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“$9,000 seems like a sum that’s way too large to be starting a podcast:” former board member
Some Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) board members and former executives are alleging that the proper process wasn’t followed for a union-run podcast that cost thousands of dollars.
The podcast, called Verified, “centres conversations around equity, inclusion, community and student life, illustrated through an academic lens,” according to a Facebook page for its launch at the end of January.
It is hosted by RSU president Vanessa Henry and includes Toronto artists and Ryerson community members as guests, according to the page. Verified is both an audio and video podcast and includes subtitles for accessibility. New episodes come out weekly.
In an email, Henry called the podcast a great initiative. “It allows students of all abilities to listen and access information,” she wrote. “It is educational and is based on empowerment.”
On Jan. 24, Ryerson University terminated its operating agreement with the RSU. Current and former RSU members who spoke to the Ryersonian for this story did so before Ryerson’s announcement was made. Three former RSU executives identified in this story resigned in December and January, citing a toxic and hostile work environment.
No exec vote held, dispute over whether board vote passed
Kwaku Agyemang, the former vice-president education who resigned at the beginning of January, said the initial purchase of the equipment for the podcast amounts to a capital expense.
A capital expense is a purchase over $1,500 and requires a vote of 50 per cent plus one at a meeting of the executive committee. It then needs to be approved by two-thirds of board members present, according to RSU bylaws.
Agyemang said Henry didn’t call for an executive vote, saying she thought the other executives were against the idea and it would be a 5-1 vote. Several other former executives, along with one current exec, confirmed there was no executive vote for the podcast.
Agyemang said the board vote, which took place over email on Oct. 31, didn’t receive the votes necessary to pass with two-thirds majority. Several board members have said another bylaw was cited that says the board can “generally exercise supervision over financial operations.” It’s not clear which bylaw takes precedence in a case like this.
Henry later said at an RSU meeting that the board voted to approve the podcast, but did not go into details on the voting breakdown.
In an email to the Ryersonian, Henry said the purchase of the podcast equipment was passed by the Board of Directors (BoD).
“Any monies spent went through the proper procedures,” she said, adding that all signing officers and BoD members were consulted.
Agyemang said he was concerned that Henry was not taking opportunities to leverage partnerships to improve the podcast and lower costs. He also said the way it was decided and “forced on board members” felt like a violation of their bylaws and financial policies.
Augustine Onuh, the former vice-president operations who was impeached at a December board meeting, said he asked for the cheque for the podcast equipment to be voided after he signed it, because there had been no vote on the expense yet. He said he asked the RSU’s executive director, Reanna Maharaj, to call an executive vote, but Henry didn’t show up.
He said he asked Maharaj to void the cheque but she didn’t. The equipment was purchased the next morning.
Maharaj has not responded to a request for comment.
Podcast equipment costs called into question
A document about the development and scope of the podcast written by Henry was obtained by the Ryersonian. It shows the RSU had budgeted $25,000 for the podcast to cover production, marketing, events and an honorarium for its interns.
However, up-to-date expenses show that:
- $8,979.53 was spent on equipment, including headphones, microphone, microphone stands and an interface
- $2,000 was spent on the audio engineer and videography internship
- $463.85 was spent on equipment including hard drives, adaptors and other interface wires
- $361.71 was spent on purchasing a domain name and setting up a website
The RSU has hired several students for internship positions, including an audio engineer, junior graphic designer, videographer and production assistants, according to the document.
A Toronto podcaster who works at a major media company told the Ryersonian the almost $9,000 in expenses don’t make sense given the typical costs for equipment.
Angela Glover, an audio and radio news media production specialist in Ryerson’s School of Journalism, estimated a basic but good-quality podcast setup with one microphone could cost around $1,000.
Jay Cockburn, a freelance podcast producer and former BBC radio engineer, also estimated a low-cost setup could be around $1,080, but noted the equipment wouldn’t allow for the best sound quality.
Henry did not respond to a request for a more detailed breakdown of expenses.
Money came from equity budget
All of the expenses are listed as from the equity budget (except the internship cost, which was a co-curricular bursary grant).
Naja Pereira, former vice-president equity who resigned in December, confirmed the $9,000 came out of the equity budget’s line item for inclusiveness projects.
She said she was told by Henry that her approval wasn’t necessary for the funds to be taken out of the equity budget. When Pereira asked how the project would relate to equity and why she needed certain equipment, Henry “had a hard time” answering those questions and showed only a vague proposal for the project.
