By: Ania Bessonov, RSJ ’18

 

When three current CBC employees studied journalism at Ryerson, podcasts were less familiar than tape cassettes.  Today, these RSJ alumni are behind one of the most popular podcast series.

Kathleen Goldhar, Josh Bloch, and Mieke Anderson, were part of the small team that worked on Escaping NXIVM, a podcast part of CBC’s Uncover series, which exposes a pyramid marketing scheme/self-help group that some call a sex cult.

The spark for the story was a surprise meeting between two childhood friends. In the summer of 2017, Josh Bloch, a 2010 MJ graduate, ran into an old friend, Sarah Edmondson, in B.C. During their brief interaction, she told him she just gotten out of a cult.

“I was totally shocked,” said Bloch. “I knew she was part of this weird self-help group but I wasn’t clear on what this group was or that she was branded.”

At the time, Bloch, a producer on The Current, thought the story would be a great interview for the radio show. But his executive producer, Kathleen Goldhar, saw something more ambitious.

“I knew it was as big of a story as it became,” said Goldhar, RSJ’96. “I knew the way people absorb podcasts and I just knew it was the kind of thing people couldn’t get enough of.”

After they successfully pitched the story to CBC’s podcast team, Bloch and Goldhar began their work in August 2017. What followed next was a year-long investigation into the dark and complex world of NXIVM (pronounced ‘Nexium’). They interviewed numerous individuals who were in some way affiliated to the self-help group based in Albany, New York, or the group’s founder, Keith Raniere.

Interviews with some of the sources were long (up to five hours) as former members recalled often traumatic experiences about being exploited and assaulted after being recruited to participate in a purported self-help group.

“We had interviews with people who said they wanted to schedule [the interviews] later in the day because they knew they were done after they talked about this,” said Bloch.

Since going to air, the podcast has been at the top of iTunes charts in several countries and received critical praise.

“When you work on an important story that you want people to hear and then you realize that people are listening and hearing it, it just makes the investment worth it,” said Mieke Anderson, RSJ’08 who joined the Escaping NXIVM team in April 2018 as co-producer, co-writer, and audio mixer.

Aside from its chart-topping position on iTunes, Anderson has also been encouraged by feedback from her colleagues.

“When a colleague comes up to you and says hey, I actually listened to something that you know is seven hours worth of tape and they like it, it means a lot because you know they’re a really busy person and they just took the time to listen to it,” she said.

The phenomenal growth of podcasting points to a recent – and somewhat surprising – revival of audio storytelling.

When Anderson was a journalism student, podcasts barely existed. Pursuing audio as a career choice was not all that popular among her classmates, she recalled. “But we waited it out and 10 years later audio is here and people aren’t saying radio is dead anymore.”

Currently, all seven episodes of the podcast have been released on most audio listening platforms. But the story is not over as Raniere and other members face charges related to sex trafficking.

Goldhar and Bloch say they hope to be able to produce some bonus episodes.

Bloch says he wants to attend Raniere’s trial in New York scheduled for January.

“Whether we cover it or not, I’ll definitely be front row.”

 

Editor’s note: Ania Bessonov was an intern at CBC during September-October 2018 as part of to fulfill her course requirements in the Bachelor of Journalism program.