Jian Ghomeshi on Media Literacy at York University

January 24, 2008, [MD]

I have been thinking about trying “event blogging” for a while, since I have such a portable laptop now, and inspired by the master, Ethan Zuckerman and his tips for conference bloggers. Incidentally, I am going to a conference on international comparative education (CIES) in New York in March, maybe I will try this there.

Either way, my first attempt is quite random - I was invited to tag along for a talk at York University, and since I’d never visited their campus, I decided to go (Keele campus is huge, cold, wind-blown, and most people didn’t know where the building we were looking for was). So today I am offering you a partial transcript (next time, I might try to do more distillation and insert my own analysis etc, but for now it’s pretty much the raw dump, a tad cleaned up), of Jian Ghomeshi’s talk on media literacy. Jian has a long career in music, television, and radio broadcasting, and is currently host of Q (which all through the presentation I thought was written Cue) on CBC, whose podcast I will not try to listen to.


You’re even wrong in your fallacy. Marshall McLuhan on camera.

Literacies - reading and writing, orality, numeracy, cultural literacy, arts, literacy from other cultures. Open a dialogue about all kinds of literacies.

Today’s speaker: Arts fan, friend of reading, last year he challenged audiences for Sounds like Canada to read Ulysses (James Joyce), books flew off the shelves in Oprah-like fashion. Canada reads - five celebrities vye for their book to be the book that all Canadians read this year. Popular show: Cue, CBC Radio 1, record ratings. About arts, entertainment and cultural things. Bridges the barriers between high art and popular art, makes us all end up reading Ulysses and knowing about Sundance. How does he use all the media that he is familiar with, and how does he stay abreast of new ways of communicating with audiences.

Jian Ghomeshi\ Persian-Canadian male Oprah\ Promises us a lot of fun, we’ll forget that we’re learning things at the same time. Loves York University, at the forefront of the changing face of Canada. He felt like he fit in here, despite some of the aesthetic limitations of the campus. First generation Persian-Canadian. The importance of the learning experience and what it means that York university is the most multiracial university in Canda.

Slightly brown person in the media - we are so proud of you in the Ismaili community. (He is not Ismaili) There are not enough of us yet.

Gets confused for other “brown” people at CBC - there are five people and they cannot tell us apart.

Stabs at what media literacy might mean.\ Interesting working at the CBC, if you are hosting a national show, there is no greater discerning and idosyncratic listener, than the CBC listener. The listeners have a proprietary sense of the CBC. We own it, want to talk about it, be part of it. Fortunately we are doing something right on Q.\ \ People point out wrong word usage, pronunciation of words. Incredible learning place. Constant feedback. Constant focus group of a million people who will let you know when you make a mistake.  I use words and language on purpose, so I almost anticipate their reactions. Concerns about regionalisms. You are such a Toronto guy. This is so urban. You left Fredricktown out, when you mentioned all the other places. A constant awareness in my mind, that it matters to them where they live, and who they are. The Blue Folder, things that we find regional things. CBC has a regional network, ferrets out intereting stories. In between the Woody Allen interviews. Makes a huge diference to the listeners. Fairness is also important, big issue. Much greater issue for the news anchors. I am an opinionated personality on CBC - not a reporter or anchor person.

Still an issue. Cultural affairs, very broadly speaking. National broadcaster in a media sense as The New York Times - the media source of record, there has to be fairness. If we talk about controversial art exhibit that did Piss Christ, men and boys photographs intimately involved, a lot of people don’t agree with him. Fairness.

Break the divide between intellectual and pretentious and accessible and perfunctory. Context of arts, culture and entertainment. What does it mean to be literate and to bridge that divide?\ Intellectual and pretensito : Opera, The New Yorker, avant garde, Frank Gehry (from the audience), … controversial.

Accessible, perfunctory: South Park. Reality TV. Comic books. Rock and pop music. Pop culture.

Low arts:

Both sides profess distaste for the other side. Horrible opera/comic book person.

How do I become a great communicator where I can bridge that divide? The program is evidence of that - it’s multidisciplinary, punk-rock to author to visual arts story to Stanley, Spiderman. That hasn’t been done - most of media broadcasting whe it comes to arts and entertainment, and even in print, it is pigeon holed. Book show, rock show. This is our audience.  Gamble. Important to me to be a communicator, accessible to septugenarians and 18-year old fans of sth.

Did Polysci/history degree. Interested in music and theater. Join a band. 10 years. Writing, Globe and Mail, Washington Post. Television. Then radio. Every step of the way lamenting that I was a jack of various trades, and a master of none. I could focus on the music, or academics. But I am ok at everything.

Saved by the modern economy!

We’re all going to have six-seven jobs, except for the dentists.

Love of words, drives me. At CBC, even if I speak in “vernacular”, I get to use words that for most of my life my buddies would make fun of me, ooh “homogenous” big word… Desire to create social change - political guy, activist (persona non grata at York). Trouble maker. Discovering and supporting especially Candian artists.

Curiosity, telling stories.

The medium, and the means.

Medium - want to communicate an intellectual idea, or a story, or a political position, traditional ways to do that, there are new more interesting and perhaps more subversive ways, a lot of effective communication happening in places where we traditionally don’t expect it to happen.