On Oct. 31, the same day the board was asked to vote on the expense via email, Pereira said she sent an email to the RSU’s executive director and the finance team about why she didn’t think the money should be released and suggested alternative ways of funding the project.
“I did say that I thought the podcast was a good idea, but I didn’t understand how it relates to equity and how it could justify removing that amount of money from the equity budget,” she said. “Students are trusting us. Those who decided to opt in are trusting us to spend their money wisely and responsibly.”
Sources: Henry’s boyfriend worked on podcast
Verified’s audio engineer is Jordi Lanctot, according to the podcast’s website. Lanctot appears on Henry’s public Instagram in a romantic capacity dating back months.
Two sources anonymously told the Ryersonian the two were dating when Lanctot was hired, and that he was involved in the initial planning for the podcast.
Lanctot has not responded to a request for comment.
While jobs in winter 2020 were posted online through Indeed and the RSU’s website, positions filled before this were “based on expertise and recommendations,” according to the document.
“Those who showed interest in working in the podcast submitted applications for the podcast, and their applications (resumes/cover letters) were taken into consideration,” it says.
In an email, Henry said everyone on the team went through an application process and was chosen based on their merit. All RSU employees and interns are paid, she said.
She did not specifically respond to a question about her relationship to Lanctot.
Concerns over lack of consultation
Hung Le, a former Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) director, said he initially voted to approve the expense, but asked for his vote to be retracted once he thoroughly read through the email.
Le resigned after Ryerson terminated its operating agreement with the RSU.
“I do have a background in media, so I understand what it would cost and what it would take to sort of pull off a podcast,” Le said.
“Nine thousand dollars seems like a sum that’s way too large to be starting a podcast. You can have a sort of setup at maybe one-tenth of the price, so it was just an exuberant amount to be starting a podcast when you can do it with maybe 500 bucks.”
He said the board wasn’t consulted about the podcast. “We didn’t even know what’s happening. And it just didn’t make sense to us.”
Victoria Anderson-Gardner, the RSU’s former vice-president marketing who resigned in December, said while they liked the podcast concept, they also had concerns about the lack of consultation.
Anderson-Gardner said no executives were consulted about the podcast, noting they found it strange because they, along with other executives, have experience in media projects.
But Henry said in an email that, “All executives were notified and informed about this initiative prior to the board vote.” She said there were some BoD members who supported the project and some who didn’t, “like any event or project.”
“All board of directors were given the option to collaborate, as this is an inclusive initiative,” she said.
Henry defends podcast at January meeting
At the RSU’s semi-annual general meeting on Feb. 3, a board member asked about the total amount budgeted for the podcast and how it aligns with equity principles.
In response, Henry said the board has a “very detailed document” of the money spent.
“For equity and inclusion, I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent podcast… but our conversation aligned with equity and inclusion by having conversations about mental health, community building, entrepreneurship,” she said.
“The very first podcast that was ever released was a black man named Josef, and we had a conversation about black men and mental health and how to build a community.”
She added that the podcast is accessible so all students can listen and watch.
Henry mentioned at the meeting, and in her executive report, that during the Week of Welcome the RSU paid $4,000 for an event that only 10 students attended. She said Verified was a creative way to increase student engagement at Ryerson.
“The podcast that allows students at a commuter school to hear conversations that would be held in a local event, but on an online basis,” she said.
“This is a project that multiple students have worked on. Internships have been created. It’s not a Vanessa event. It’s an RSU platform.”
Henry also said the RSU inquired with the university-run Equipment Distribution Centre (EDC) and CJRU radio station but couldn’t access the equipment for free unless it was for a school-related project.
CJRU Radio’s studios are located one floor below the RSU’s office in the Student Campus Centre.
In an email, Elissa Matthews, CJRU’s interim station manager, said projects independent from the station’s programming have a studio rental rate.
“While rentals are available, our focus and the majority of our studio time is reserved for volunteers creating radio for broadcast,” she said.
Barry Weatherhead, a technician at the EDC, said while he wasn’t sure if the RSU had asked about renting EDC equipment, they likely wouldn’t have been able to rent it. EDC equipment is given to Faculty of Communication and Design students based on the classes they take.
On its website, the RSU says it is renting out the equipment it purchased at $10 per hour for Ryerson students, or up to five microphones for $50. The prices are doubled for community members who aren’t Ryerson students.