Appropriating the Alberta Advantage: a podcast profile

Alberta Marxists are trying to reclaim the meaning of the “Alberta Advantage” via their podcast of the same name.

At the time of its creation in September 2017, said host and producer Kate Jacobson, there were not really any leftist podcasts in the Prairie region. Now, they have been nominated for two Best of Calgary awards: Best Podcast and Best Twitter Personality.

“We’ve been really pleased with how receptive people have been to this project,” said Jacobson.

“To me, that shows there is an appetite for what we are doing in the Prairies, and that it shows there is a gap that exists in media currently that we are filling in some way.”

In a year, the podcast’s Patreon subscriptions have increased from $2 per month to a current $558 per month. They see themselves as countering Alberta’s mainstream media with an actual leftist voice.

Their presence reflects a growing trend in Canada and the United States. Many people are fed up with neoliberalism and the mainstream media, are not afraid to attack sacred cows in politics and culture and find their voice via podcasts.

What is the Alberta Advantage podcast?

The podcast sometimes is sarcastic, but they pride themselves on being informative, even if there is no questioning their political orientation.

A typical episode has sometimes acerbic but always serious and passionate discussion of Alberta politics and history. They say that their research is what distinguishes them: they have many unnamed contributors adding research to a long Google Doc before each episode. Co-host Patrick King says there are a “couple dozen” people involved.

Jacobson says she is safe in her job as business manager of The Gauntlet, the University of Calgary’s student magazine. King and fellow host Stephen Magusiak, meanwhile, work freelance.

However, several of the rotating hosts only go by a first name. These contributors fear their radical stances could cause them to lose their job.

Attempting a “big tent” podcast that is still decidedly socialist

While pipeline angst dominates the front pages of Calgary papers, the Alberta Advantage have only done a fraction of episodes about the industry.

Topics have included the Alberta government subsidizing private schools with public money, gentrification, the flat tax, and attacks on local right-wing think tanks. Jacobson describes the show’s audience as “left-liberal”. They do not wish to be bogged down in “obscure sectarian purity tests.”

At the same time as they seek a “big tent” audience, the podcast is not afraid to touch the third rail of Alberta politics, the oil-and-gas industry. At a time when some Alberta pundits see criticism of the struggling industry as literally treasonous, and the industry enjoys a massive majority of support, the podcast goes out on quite a limb.

One episode argued that carbon taxes were ineffective, selling out any hope of actual effective climate change policy. And, yes, they have also argued against pipelines.

Jacobson was arrested in March at a sit-in protest at Kinder Morgan headquarters. She believes that the catastrophic effects of climate change will force a transition from fossil fuels one way or another, and the oil industry leading the transition would be an “unjust” transition, since “they are the ones who got us into the mess in the first place.”

“I don’t know that we have a large role to play in defusing climate denialism,” said King. But the podcast tries anyway. In somewhat of an understatement, Magusiak acknowledges their hard stance on oil-and-gas is “controversial even in left circles.”

King described the average listener as “someone who’s already got an interest in [left] politics, but maybe hasn’t been exposed to the particular ideas that we’re looking at on any given day.”

Podcasts vs. Postmedia

On a general level, Magusiak and Jacobson think the show’s appeal is in the fact that it occasionally does basic journalism, finding gaps in Postmedia coverage. An example was their coverage of the United Conservative Party (UCP) and NDP conventions. Jacobson covered the latter on-site, recording interviews with a field microphone.

“Only a handful of [UCP] resolutions got covered in any mainstream press. We went in there in more detail,” explained King.

Magusiak, a freelance writer and graduate of Mount Royal University’s journalism school, focuses on media criticism. He joined the show after “making fun of centrists online.”

“Leftist analysis is absent, frankly, in mainstream media,” said Magusiak.

“They’ll print the most far-right opinion, they’ll print tepidly left-of-centre positions, but never will they acknowledge class.”

The podcast also does distinctive deep dives on Alberta political history, whether in living memory (a two-part episode titled “Ralph Klein Sucked”) or forgotten (Ernest Manning’s Social Credit Party, the CCF, and the Canadian Wheat Board.)

The goal, said King, is to have 50 per cent of episodes be about history.

“The history of Canada and the prairies that you get in high school here is such a sanitized and uninteresting version, that I think people are interested in hearing about the more interesting and radical things that have happened,” said Jacobson.

The big picture for political podcasts

Evidence suggests a market for alternative media, as newsrooms shrink and consolidate around centre-right editorial stances, and as both the far-left and far-right return to prominence around the globe. Politically-themed podcasts have emerged as a source of catharsis and education for many young leftists.

