SFU's Below the Radar podcast—directed and hosted by Am Johal—fills a void created by the pandemic

It's attracting listeners from around the world

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      When Am Johal and his team at the SFU Vancouver campus decided three years ago to create a podcast called Below the Radar, it was an experiment with public outreach. After all, that’s been his job since 2010 as the director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement.

      In his position, Johal has worked closely with local festivals and various SFU faculties. He’s put on scores of speaking events. His efforts were recognized when he won SFU’s Warren Gill Award for Community Impact for the relationships that he helped forge between the university and its partners in Vancouver’s urban core.

      But unlike his more famous brother Jas, Johal had never been a professional broadcaster, so a podcast was venturing into new territory.

      “Interestingly, we started this off the side of our desk just to try out a new form of engagement,” Johal told the Straight by phone.

      But in March 2020, something unexpected happened. The World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic. And that put an end, at least for a while, to public events at SFU Woodward’s, where Johal is stationed.

      Much to his surprise, the Below the Radar podcast emerged as his office’s primary means of engagement—so much so that it went from a biweekly to a weekly podcast.

      “We get listened to in an average month in over 50 countries,” Johal said. “In that sense, it’s given us an opportunity to engage with a much larger public outside Vancouver.”

      He emphasized that the largest audiences are still in Vancouver, Burnaby, and Surrey, where SFU’s three campuses are located. But there is also a sizeable 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’re at over 50,000 listens after three years, altogether.”

      His team’s goal is to boost that number to more than 100,000 by the time they’ve recorded 250 episodes.

      The 100th Below the Radar podcast featured SFU president Joy Johnson.

      Climate is the focus at podcast fest

      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 Below the Radar”, featuring four guests: interdisciplinary artist and climate-governance researcher Julia Kidder, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer Eugene Kung, Kanaka Bar Indian Band chief Patrick Michell, and climate-action storyteller Grace Nosek.

      It’s far from the first time that Below the Radar has addressed the climate emergency in its 144 episodes. Previous shows have featured conversations with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip; Squamish Nation council chairperson Khelsilem; Sierra Club B.C. climate-justice lead Anjali Appadurai; and novelist Amitav Ghosh, who has called on the literary community to incorporate the climate crisis into their stories because it’s the most urgent issue facing the world.

      “It’s definitely a theme that we’ve always been interested in,” Johal noted.

      In fact, he has written or cowritten two books on the subject, including one that was an offshoot of his PhD thesis. He recently passed through the Fraser Canyon community of Lytton, which suffered a devastating fire in this past summer’s heat wave.

      “Ninety percent of the town burned down, and just seeing the remains of houses and cars is really jaw-dropping in so many ways,” Johal said. “It still just leaves you breathless in terms of how quickly all of these things can happen. In the case of Lytton, you know, there was no evacuation alert, even—it went straight to an evacuation order at 6 p.m.”

      Within an hour, most of the town had disappeared.

      Johal emphasized that it wouldn’t be possible to create Below the Radar without its production team of students and recent 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’re way more tech savvy than I am,” Johal declared.

      Last summer, Am Johal interviewed harm-reduction activist Ann Livingston about the overdose crisis.

      The podcast’s objective is “amplifying ideas that fly below the radar”. One way this is being accomplished is through “containers” focusing on certain topics. For example, Bardi documents lived experiences of women from diverse backgrounds in the workforce. Community organizer Al Etmanski hosts another container focusing on the power of disability. Johal is planning to launch another container focusing on precautionary notes for a future pandemic.

      According to him, there are significant educational advantages that come from doing a podcast through a university. Transcripts are maintained and episodes can become
      citable material for graduate students.

      “There’s also a scholarly orientation to what can happen,” Johal added.

      Not only that, but Below the Radar gives him an opportunity to contact anyone in the world and ask for an interview.

      “So it’s been a great way to just reach out to people I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to engage with or be able to talk to,” he said. “So it’s been really a learning process, I think, for the entire team that produces the podcast.