Toronto police are spending more than $300,000 worth of taxpayer money on a podcast with a limited audience.
The podcast, produced by a third-party company, is called 24 Shades of Blue. Its objective, according to a statement provided by police, is to offer a “behind the scenes” look at policing that takes more time than traditional media would offer.
Toronto police declined to be interviewed for this story.
CBC Toronto was only able to obtain the price tag by filing a freedom of information request. That request took months to get back, resulting in this story being published now, as city council prepares for the final debate on a budget that includes $48 million in new money for the Toronto Police Service (TPS).
TPS said the podcast has reached 94,500 people — tracked as either plays on streaming services or views on YouTube. Some videos have attracted more than 10,000 views, but most totals are in the hundreds.
That means each audience member was worth about $3 of public money.
Police agencies that have run their own media programs have been accused of ‘copaganda’ and this will mitigate this risk.– Shawna Coxon, former deputy chief of the Toronto Police Service, in memo dated Aug. 1, 2020
Documents obtained by CBC Toronto show the podcast’s creation was a sole-source deal, initially worth some $90,000.
Despite the pilot season’s limited reach, former chief James Ramer signed off on a three-year extension worth $247,800 on Nov. 2, 2021, documents show.
This situation shows just how little control the public has over police spending. A spokesperson said TPS followed its own purchasing rules — which are different from those the City of Toronto has in place — but the podcast was obtained without ever being opened to a competitive bidding process that could potentially net a better price or product.
Many, if not most, Torontonians have never heard of this podcast, which further reduces any scrutiny it might receive. City councillors, meanwhile, don’t have a say in this type of spending, despite being members of the body that approves the overall TPS budget. That responsibility falls to the Toronto Police Services Board.
John Sewell, a former mayor of Toronto who frequently attends police board meetings, said it amounts to the service having a “free hand.”
“The police get money for anything they want. This is business as usual,” he told CBC Toronto.
He said it’s unclear why police need a podcast.
“They’re in the media all the time; what do they need a podcast for?”
‘Every dollar counts’ in Toronto’s pinched budget, councillor says
Coun. Josh Matlow said he’s happy TPS is trying to communicate with the community, but doesn’t know why the deal was sole-sourced and said it’s “unacceptable” police wouldn’t release the price when asked.
Matlow also questioned whether this is a good use of public money as the city grapples with a massive financial crunch.
“Every dollar counts these days,” Matlow said.
Police leadership has been telling city council TPS needs more money for core duties, including addressing violent crime, keeping our roads safe and improving response times for emergency calls, Matlow said. The podcast spending feels “incongruent,” he said.
“The fact that they want to have a podcast is not necessarily a bad thing, but we all have to make choices when we don’t have enough money in our budgets,” he said.
In recent years, council has moved to have the auditor general review some elements of the police budget. Councillors meet Wednesday to finalize this year’s budget.
Podcasters approached police
The show is produced by Obie & Ax Inc., a podcasting company that operates in Toronto and the U.S. and makes shows for police, government agencies and big brands.
Documents show company co-founder and CEO Andy O’Brien approached former deputy chief Shawna Coxon about doing a podcast in 2020, and Coxon moved the plan forward within the service (Coxon now works for Ireland’s police service, called An Garda Siochana, and serves on Obie & Ax Inc.’s board. The company said in an email she is not paid to hold that position).
“Andy O’Brien is nothing short of a character with mad skills in start-ups. He runs the cool podcast I showed you the deck on,” Coxon writes in an email to the communications department in May of 2020.
“We need help in getting TPS as a formal community partner for the podcast.”
There was no discussion of launching a competitive bidding process to see if a better deal was out there in the documents CBC Toronto obtained, with communications officials citing four reasons to justify the sole-sourcing.
Those reasons include the podcasters’ being “well known” and their company having an “exemplary advisory board of leaders.”
Further, Obie & Ax is, according to police: “the only podcast in Canada that will produce a sub-podcast from beginning to end including providing hosts, the set, sound, and editing for a stylized, complete product.”
No detailed research is presented to support that statement. The same four reasons were used when justifying the podcast’s extension.
Police control questions, get final edit on content
The podcasts are done interview-style.
O’Brien (Obie) and Axel Villamil (Ax) serve as the show’s hosts, although O’Brien tells police clearly the interviews “will be edited to your specification.”
“Nothing will be sent out on our platforms unless you approve,” O’Brien writes.
Toronto police didn’t release the actual contract with Obie & Ax, but an Aug. 14, 2020 briefing document states: “Our contract entitles us to two edits per show, thereby allowing the [Toronto Police Service] to have final say on the finished product.”
Despite having clear control, Coxon and others suggest using the third-party will shield against the perception they’re creating “copaganda.”
“Police agencies that have run their own media programs have been accused of ‘copaganda’ and this will mitigate this risk,” Coxon writes in an Aug. 1, 2020 memo to Ramer.
No clear targets for success set
The documents don’t lay out any metrics for the podcast’s success in terms of audience.
However the documents show the service is pleased with what it’s getting, even if there’s limited public return. One document suggests the show appears to be reaching one demographic police struggle to connect with — men aged 18-34. That finding is held up as a key reason to renew the show.
A spokesperson denied the podcast is a recruitment tool, but said it would be an “added benefit” if candidates decided to apply after listening.
The podcast isn’t the only communications avenue Toronto police are pursuing.
Documents show they’ve paid the crisis management firm Navigator to provide advice, also on a sole source basis. They’ve recently had former reporter Tamara Cherry run a series of interviews dubbed #TPSTrust. The Traffic Services division has even launched a public-facing question and answer series on TikTok, which the service notes has been “successful in reaching a diverse audience.”
The cost of this work is relatively small in comparison with TPS’s overall $1.1-billion budget, with most of that money paying for personnel.
But for Sewell it’s a picture, albeit a small one, of the way police spending is managed and held to account.
“It’s a governance problem,” he said.