According to a 2018 study, 26 per cent of Canadians listen to podcasts at least monthly, with 52 per cent of listeners aged 18-34. Meanwhile, some of the most successful crowdfunded podcasts have been about leftist politics.

The Alberta Advantage recently partnered with independent journalism project Ricochet Media. Ricochet posts Alberta Advantage episodes on its website alongside other Patreon-funded podcasts. These include 49th Parahell (covering both U.S. and Canadian politics) and News You Can Use (“a pack of SJWs making yet another damn podcast about Canadian politics).

These podcasts both follow and challenge other popular podcasts. As the 13th-ranked podcast on Patreon, Jesse Brown’s Canadaland pulls in just over $27,000 a month. The Alberta Advantage, however, decidedly opposes Brown’s centrism, taking offense at him claiming their turf.

“Certainly, it’s a lot easier to have a glib, liberal centrist take,” noted King.

“That’s definitely not the space that we inhabit.”

“I religiously edit out all jokes” on the podcast

The other leftist podcast Brown mentioned, Chapo Trap House, is the second-highest-earning Patreon in the world, earning over $100,000 a month. That notoriously love-it-or-hate-it podcast features vulgar and often extremely online-specific humour, which is quite unlike Alberta Advantage.

Jacobson is not a fan of Chapo – “we don’t talk about them” around her, said Magusiak – but there is a certain degree of overlap. Most of Team Advantage are active Twitter users, so there is a slight twinge of online Left Twitter culture on the show. Chapo phrases are peppered throughout Alberta Advantage episodes, such as “ghouls” (referring to contemptible political figures), or “hellworld” (a catchphrase of that show’s co-host Matt Christman).

Advantage has recently produced lighter-toned mini-episodes, which usually ruthlessly pan right-wing editorials, similar to Chapo’s “reading series.” Targets have included Postmedia columnists Naomi Lakritz, Rick Bell, and David Staples. The panelists on the mini-episodes call themselves the “Teen Tankie Podcast Gang”, a nod to online leftist culture. 

teen tankie podcast gang reporting for duty

— Kate Jacobson (@kateljacobson) September 1, 2018

However, in contrast to other podcasts, Jacobson “religiously edits out all jokes” from each episode. She said this distinguished hers from a political podcast she actually liked, Nova Scotia’s Dog Island.

“We try to keep it as not-online as possible.

“But that said, we take our politics really seriously.

“It’s not just a joke to me.”

Alberta: “ground zero” for neoliberalism

Many leftists worldwide, including those on “Left Twitter”, have concluded that the shocking far-right political upheaval of the past few years is primarily the result of the failure of neoliberalism. U.S. President Donald Trump’s election convinced Magusiak that neoliberalism and centrism are utterly inadequate to stopping the far-right and that the only option is a return to Marx.

Originally, neoliberalism referred to the supply-side economic and political consensus that has formed worldwide since the early 1980s. Jacobson defines it as “expanding the private sphere while reducing the public sphere.” 

Jacobson said Alberta is “ground zero” for neoliberalism.

“Things like electricity deregulation during the Klein years, that was basically tested out here before power companies started using it in the U.S.

“We often get it first, and we get it quite hard, and they see what works, what people are willing to tolerate.

“You see that with the Klein cuts to public education, all those kinds of things.

“My whole life in Alberta has been a product of neoliberalism. I can’t imagine an Alberta that isn’t; I can’t even imagine a world that isn’t.”

Returning prairie socialism to Alberta

With the 2019 provincial election nearing, Jacobson shrugged off the idea they are attacking the wrong side.

“I’m not loyal to the NDP brand or the party. I’m loyal to the improvements they can make in our society.”

On the contrary, she believes that Premier Rachel Notley tying her government’s survival so tightly to oil-and-gas will backfire. Jacobson does not think progressive voters will turn out in simply because of dislike of UCP leader Jason Kenney. She argues that because Kenney will always call the NDP socialist, they should embraced the label in their policies.

“People don’t … get excited for political parties that offer small incremental reforms,” she said.

Jacobson wishes the NDP had passed anti-scab labour legislation, removed public funding for private schools, and expanded Alberta health care.

The podcast is operating on faith that Alberta is not as conservative as it appears.

In the meantime, and ironically for Marxists, another goal is to start paying contributors.

“If we were to pay writers, what would be a good wage to pay them? First, we figure out the surplus value of their labour…” joked Magusiak.