Catching Up With: Indian & Cowboy's Ryan McMahon


Every week, we catch up with a Canadian podcaster and their podcast to talk about what’s new, their favourite podcast moments, and what’s still to come. This week: Ryan McMahon.

Ryan makes the podcasts Red Man Laughing and Stories From The Land. He is also Chief Creative Producer at Indian & Cowboy, the world’s first Indigenous podcast network that is completely listener supported, and CEO of Makoons Media Group, an Indigenous media company focused on publishing on the internet.

You’ve worked in so many different mediums — from documentary films to live comedy shows — but you’ve also made multiple podcasts and started a podcast network. What keeps you excited?

I’m one of those nerds that was podcasting before podcasting was really cool. It continues to evolve. Over the last ten years, the podcast space has changed so much I can barely recognize it!

Because it’s relatively it’s such a new space, that means Indigenous voices and underrepresented voices in media are entering basically on the same level as everyone else. Whether it’s Indigenous, LGBTQ communities, or any other diverse communities, we have the chance to empower ourselves through this medium — unlike film or TV, where the old white boys’ club who created these mediums holds the keys to the fort still. Should we be trying to break down those doors, and hope for a small piece of the pie under some sort of diversity or inclusion program? Or should we be building our own institutions that serve us, and give us tools That’s where I get really excited.

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What have you seen change over the years?

Distribution certainly has changed. There used to be one way to push your podcast out to people. Really early days it was iTunes, and nobody knew what the hell a podcast was back then. I remember first starting, begging people to listen to my podcast, and people going, “Well I don’t have an iPod, so I can’t listen!” [laughs] There was such little information about what it was. People didn’t really respect it as something that was viable, or even valuable as a tool, a form of entertainment, information sharing, or news.

Also importantly, the business case behind podcasting and why it’s important is [now] a solid one. There are a number of podcasters that are able to make a living through this. If you somehow trick the universe into trusting you with that, I think you’re in pretty good shape.

So distribution has changed, and there’s now a greater legitimacy to the medium, too?

Yeah. Now it’s not a weird thing for someone to say “I have a podcast.” It’s respected, it’s not laughed at. It’s an important contributor to news media, but also underrepresented communities. We can hear voices in those communities, and that’s never really happened before. Because of the intimacy and immediacy of the medium, because we get to publish when and how we want, there’s real power here and I think people respect that now.

Despite the ability for communities to empower themselves with podcasts, are there still barriers underrepresented communities face in podcasting?

I’m an able-bodied, straight, white-passing Indigenous man who is still very privileged, and the opportunities that I have because of my privilege should be acknowledged have to be acknowledged. There are still more opportunities for people like me than for so many others. Unless we are purposefully making the space equitable, which is what we’re trying to do at Indian & Cowboy and Makoons Media Group, we run the danger of just repeating the same problems that film and TV have. We will create gatekeepers, we will privilege certain voices, and that becomes normal. That’s a real problem, and that’s something we need to be aware of, right here at the start, and [we need to] continue to do everything we can to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes.

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Starting out as a podcaster can be intimidating. For me, interviewing strangers who are cool can be scary — as you might be hearing in my voice! Was there anything that intimidated you when you were starting out?

Absolutely! We actually start to build a case against ourselves with the doubts that creep in. We start to say, “Yeah, maybe this is a dumb idea! Maybe because of my download numbers, I’m not at the level of a CBC podcast, I’m not on the front page of iTunes, I’m only getting a couple of likes or retweets every episode, and that’s certainly not enough for the amount of work I’m putting in.” We can kind of trick ourselves into believing that whatever we’re doing isn’t going to work.

I remember the first couple of things I put out via podcast back in 2008. I think I had 11 downloads the first thing I dropped on my RSS feed. And then slowly, the numbers start to change. You go from 11 downloads to 1,100 downloads and you go “Okay, yeah, well all that work was worth it.” [At] 5000 downloads, you go, “Okay, well now I have an actual responsibility to these people who are trusting me, listening to me, and supporting me.” It’s quite a journey. When you’re starting out, I think you just have to be patient,just keep things really clear in your mind about why you started your project, and things will fall into place.