Band touring in England, gets called, interview with Globe and Mail about Rush Limbaugh. Cover of the Globe and Mail - story - quoting him. Important turning point. Man, I could be an activist for 40 years, and  running a labor union, and would not get quoted on the front page of the Globe and Mail. But because I am in a band, my opinion will be seen. Finding creative means to, mediums, to express what I want to express.

We used to learn in a top-down way, now people are becoming politicized through Daily Show, comedy, rock bands… CBC: communicating ideas to me in a non-proselytizing fashion is more effective.

In Band, we wrote satirical songs, if I wrote “Rush Limbaugh is an awful man”, nobody would listen. But if I wrote, “The greatest man in America”, getting so far and so absurd, sending the same message, but in a more entertaining way, I would be much more effective.

Means: we can reach a wide and diverse audience. The tone with which we talk to each other has changed. Tragic misconception that serious, precious and earnest = intelligent. Not true. Not anymore at least. Tone is important to me, I don’t believe that if I present things in too earnest a fashion, top-down, this is important to you, let me explain, I would not be hitting people Gen-Xers, younger people. We are not buying it (anymore).  Too cynical. More atuned to matters of propaganda. Don’t believe everything that is told them in a serious voice. That’s why we like South Park and MIchael Moore movies.

Finding some kind of tone. I don’t want to be “unintelligent”. I want the content of what I am saying to be intelligent, a story or an idea or an interview, should still be smart, people who are curious should still be satiated and content. But don’t want to turn people away.

Intentionally unscripted. People were doing this a long time ago, and things became formalized. If I know I want to communicate an idea, and I’ve done my research - I will be more effective speaking to you in an unscripted fashion.

Don’t interview an author unless I’ve read the book, a musician without listening to the music etc. From being a musician myself. Doesn’t mean I speak better - means I am imperfect. Stuttering around sometimes. The show is live - they asked us if we should pre-tape it. If I am unscripted, I have to be thinking. You seem to be asking the questions that I would have asked. I take pride in that.

New media landscape, important to break the fourth wall, pull the curtain up on the wizard behind the curtain, acknowledging when we do something incorrectly. Admitting that we are wrong, or don’t understand. Took me a lot of courage, if I say in the middle of an interview with Woody Allen, I don’t really know what you are talking about. But every time I’ve done that, it has hit a chord, it has been effective.

We are attuned to the way things are made these days, we make our own home videos put them on Youtube, recording things all the time. People know how the shows are made, they know mistakes will be made. We will be more effective communicators if we communicate that.

Line between research and accessibility. The Hour. Dampen what I already know about it, to ask the questions I would have asked if I didn’t know about it. Especially when I am a musician interviewing other musicians. “What’s it like then to write music on the road”, I know, but somebody might want to know.

We’re not buying the experts. Outside of an academic context…?

Bridging the divide. Examples. I resent that when it comes to high arts, there is some notion, we can only speak to them, in formal deadly serious important language. Masterpiece theatre (in mock British accent). Takes art that in and of itself is not inaccessible, and it turns it in to something that is only for a group of people that use that language.

Four years ago the AGO, Paul Gaguin exhibit, painter, what was it like to walk in - the first thing you saw, was a wall. Symbolic and literal. On the wall, was a massive message in very caligraphy : Three paragraphs, dense, began: “Nineteen century philosopher Charles Baudelaire once said…”

For most of my life, a guy who is passionate about art and is an artist, cares deeply about culture, that would have been a message that this is not for me, you don’t even know who Charles Baudelaire is, what does it mean? You enter, then the paintings. Which are plainly put: naked women in Tahiti. Not something that any 19-year old couldn’t understand. Very interesting done, lot’s of stories. Presented in a way that suggests that it is only for a certain crowd. The art is accessible, could appeal to everybody. Shakespeare would be aghast at people paying inflated prices and watching his plays in tuxedos.

Ask the same questions of a rock band, or a chicklit writer, to an artist. Some of the greatest opera singers in the world, on the program, and I don’t develop a different tone and different questions. I ask them about what I’d ask any other people about. Opera singers have normal ideas, passions, hobbies.

These are just people.

The opposite is true too.

Long form interviews - don’t happen in broadcast media anymore…. 20 second clips, TV, radio.

When it comes to a rock band, we have to lower the level of discourse, ask them about drinking and sex, intentionally be perfunctory. Sensational. Why? If we start asking the same questions that we’d ask the opera singer, what emerges? Wow, every day - Michael Buble, he is a smart young guy. Slash, Guns and Roses, sometimes in print, but in broadcasting very few treated him as an intelligent guy, he rises to the challenge. Great interview, smart guy. Walking that line, accessible communications, new lexicon, bridging.

If we don’t see them as separate, we won’t communicate them as separate, and we won’t hear them as separate. Suddenly, ideas and divisions between high art and low, start to erode. Art, in and of itself, is accessible.

People are tired of superficial bite-sized interviews (some people), some peopl are no longer buying precious top-down important treatment. Find middle-ground.

Stian Håklev January 24, 2008 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus