up those colonial tropes. I mean, that's pretty niche: if you like sci-fi and you like decolonization, we have a show for you!
We have another one called Indigenous Prime hosted by Team Canada Mens Volleyball player Dallas Soonias, who is Cree from Alberta. He's creating an Indigenous sports podcast basically to talk to professional athletes, amateur athletes, Olympians, college and university athletes, high school athletes to talk about their path and their journey through athletics and education, and encourage young people to stay fit and have fun.
I mean essentially what we're creating is something the world's never seen before and that's why we sit by these microphones in our closets for no money.
The creation process is important. What is it about the medium of podcasting that makes it so special?
I guess you know you could get fancy and call it the democratization of media, which I think is good and bad. You can talk about the value that it adds to existing media, the way it supports writers and comedians and artists, musicians. You can talk about a whole bunch of different reasons about why podcasting is valuable.
But I think most importantly, it allows people that have been traditionally shut out of mainstream capital-M media to have their voice heard. And essentially, if you put in the time and energy to make something, people will find it. And what's really awesome is that, just through the offerings that we have and the shows that we do have, each has their own audiences.
To be an Anishinaabe comedian on my own in the world of comedy, I feel like I've built a community around my voice and my ideas which isn't about propping up my own ideas but it is about building community as it is about furthering those ideas in conversations and in spaces, and I think for me, that's why podcasting is so important.
If you choose to do it, you can with a very, very small investment on the equipment side. You're talking about less than $100 to get you started in creating whatever it is you want to create. The tools are mostly free online, and, I mean, our languages are endangered in many of our territories and nations. You start to think about -- wow, I could start a language podcast and single handedly tackle the loss of our language by pressing the record button.
Those things are special, and so when we talk about the way we can use podcasting, that's what Indian and Cowboy is. It's the new Wild West. Podcasting: there are no rules, it's a wide open space, it's yours to discover.
You're a comedian, and you host the podcast Red Man Laughing on Indian and Cowboy. How do you use humour to connect to your audience?
I'm a standup comedian and a comedy writer, so humour informs everything I do really. I use podcasting as a different way to use my voice. When I started Red Man Laughing, (which is in its fourth season, it was just turned into a national comedy special for CBC Radio 1), I would do characters, fake commercials, I would play live clips of my standup, and it was my comedy that I was featuring. I would play music and albums of friends of mine who were musicians. It was just a chance for people to hang out with me. I was creating material and it was a free way for me to write.
And then Idle No More happened, and it was like -- I've got 20,000 people who listen to this every week and I have a responsibility. I'm a part of Idle No More, I'm an organizer, I have this platform and I better start talking to people. It organically kind of changed into this whole other thing that it is now and it's not funny. I just dedicated the whole fifth season of this podcast to reconciliation. Episode 1 of Red Man Laughing is dedicated to talking about the Onaman Collective and their land-based education work with youth. There's very little funny about that, and I don't really go for jokes on the podcast…though myself I'm kind of funny sometimes, but yeah, I don't go for jokes there.
It's kind of my space to take off, think a little deeper about things and deconstruct things in a different way and I think why people like it is they get to see me when I'm not on stage. They see me for me, with all my faults, with all my biases, with all my processes of learning. To me, that's the greatest reward of podcasting has been "yeah, I'm a comedian" but also you've seen in five seasons, you've seen me challenge myself and others to think deeper on issues. To experience this growth with an audience, I think is goes back to the medium being so personal and intimate.
I don't necessarily feel the responsibility to go for jokes on the podcast. I created a separate podcast for that called Ryan McMahon Gets Angry, that's where my angry, ranty humour goes. Red Man Laughing is reserved for other things.
Which is kind of ironic.
[Laughing] It's so stupid. I mean at this point, after four complete seasons, 116 hours of content, a national comedy special, two cross-Canada tours with the podcast -- it's just the worst-named podcast ever.
But people want to listen to Red Man Laughing over Red Man Crying, I would think.
I cry so much on the podcast, it's ridiculous. If you go back to the first season (and it's all at the website), it's so silly and stupid. Then you listen to the first episode of the fifth season and this is not the same show at all. It would be dishonest of me to change the name and hide the first season. It's all there for everyone to see.
Again, this speaks to the opportunities of the medium. I mean there is an opportunity for a flat out fictional podcast where we can do stuff like the Dead Dog Café on the CBC in the late 1990s. We could look at creating comedy, and looking at our storytelling through podcasting, all of those opportunities are right in front of us, and the only thing stopping us is us.
We're very creative, we can use our imagination, we can collaborate with non-Indigenous folks to create something completely different. What is so great about this is that the only thing limiting us is us. The CRTC has no say on what we can put on the air, our advertisers and sponsors will support us if they see the vision behind it, we get to build our alliances and create community where one may not have existed before.
When you think about all those things and put all those things into one big pile, I mean, how can you not get excited by the medium? The spinoffs, of course, TV shows can come from things. Films can come from these things. Just through our Stories from the Land podcast, we have three film treatments completed already from the three episodes. So three of the 14 episodes have heard writers' ideas on films and documentaries. And it's like, what else can we do?
So this one-year anniversary is a big moment for Indian and Cowboy, and Indigenous Media in general. Where do you see it going after this first year anniversary?
I can't tell. Technology changes so quickly. What I know for sure is that our podcast network will continue to grow. We have some incredible offerings coming up. On October 6, we're launching four new podcasts.
And I mean, what I know for sure in this next year, we have to start looking at how to finance this thing. We're using Patreon right now to fund us monthly, and we're raising just enough money to pay our bills and to have a technical producer comb through our files and make sure they are broadcast worthy and we're breaking even.
But we have to get into a position where if we're going to take the next step forward and really start looking at how to create this thing into something viable, then we have to start to look at how do we fund these things, how do we look at bringing staff members on to take care of the creative production and the technical production, and how do we look at taking the next steps in offering other digital content and creating these treatments and projects to look at research for our documentaries that we want to do and looking at investigative journalism I mean, every day is an emergency when we talk about the type of work that we do through these mediums.
We have to look at ways that we can really start to raise some money and start paying people to take this thing to the next level and that's what the next year is going to challenge me to do. We've had investors come and look at us but it's pretty hard to run a podcast network where most of the shows are framed in a decolonial framework. To have a podcast called "Stories from the Land paid for by Enbridge" -- that just wouldn't make sense. We've had investors offer us money, but in good faith, we've had to turn away from that money and for now, operate on a zero budget.
Anything else you'd like to add?
In turning one year old, we'd like to say thanks to our listeners, and allies like rabble. The day we launched, rabble ran something for us, and again, thank you to you for being willing to do it.
Roshini Nair is a multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. Follow her on twitter @roshini_c_nair.
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