As long as you’re patient and you’re having a good time doing what you’re doing, it’s worth doing. But the minute it becomes too daunting or too difficult — I think officially in the space they call it “podfading,” I think they say something ridiculous like close to 80% or 85% of all podcasts on iTunes have less than three episodes. People start podcasting in earnest, they buy all the gear, they get all Gung-ho, their friend does the graphic design for their podcast art and then they do an episode and they’re exhausted. If they get through the second episode, they see the download numbers and they’re like, “What the hell are we doing this for?” [laughs]. It’s hard work. They’re free to listen to. They’re not free to make.

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What have been the challenges and rewards of running your own network?

The challenge simply has been to basically run the network on very little resources. In many ways, we’ve succeeded in creating a space for podcasters, but in a lot of ways, we’ve failed those podcasters. We haven’t been in a position over the last couple of years to help create employment, which is one of our goals; to help create a space where people are more free to do the podcasting they want to do, and to help resource podcasts with editors and producers.

We have a really important space that we’re still nurturing. We’ve been radically transparent this whole time. There’s still a lot of challenge. I won’t call it failure, but a lot of really intense challenges with doing what we’re doing.

Has there been a moment from making Red Man Laughing that stands out to you?

There are quite a few. One moment that really sticks out for me is my conversation with Murray Sinclair. I had tried to get this conversation long before TRC had wrapped its mandate. It was an important one, talking about reconciliation before reconciliation was on the tongues of the country. I finally landed the interview, pulled out my brand new Zoom [recorder], set up my tabletop mic stands and my shiny microphones, put on my backup recorder in the middle of the table… got through the interview and realized that the interview didn’t record on the main Zoom! [laughs] If you go back and listen to that episode, you will hear a very tinny, terrible audio version of the interview that was recorded on an H2N sitting in the middle of the table with the microphones pointing the wrong way. Probably the largest fuckup one could ever commit, when you finally get the big interview you fought for, not double-checking or triple-checking that you actually hit record.

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On the other end of the spectrum, recording Red Man Laughing for CBC in 2015 was a big accomplishment, and it’s something I’m really proud of. CBC at the time was highly doubtful that we had what it took to do it. We had someone inside CBC fight for us. They gave me full creative control of the show. When it was all done, the executive producer came running backstage and said, “Do you have 13 more of these, for a season?” And I said, “We’ve got 200 more of these, for many seasons.” There’s a lot of emerging Indigenous voices that Canada doesn’t know about. And there’s a lot of people doing really incredible things that Canada’s never heard of. We would obviously love to be the show that continues to bring those voices to the people.

If you could recommend three Indigenous-centric podcasts to all of Canada, what would they be?

MediaINDIGENA by Rick Harp is an excellent roundtable podcast. They kick around different news items in a really good way, in a way that you don’t often see covered in news.

The Think Indigenous podcast on Indian & Cowboy is a podcast about Indigenous education, best practices and boundary-breaking models of Indigenous education... that is actually not about Indigenous education at all. I think it’s a really valuable contribution to the podcasting space.

And not necessarily an Indigenous-specific podcast, but The Secret Life of Canada. It’s important because of who’s making it, it’s important because of whose voices are on it, but also, it’s brave. It’s a brave podcast in Canada that chooses to really go beyond headlines and go beyond the formulas that are in front of us now, and to dig into stories that otherwise go untold.

Is there an exciting change or innovation that you’d love to see happen in podcasting?

There’s still some issues with accessibility in podcasting. If part of my podcast hosting fee on Libsyn or any other service included transcripts, that would be good.

Podcasting is still a new-enough space that I don’t think we should be saying no to anything! There’s a lot of space for experimentation in live recording with audience participation, augmented reality even in virtual reality experiences! That’s our plan with Stories from the Land. We’re talking about location-based storytelling but we want to be able to take you to those places. We’re on it.

We’re watching some of the leaders, some of the bigger podcasts in the US attempting to do good things. We’re watching closely, learning, and seeing the potential inside of our work. It’s a fun time to be a creator.

-Elena Hudgins Lyle