When Am Johal and his team at the SFU Vancouver campus decided three years ago to make a podcast called Below the Radar, it was an experiment with publicity. After all, it has been his job since 2010 as director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.
In his position, Johal has worked closely with local festivals and various SFU faculties. He has put on dozens of speech events. His efforts were recognized when he won SFU’s Warren Gill Award for Community Impact for the relationships he helped create between the university and its partners in downtown Vancouver.
But unlike his more famous brother Jas, Johal had never been a professional broadcaster, so a podcast ventured into new territory.
“Interestingly enough, we started this from the side of our desk just to try a new kind of engagement,” Johal said. Just by telephone.
But in March 2020, something unexpected happened. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And that, at least for a while, put an end to public events at SFU Woodward’s, where Johal is stationed.
To his great surprise, it Under the radar podcasts emerged as his office’s primary way of engaging – so much so that it went from another week to a weekly podcast.
“We are listened to for an average month in over 50 countries,” Johal said. “In that sense, it has given us an opportunity to engage with a much larger public outside of Vancouver.”
He stressed that the largest audiences are still in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, where SFU’s three campuses are located. But there are also a considerable number of listeners in the United States.
“We have a loyal audience for some reason in Columbus, Ohio,” Johal said. “We have one in Berlin, Germany and many other places. So in that sense, we are at over 50,000 listens after three years in total.”
His team’s goal is to increase this number to more than 100,000 once they have recorded 250 episodes.
The climate is in focus at the podcast party
On November 20, the Vancouver Podcast Festival will feature an online discussion called “Podcasting Climate Change,” which Johal will moderate.
He described it as a “special show of Under the radar”, With four guests: interdisciplinary artist and climate governance researcher Julia Kidder, West Coast Environmental Law staff attorney Eugene Kung, Kanaka Bar Indian Band director Patrick Michell and climate action storyteller Grace Nosek.
It is far from the first time Under the radar has addressed the climate crisis in its 144 episodes. Previous shows have featured conversations with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip; Squamish Nations Council Chairman Khelsilem; Sierra Club BC climate justice leader Anjali Appadurai; and novelist Amitav Ghosh, who has called on the literary community to incorporate the climate crisis into their stories because it is the most pressing issue facing the world.
“It’s definitely a theme we’ve always been interested in,” Johal remarked.
In fact, he has written or co-authored two books on the subject, including one that was a spin-off of his PhD thesis. He recently passed through the Fraser Canyon community in Lytton, which suffered a devastating fire in last summer’s heat wave.
“90 percent of the city burned down, and just seeing the remains of houses and cars is truly amazing in so many ways,” Johal said. “It still leaves you just breathless in terms of how fast all of these things can happen. In the case of Lytton, you know, there was no evacuation alarm, even – it went straight to an evacuation order at 6 p.m.
Within an hour, most of the city was gone.
Johal stressed that it would not be possible to create Under the radar without its production team of students and graduates: program coordinator Fiorella Pinillos, communications coordinator Melissa Roach, program assistant Paige Smith, research assistant Kathy Feng, podcast assistant Alex Abahmed, and communications specialist Alyha Bardi.
“They are much more technically savvy than I am,” Johal declared.
The goal of the podcast is to “reinforce ideas that fly under the radar”. One way this is achieved is through “containers” that focus on specific topics. For example, Bardi documents lived experiences from women with different backgrounds in the workforce. Community organizer Al Etmanski is hosting another container that focuses on the power of disability. Johal plans to launch another container focusing on precautions for a future pandemic.
According to him, there are significant educational benefits to making a podcast through a university. Transcripts are maintained and episodes may remain
citable material for graduate students.
“There is also a scientific briefing on what can happen,” Johal added.
Not only that, but Under the radar allows him to contact anyone in the world and ask for an interview.
“So it’s been a great way to reach out to people I otherwise would not have been able to engage with or be able to talk to,” he said. “So it has really been a learning process, I think, for the whole team that produces the podcast.