There’s a question that pops up on Twitter more and more as the vaccination rate increases and re-opening plans come to life: How do we talk to people again? Small talk, a core skill we used to take for granted, has become rusty for many of us. 

As we make our way out of our home offices and back into the real world, what do we talk about? 

One suggestion: Ask what someone’s favourite podcast is.

Over the last five years, the podcast scene has exploded, with seemingly everyone having their own outlet. From politics to niche conversations on music, movies, books and more, podcasts have eclipsed blogs as the go-to medium for creating and sharing conversations.

Locally, we have many podcasts that cater to audiences across the region and around the globe. Bonn Park, based in Waterloo, features hosts Marshall Ward and Sara Geidlinger interviewing people living, working and creating in Waterloo Region. Finding and interviewing subjects came naturally for the duo. By day, Ward is a freelance writer and artist and Geidlinger is a photographer.

Like all podcasts, Bonn Park started with a conversation.

“Marshall and I do this podcast as a passion project,” said Geidlinger. “It started from conversations that we would have together. We met at a local park called Bonn Park in our neighborhood when we were stay-at-home parents. We would talk to each other about arts and culture and what was going on in the world around us. I said, ‘Hey Marshall, we should turn this into a podcast’ and he went for it.” 

The podcast now has listeners in Russia, South America, Europe and as far away as Thailand – but their focus is the local audience. “Marshall likes to call our show hyperlocal,” Geidlinger said. 

The duo had two months of episodes complete when COVID-19 hit. In the early days of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders forced them to record remotely, which Ward didn’t think would work at first. “I didn’t like the idea of remote interviews at all. I’m huge on communication when it comes to body language and being able to see people, so I totally resisted the idea,” he said. 

Once the reality of the situation set in, they accepted the change to remote interviews and moved forward. “We did it and I saw that it can totally work,” Ward said.

As a freelance writer, Ward – who wrote a column for the Waterloo Chronicle for many years – lives off the energy of roaming the streets and talking to new people.

“It’s been hugely beneficial to my life during the pandemic. I’ve often said to people that the fact that I can’t just roam the city freely anymore and meet people and find stories to write about is crippling to my creativity – but thank goodness for this podcast!”

Geidlinger also found mental-health benefits in doing the podcast. As a self-employed photographer, her summer would usually be filled with weddings and portrait sessions. With the pandemic, that work dried up, and the podcast became a way to fulfil her need for social engagement.

“The connections that we’ve made have been monumental,” she said. “As soon as that person pops up on the screen, Marshall and I are like, ‘Hi, let’s meet. Let’s talk. What is it that you do?’ It’s an uplifting feeling.”

That same need for connection inspired another local podcaster to begin her journey.

Mifrah Abid immigrated to Canada from India with her husband and spent the last two years completing her credentials to start her job search. She finished her studies – and then the pandemic upended those plans.

“I realized there aren’t going to be any jobs because of the lockdown,” Abid said. “I said to my husband, ‘Let’s do something creative.’ That’s how the podcast was started – out of boredom.”

Abid is the creator and host of Across Her Table, in which she speaks with other immigrant women about their experiences. Inspired by her own journey as a woman and a Muslim newcomer to Canada, Abid sought others with whom she could unpack the differences and similarities in their stories.

“Storytelling is such an amazing way to engage in an experience,” Abid said. “We just started reaching out to people and I think it helped that everybody was on lockdown. It began to grow and then people started calling in and sending in messages, saying it spoke to them and it was inspirational.”

Each interview has opened up Abid and her listeners to the varied challenges faced by immigrants to Canada. One that frequently comes up is the recognition – or lack of recognition – of degrees and credentials, which Abid herself experienced.

“I was a lecturer of English in India,” she said. “I’m a podcaster now.”

The podcast has had the added benefit of helping Abid discover a new career. Today, she is an anti-racism advocate and the co-ordinator for Together Against Islamophobia at the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo. Her role builds on her podcast experience, moving from speaking with immigrants about their experiences to helping them overcome obstacles. 

