Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Allan Gregg in Conversation

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews about politics, history, science, and culture, both Canadian and non-
Episode duration: 8-28m
Frequency: 10-20 per month

Though it strays more often than it used to, I do keep an eye on Canadian politics. I do it for the same reason I keep an ear on Canadian media. The products and actions of a country with fewer than 53 million people and little direct influence on world affairs may strike you as less interesting, by definition, than those of a country with over 312 million people and arguably too much influence on world affairs. But since the small country doesn’t face nearly as harsh a glare of attention as the large country does, it can to that extent provide a setting for items of greater interest. So as marginal as Canadian politics and media can seem, I enjoy both because things exist within those systems that feel like they couldn’t exist in the States. Here, burdened with the need to appeal to hundreds of millions of people at once, politics and media get “blanded down.” They certainly haven’t produced anyone like Allan Gregg.

Neither a straight-up politician nor a traditional media figure, Gregg often gets called a “pollster” or a “pundit.” He’s advised politicians and parties, but he’s also run a record label, co-managed several bands, chaired the Toronto International Film Festival, and written magazine columns. But you read about him in Podthoughts today because of his talk show, Allan Gregg in Conversation [RSS] [iTunes]. Though produced as a television show for the Ontario public station TVO, it goes out as an audio podcast as well, and nothing I’ve heard on it suggests that I’m missing out by not getting the visual. From what I can tell, Ontarians sit down every Friday night for a half-hour program comprising a conversation or three between Gregg and noted writers, politicians, artists, and academics. The podcast feed distributes these conversations individually, and sometimes throws in a curveball of a talk from five, ten, even fifteen years ago. Ready to cast your mind back to the personal and professional failings of Bill Clinton? [MP3] [MP3]

Wait a while, you might say. Wasn’t this supposed to be a Canadian show? So where do they get off having spirited discussions about Bill Clinton? Fair enough; perhaps you’d prefer Gregg’s interviews about Jack Layton [MP3] or Pierre Trudeau [MP3] or Brian Mulroney [MP3]? Or perhaps you’d like to skip to the tour de force, Gregg’s sit-down with Jean Chrétien [MP3], the former Prime Minister who once bore the brunt of an infamous attack ad launched by Gregg himself? I don’t know about you, but when I listen to conversations like these, the same fascination centers of my brain light up as when I hear people discussing sports I rarely see played or fictional universes to which I have only occasional exposure. You might call it the intellectual thrill of partial information, as opposed to the dull intellectual throb of too much, a saturation level many Americans have long since reached about, say, George W. Bush.

So I don’t want to front like too much of a universally engaged world citizen here, since I mostly turn toward this Canadian stuff simply because it feels kinda different. And Gregg concerns himself with much more than Canadian politics or even Canadian affairs, inviting onto his program such true world citizens as Pico Iyer [MP3], Salman Rushdie [MP3], and Kazuo Ishiguro [MP3]. Douglas Coupland, the interviewee whose two appearances [MP3] [MP3] brought me aboard the show in the first place, has one foot on each side of Gregg’s guest list. Since writing Generation X those twenty years ago, he’s become both a proud icon of Canadian culture (just look at the line he designed for Roots, festooned with literal icons of Canadian culture) and a much-translated author popular across the world. Something about his manner, on this program and elsewhere, gets at exactly what draws me in about the Canadian sensibility, as it manifests itself in politics, in media, and — for all I know — forms beyond.

Both Coupland and Gregg speak in a manner that at first seems mild, subdued, measured — beige, almost. And if you don’t look or listen closely to Canada as a whole, much of it, too, can seem beige. But give your close attention, and it resolves into a highly unusual, nuanced shade of beige indeed. On their surfaces, Coupland, Gregg, and other pillars of Canadian media like Ideas or The Signal exude a calmative force. That in itself I value, but they also carry a payload of secret interestingness afforded by their northern provenance. Alan Gregg would appear to follow all the standard rules of interviewing — read the guest’s book, play devil’s advocate when necessary, “keep things moving” — but he does so with a subtly individual style and a seemingly genuine curiosity. The cumulative effect of these qualities over hours upon hours of listening to Allan Gregg in Conversation has led me to think of him as one of the most quietly incisive general-interest interviewers of our time. Show me the American pollster who can transcend talking-head status to achieve that — or would even want to.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]