Interview Series: Denise Balkissoon and Hannah Sung

In this installment of our interview series, we catch up with Denise Balkissoon and Hannah Sung, the co-creators and co-hosts of “Colour Code,” a 2017 DPA-winning podcast. Episodes covered hate-crimes, race and real estate, “white fragility” and more.

Throughout the series, Denise and Hannah spoke with various guests from British-Sri Lankan musician and pop provocateur M.I.A. to Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, aiming to “crack the code” of talking about race in Canada. You can download the podcast or listen to it here.

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Can you describe how and when this project began and what it took for it to go from an idea to a fully formed and downloadable podcast?

Denise: In fall 2015, the Globe’s masthead put out a call for proposals for special projects, and Hannah approached me to pitch alongside her. I found podcasts an exciting and innovative format and suggested one about Canadian identity, which we made more specific to the topic of race. Our proposal was immediately accepted, and we launched our first episode in September 2016. In between there was reporting, wrangling Tim Moore as our sound producer, asking for more money and time, killing a few episodes, meeting a lot of very smart people.

Hannah: It wasn’t easy to juggle our jobs with this new project but we aligned ourselves with incredibly talented and hard-working people and made ourselves into a little team of five (Timothy Moore, Danielle Webb, Katrina Bolak, Denise and myself) along with the support of senior editors including Kevin Siu and some dedicated peer-listeners. Then we put our heads down and worked on it for pretty much all of 2016. 

What went into deciding what episodes were developed?

Denise: We had a very, very long list of interesting topics that we did initial research on. Final episodes had a combination of timeliness, interesting guests and compelling audio.

Hannah: The blueprint for the podcast came out of our original proposal. Topics didn’t change very much. There were a few that we proposed but didn’t follow through on and that was simply a matter of workload. 

What ideas didn’t make it into an episode?

Denise: I had wanted to do an episode on social media and digital life, but eventually we didn’t think it was specifically Canadian enough.

Hannah: The one I’ve always wanted to do, in any format, is about how the Internet shapes the way we talk to each other, including about race. I always compare how people talk to each other in a Twitter-spat versus what they’d have the nerve to say in person. I wonder about what’s good and what’s bad and why we are the way we are.

What was the most difficult episode to produce and why?

Denise: Probably the first episode, Race Card. As a non-Indigenous person, I thought it was an essential element of a Canada-specific podcast, but it’s also a huge topic area that I’m only beginning to approach as a journalist. The stakes were very high.

Hannah: The Sutton episode, which is called Surface Tension. It was about revisiting a hate crime called “nipper-tipping” (sorry, it’s extremely offensive, but I’m just going to use the word the local kids used when they targeted and assaulted Asian people who were fishing, shoving them in the water and taking their gear — it’s their word, not mine). This episode was more documentary-style, which was like holding many juggling balls in the air in your head at the same time or at least it was for me. But it was also the most satisfying.

We were never able to do what we set out to do, which was to have a face-to-face conversation with Trevor Middleton, a man who went to jail after one of these brawls that led to a car chase and accident that nearly killed someone and definitely tore lives apart. Trevor’s mother ended up calling me to curtly tell me to go away but my recorder wasn’t plugged into my phone so I had to relay that conversation in my script. Not a good moment. Don’t know that she would have given me permission to record anyway but still.

I met with the family of one of the victims in that accident, Shayne Berwick, and the way his entire family’s lives have been upended was difficult to hear, not to mention all the friends who were in the car that night, some of whom spoke to me, on and off the record. Besides the technical and narrative challenges, I was approaching this episode with an open attitude, holding it open so that if we ever met with Trevor, we could have a conversation in which I wasn’t coming from a place of judgment, just curiosity. And trust me, that was hard. 

Can you describe the most memorable moment you’ve taken from the process of producing the podcast?

Denise: It’s been really affirming to engage with such an enthusiastic audience. A mom told me that she and her 12 year old listened to the show together and then discussed race and racism in Canada. That’s amazing.

What did you learn about audio storytelling through this process?

Hannah: As my friend and amazing podcast producer Kasia Mychajlowycz said to me once, making a podcast is like making a TV show. Same amount of work and heavy-lifting, just without the pictures. That’s freeing in a way because the best pictures are the ones that exist in your mind, anyway. But it’s no less work. The range of what you can do in audio storytelling is pretty amazing. But talk-style podcasts are way easier to do.

Denise: Always carry spare batteries.

What did it mean for you to be recognized at the Digital Publishing Awards?

Denise: It was cool that all the nominees were podcasts by women. Podcasts are such a lovely format for intimate stories, it’s nice to see them get recognition.

Hannah: It’s nice to be recognized by your industry peers and I recognize that awards have currency in the workplace. But awards don’t mean much compared to feedback and the kind of comments and letters we got was next level. It was extremely gratifying to meet people and hear from those who connected with what we were doing and whose eyes were opened up to a new understanding of our own history and the way we are living today. People still have a problem talking about race, obviously. We need more conversations about race, not less, and with a higher degree of knowledge and less emotion. I hope the DPA for Colour Code showed other journalists that talking about race with intelligence and literacy is something we should be running toward, not away from.

What has changed in a year?

Denise: Discussions of race and racism have become more commonplace, but also much more contentious. These are difficult times, and I hope that Colour Code has given a few people a bit of a foundation to discuss these issues in Canada, where people still do have an Angel Complex, which was the term we used to refer to comparing this country to the US.

If there were to be a season two of Colour Code, what issues would you like to speak to?

Denise: Relations between racialized immigrants and Indigenous people.


Denise Balkissoon is a weekly Opinion columnist and a reporter in the Globe’s Toronto section. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area.

Hannah Sung is now at TVO in a new position overseeing digital video and podcasts. 

Interviews conducted by Stephanie Philp.


The nominees for 2018 will be announced on Thursday, April 26, 2018 at 10 AM EST. Follow us on Twitter @DPAwards for the most up-to-date news.

The Digital Publishing Awards soirée will celebrate the winners on Tuesday, May 29, 2018 in Toronto.

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