One of Abid’s favourite guests is Ginella Massa, host of Canada Tonight on CBC News Network. Massa made Canadian history as the first video journalist to wear a hijab on the air while working for CTV News in Kitchener.

“She talks about things that Muslim girls are so afraid to talk about, like the struggles with a hijab. Everyone thinks it’s such an easy thing to put something on your head and walk out the door.”

In the podcast episode, Abid and Massa discussed the challenge of finding hijabs that were acceptable to wear on air. “She can’t seem to find anything which is appropriate for Western audiences that’s then not appropriate enough for Muslim audiences. She’s straddling expectations from two different cultures.” 

Abid said it’s critical for young girls to be able to hear other experiences and share their own.

“These are things nobody else speaks about, like the Islamophobia that Muslim women face because of how they dress,” Abid said. “One thing Massa said was, ‘I’m not modest enough for Muslim audiences and I’m too modest for Western audiences. There’s no winning.’”

That line resonated with many podcast listeners. “I think Muslim women have been left out of authentic representation for so long that it kind of connected with a lot of people,” Abid added.

With the horrific, hate-motivated killings of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont. this week, sharing these stories of racism is more important than ever. An online vigil held on Tuesday reinforced that need when the Zoom call was “Zoom bombed” with racist and Islamophic comments. 

“There was one young lady who spoke at the vigil who said that people are asking us to be less Muslim, to be safe,” said Abid. “Maybe less hijabs, without a beard, without traditional clothes, don't speak in our own language. Then she said that her only job is to be more Muslim – to be more generous, to be more kind, to be more forgiving, to be more proud of who we are, to be more of this, and stand for justice. Our stories have to be told again and again and again so people know that we are not others; [that] we are Canadians and that we belong here.”

Abid hopes that by sharing these stories, more people will understand that whether you’re born here or immigrated here, that we all belong – and that we should not have to assimilate or hide our identities to do that.

“I want to instil that kind of pride in owning up to your identity,” she said. “With my kids, I always tell them that you’ll always be Indian-Canadian, you’ll always have another experience and other cultural experience to look back to. They’re blended. It’s something totally unique and I want to celebrate that blend of cultures. I think all my guests are proudly Canadian, unapologetically Canadian, but at the same time, they’re also unapologetically Pakistani or Syrian, or whatever they identify with. I think that is so quintessential to the Canadian experience.”

Here are more locally produced podcasts that you can add to your list:

  • Shine Mama, from Sarah Bester, for moms committed to raising awesome humans and who want to become the best version of themselves while doing it.
  • Too Scary, from Shannon Brown and Mark Carter, about movies that fit that description. They bill it as “For scaredy-cats, by scaredy-cats.”
  • The 4 Turntables and a Microphone Podcast is just that – four guys sitting around a microphone talking about their passion for music and collecting records.
  • Two local educators bring on guests to talk about baseball, music and culture on the Devil’s Cut Podcast.
  • Women’s Crisis Services of Waterloo Region produces the She Is Your Neighbour podcast. Each episode takes a deep dive into domestic violence through thought-provoking discussions on hard topics like domestic violence and the drug trade, violence against Indigenous women and girls, barriers for transgender youth seeking support and more.
  • The Old Grey Mayors podcast features Rob Deutschmann sitting down with community leaders, civic leaders and others from across Waterloo Region to learn more about their experiences and how those lessons can apply to today's issues.
  • Ryan Leacock talks with creative people from around the world on the Creative People Podcast.
  • Local musicians Jesse And Jay host the KW Famous Podcast where they talk music, comedy and road stories.
  • Emm Fink and Laura Tuomi are two ladies eating and drinking their way through Kitchener-Waterloo. Check out their podcast Happy Hour KW.
  • Tom O’Connor and Dave Meehan host the Sound Affect podcast where they investigate the influence of one album on one artist.
  • Discover these and many more locally-made podcasts on Midtown Radio – Kitchener’s first hyperlocal internet radio station.