Shaping a narrative – media choices

Listening to the CBC this morning as they are talking about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon and whether it will last, and pleased to see a smidgen of media self-awareness of their power to shape a narrative – and of the choices they make in doing so.

As I listened to the discussion, it reminded me so vividly of something that happened to me a long time ago that I had almost forgotten.

At the time, I was a municipal politician, with interests in culture and the arts. One of the events I had been interested in, for some time, was Folk on the Rocks, a northern folk festival started by some folks in Yellowknife that had attracted a lot of interest. People were excited by the idea that they could go to a local beach and listen to folk music, and the festival attracted high profile stars and a great deal of local participation.

But as often happens, the organizers had lost steam after a few years. The original team had stepped down, and others had stepped in. One of them – a man with a high profile in the arts community – called me, and with flowery compliments, urged me to join the board of the organization that ran the festival. Somewhat naively, I said yes.

But I couldn’t make it to the annual general meeting, as both my daughters got chickenpox. So I was a bit surprised to get a phone call from the same man, telling me I had been elected president of the society that ran the festival.

Taking up the responsibility, I started to learn more. I visited the office, in Storefront. I discovered that the bills had been filed away in a drawer – lots of them. It turned out, as I dug a bit more, that the society was in debt – a great deal of debt, as it turned out.

Pondering the problem, it became clear that the only way to get the society out of debt was to hold another festival. I made the rounds of government agencies seeking funding; I dragged all my friends into the process; we made plans for the festival.

It was a bit tricky, as all I had in terms of financial information was some figures scratched on the back of an envelope by the man who had called me initially. It was not clear what it cost to run a festival. But my friend down the street did his best to put together estimates – and he decided we were going to pay the performers with cheques, even if we cashed it for them, so at least we started to have a financial picture.

We couldn’t afford to pay high profile performers, so we put together a festival line-up that we could afford. Tricky, if you’re not so aware of the folk scene – as few of us were. Luckily, I had one friend who did know the scene and he put together our lineup.

Then the question was – how were we going to get the performers to Yellowknife? I proposed to go to a local travel agency that I dealt with (there were two, at that time, and the festival had dealt with the other agency). The man who got me into this said, “oh, I wouldn’t do that.” When I asked why, he explained that the festival owed them money – from a few years back. So I guess that was why there wasn’t a bill from that agency among the pile in the drawer of the office.

I went to the agency, explained that I had just heard we owed them money, and explained our plans for that year’s festival. I was pretty straightforward – without running a festival that year, we would never have the money to pay the old debt. They agreed to help.

And so, after hours and days and weeks of hard work, we were ready to go. I was excited as we started to see the people pour into the site. Of course there were glitches. I remember one group of Americans who came (we were excited because they had bought a lot of tickets as a group). One of them didn’t like the lyrics sung by one of our performers; they demanded their money back. I explained that we didn’t tell our performers what they could or could not sing, but if they were unhappy, we’d give them their money back, and so we did. (Unfortunately, they didn’t all leave, so some of them got to see the show for free.)

But to get back to where I started. There were two possible stories for the media. One was that this group of people, with little or no experience in running a folk festival, had pulled off the seemingly impossible. The other was that this was a festival that, unlike the previous ones, had no headliners or well known acts.

I remember how disappointed I was that the national media story was the second one.  Although I didn’t have much time to be disappointed, because I was having to find a group of singers from a small community that apparently hadn’t gotten home yet. I found them on the site, sorted out their travel arrangements home, and went home to sleep for hours.

Effectively, our merry little band of people saved something that has now become a northern institution. But you won’t find that reflected in the media’s stories, then or later.