With no prior experience in broadcasting, Jayme Poisson, BA’06, has just made the switch from investigative reporter at the Toronto Star to host of the new CBC News daily podcast Front Burner. Barely months into the job, she still sounds surprised by her risky but rewarding veer into a new way of communicating.
“I never anticipated this for myself,” says the 34-year-old Torontonian, who has shifted from the often isolated world of print reporting, digging away at elusive stories like her award-winning account of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation, to developing daily chats about anything from Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou to the rationale for banning the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
An audio novice, she’s grown used to her producer shouting “Stop doing that!” into her earpiece – her reporter’s habit of halting interviews mid-sentence to check chronology doesn’t fit the podcast mandate of free-flowing conversation. As a writer, the words that went into her tape recorder were simply raw material, and she could speak loosely. But now, in a new medium, she’s had to learn the art of reciting tightly crafted introductions while still sounding like she’s chatting with a friend over coffee.
“I love talking to people, it’s my favourite thing about doing journalism. But what was much harder than I expected was working with scripts and trying to sound natural on air. I got some training from someone at CBC who’s been doing this for a long time, but I still listen to myself reading and think, ‘Oh, man, why do I sound like that?’ I’m trying hard every day just to sound like myself.”
It’s a fine balance in the personalized format of Front Burner, which is geared toward friendly and quirky, but is still expected to deliver intelligent, reliable explanations about the thought-provoking issues of the day – how to stop the flow of fentanyl from China, why rappers’ beefs turn violent, is Facebook too big, can anyone make sense of Brexit.
The 20-minute podcast is CBC News’s latest attempt to vary its official voice, undermining its formal public tone to reach younger listeners who have abandoned TV and radio and are more used to getting enlightenment through the intimacy of their headphones – idea-sharing at the individual level.
“This is my dream job,” she says. “I get to sit down every day, be open-minded and just ask smart people their position on complicated issues.” She likens the daily buzz of news-driven interviews to the energizing, no-easy-answers tone of her McGill courses in international politics, particularly Rex Brynen’s course, Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Reconstruction.
After McGill, Poisson explored the world at ground level, backpacking through India before returning to Toronto where she found work as an editorial assistant at Hello! Magazine – “I did a lot of royals stuff,” she confesses without much prompting. Having exhausted her passion for the Windsors, she started a masters in journalism at Carleton which led to an internship at the Star – her dogged, investigative prowess won her a permanent job, but it didn’t hurt that her feature story on a gender-free baby named Storm was one of the newspaper’s most widely read articles ever.
Though she always thought of herself as a print reporter – a career that began with a freewheeling column for the McGill Daily (“I don’t think it was very good”) and included a stint covering the 2011 Egypt revolution as a Star intern – Poisson became an avid consumer of explanatory podcasts while pursuing a business fellowship at the University of Chicago.
“I just feel like they’re this … breath,” she says, searching for the right word. “With the news, a lot of stuff is coming at me in a fast way – I sit down with my computer, and I find myself getting distracted by social media or alerts coming up on my phone. But with podcasts, I put my wireless headphones on, do chores around the house or get on the train to go to work or go for a run, and by the time I’m done these things, I feel I have a deeper understanding of whatever I was digging into.”
That pleasing sense of achieving daily wisdom is what she and her team aim to provide with Front Burner. “I like the idea of sitting down every day and trying to figure out all the intricacies and nuances of whatever big story is developing – breaking down Brexit or wrapping our arms around the U.S. midterms, and trying to offer something extra. But we also want to explore themes that are in our wheelhouse – we’re talking about technology and power or the rise of populism, identifying fault lines, big issues for which we can provide a great explainer when there isn’t a breaking news story.”
Big issues, yes, but still delivered with that beguiling, headphone-friendly intimacy. Poisson loves to recall her first-week interview back in October with sportswriter Bruce Arthur about the Winter Olympics. “He went away to answer the door for trick-or-treaters. We left it in. People loved it.”