Basking in the light of their arguable heyday, podcasts have the potential to bundle storytelling, investigation, and public awareness into one engaging and accessible media form.
A senior reporter and her team at CBC Ottawa are carrying that potential to new heights.
Hosted by Julie Ireton, The Band Played On is the latest chapter in an ongoing investigative project on historical sexual abuse at an Ottawa high school. The serial podcast premiered May 31 and consists of seven episodes. An epilogue is coming soon.
The dive into the troubling saga of Bell High School began with Ireton’s award-winning investigative feature published in November 2018. She pieced together the stories of multiple victims who came forward to talk about their abuse at the hands of three teachers over several decades. Two successive music teachers, Bob Clarke and Tim Stanutz, and a basketball coach, Don Greenham, allegedly used private offices, band and canoe trips, and even their own homes to sexually exploit students under their care.
All three teachers were charged as early as 2016, and while Clarke pled guilty and was sentenced to time in prison, both Greenham and Stanutz died before their time in court. Since then, the story has continued to unfold. Bell alumni, including those at the University of Ottawa, have shared their personal struggles. Most recently, a group of high school students produced a documentary theatre piece capturing victims’ experiences.
As for Ireton, she knew the project was long from over after her feature went live, with more details to share and more questions to ask.
“After the initial investigation was published last fall, more victims came forward and more evidence came to the surface,” she told the Fulcrum in an email. “We decided a podcast was an ideal platform to explore this investigative journey that had so many twists and turns, to give it proper context and let the victims/survivors speak in their own words.”
She noted how important it was to bring those words to a larger audience, finding innovative ways to present longform journalism in an age of social and user-generated media.
“Podcasts are becoming more popular, especially for the 24-34 (age group) demographic,” she explained. “I taught journalism … for five years and I realized that many of my students didn’t read the newspaper or watch TV news, but so many of them gravitated to journalism via podcasts.”
With these aspirations came the practical challenges of incorporating first-person accounts of trauma into a finished product ready for the airwaves. Each episode presents different lived experiences, ranging from explicit depictions of abuse to the mental and emotional distress that followed. Ireton acknowledged these challenges while remaining confident in her process.
“The victims’ stories … are raw, emotional, and sometimes difficult to hear,” she said. “In order to speak to me on the record, they needed to ask for their own publication bans to be lifted. That meant the survivors needed to be sure they were ready to tell their stories publicly.”
The more they discover, the better Ireton and her team understand the size and gravity of the issue brought to light by their work. They now wish to be facilitators of a conversation that has been avoided for far too long.
“The Band Played On is just an example of one school, one group of students, but it’s emblematic of a much bigger problem that for so many years — decades — people didn’t talk about,” she shared. “I’m hoping that this investigation and the stories of these survivors make it not just OK, but necessary, to talk about sexual abuse of kids and teens by people of authority. We can’t fix the problems if we don’t know about them.”
And in the meantime, she hopes that her podcast can at least give a voice to those wanting to break decades of silence.
“Several of these men and women said the secrets they were holding on to were not theirs to keep. Some have told me it was difficult, yet therapeutic, to tell their stories after so many years.”
For more information and to listen to The Band Played On, visit cbc.ca/thebandplayedon. All seven episodes have been released, with the epilogue forthcoming.