The story behind the groundbreaking local media phenomenon that transformed the corner of Queen and John into the world’s first YouTube.
Long before social media provided every loudmouth and exhibitionist with a personal, virtual soapbox, Torontonians who wanted to share their two cents actually needed a spare loonie. That was the price of admission to Speakers Corner, a public video-recording booth open 24/7 outside the CityTV/MuchMusic building; in exchange for a buck (which was donated to the Chum Charitable Foundation), visitors were given two minutes and a space to rant.
But what at first seemed like a narcissistic novelty upon its introduction in the late-’80s would become a revolutionary feature of Moses Znaimer’s ever-expanding media empire. While clips first surfaced as filler on CityTV newscasts, Speakers Corner soon spawned a namesake weekly half-hour TV program that compiled the most amusing/perplexing videos into various topical segments: jokers, sports, battle of the sexes, politics, and many more that were invented as the show went on. (The best clip awarded a prize at the end of each episode.) Throughout its 1989-2008 run, the booth and show would attract attention from tourists, celebrities, and media moguls alike, and even serve as a career launching pad for one of Toronto’s best-known musical exports.
Today, Speakers Corner only exists in memory and random online video streams—so we asked some of the people involved with the show to give us the story behind this groundbreaking and highly prescient local phenomenon.
Cast of characters
Peter Whittington was the executive producer of Speakers Corner throughout its duration.
Paula Virany was the video editor of Speakers Corner. She was entrusted with the task of going though all the video content every week and deciding what to include in each episode. Both curator and editor, Virany had a knack for giving the show an entertaining flow.
Doug Slack was the on-air promotions producer for CityTV and one of a small number of producers who worked on the show in its early stages. Slack eventually moved out to Victoria, B.C. to launch another Speakers Corner booth.
Andrew Currie and Albert Howell are better known as The Devil’s Advocates, a comedy duo who appeared regularly on the show from 1996-1999. Their schtick, which mostly consisted of them mocking people who appeared on the previous week’s episode, led to a Comedy Network show called Improv Heaven and Hell that ran for two seasons.
Tyler Stewart is the drummer for the Barenaked Ladies, who made a memorable early-career appearance on the show.
Speak and Be Seen
Peter Whittington: There was a guy working in the newsroom whose name was Keith Wilson, and I believe Speakers Corner was originally his idea. He suggested it to Moses [Znaimer], and Moses said “Yup. That’s great.” And Moses is pretty good at making things happen, especially a low-cost thing like this. He had the thing built in the corner of the new building. Even without much promotion, it was pretty much an instant hit with the public.
Doug Slack: It was used on the news before we were doing shows with it. We would pull clips to run with CityTV news. We thought it would be a pretty good concept for a show.
Peter Whittington: The thing was up and running and it was working, but it wasn’t really being used on the news to the extent that [Moses] wanted. He came to me and said, “If you can think of a way to take these pieces and turn them into a half hour, we would seriously like to look at making this a regular weekly, episodic show.”
Paula Virany: I would go through the footage and pick what would go on. Then that would go to a meeting and I would work with executive producer Peter Whittington and a picture editor and we would discuss what should go on. There was a process there. That creative process was done in a team. A great team.
Peter Whittington: It was all about getting the average person on the street, your average Torontonian, getting those people on the air. That was one of the early notions behind CityTV. Moses’ genius was he realized the changing nature of the city and recognized a business opportunity there. He also saw something with the youth revolution taking place and their need for a voice.
Paula Virany: Sometimes, I would have to go through 40 hours of raw footage to make this half-hour show. Sometimes people would put in their loonie for something that was 10 seconds long and leave. So, 40 hours would be a lot of time fast forwarding though an empty booth.
Peter Whittington: The guy that we got to do the theme of this thing was Graeme Kirkland. He was a crazy local street musician. He was a really good drummer, and he used to play on plastic buckets on the street and I heard him a number of times. He used to play in front of the Eaton Centre. I just thought, “That is the sound of the street right there.” We recorded him and this drum solo became the theme of the show.
Talk Is Deep
Paula Virany: We had to put on what was compelling. That was the buzzword. We put on people with strong social views, political views, views about gay rights, things like that which were contentious at the time.
Doug Slack: It was a city-wide conversation. The best time was when, one week, someone would come in and talk about something, and then someone would come in the following week and sort of rebut it or add something to it. It was an ongoing conversation and it was a great venue for that.
Peter Whittington: Early on, people would see stuff and react to it. It just kind of fed on itself. We had things, just retarded things. We had this Monkee Face Challenge. It took on a life of its own. It was amazing. Every week for a couple years, we’d have the latest entrants into the Monkee Face Challenge.
Paula Virany: I love the Monkee Face Challenge. We thought that was hilarious. The first guy that came in was really funny, but we were completely surprised that it took off and that other people came down and said, “I have a better one!” There were people of all stripes doing not only the monkey face, but making the monkey sound, and acting like monkeys. It was really funny to see people doing it first of all, and, second of all, taking it so seriously.
Peter Whittington: Smart people could figure out that you get some really great free publicity just by spending a buck. People got more savvy about usage of the thing as time went on. Some people would do really elaborate things as time went on. They would bring in a background, or a boom box. Ya know, all sort of stuff. Some people got really ambitious about it.
Tyler Stewart: We were doing a set at the Rivoli one night [in 1991], and we did soundcheck and we went down the street, and said, “You know what, we should do Speakers Corner—what the hell.” I think we got the idea from watching the show—there were these kids from London, Ontario called Twas Now who went in and did like a theme song: “Speakers Corner, Speakers Corner/ Go ahead and try your luck!” So we went in there and did a little bit of that song, because we thought it was funny, and then we did “Be My Yoko Ono,” and then we went back to the Rivoli and played our gig. We didn’t think much about it—back then, you weren’t guaranteed any audience, you just took your chance, and the gatekeepers would decided whether or not you got on television. But then we ended up winning [the show’s weekly prize]. I remember the package we got for winning: There was an acid-wash jean jacket that said “The Nation’s Music Station” on the back, there were a couple of Cineplex passes, and I think there was a package of Skittles as well. So the video gets shown on their weekly wrap-up, and kind of thrust us into some degree of promimence. This was before we got banned from City Hall, and it might’ve even before The Yellow Tape.
Paula Virany: [That was] quite an incredible performance. I was astounded by that performance. It was one omnidirectional microphone and it sounded like it was professionally mixed. They happened to place themselves so it sounded that good. What an exciting way for someone to launch their career.
Tyler Stewart: It was amazing how it was such a break for us, how many eyeballs suddenly were on the band—which is ridiculous today, because everybody has a video camera. It comes with every phone, and every operating system. Everyone has access instantly. And pre-internet, you didn’t have that, so you had to depend on the local television station. You have to credit Mr. Znaimer for his vision—he was the original public-access guy. Later on, Wayne’s World parodied that, but if it wasn’t for public access or regional TV in the day, a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten their name out there. Speakers Corner was the O.G. YouTube, for sure.
Dance with the Devils
Paula Virany: The Devil’s Advocates really got what Speakers Corner was all about, which was an interactive, public phenomenon. They were able to grab a hold of the footage on Speakers Corner and create a greater conversation about what’s going on, and I just love them for doing that. Some people said their humour was a bit spicy, but that’s what they were doing.
Andrew Currie: Albert [Howell] and I met at the Second City touring company in the mid-’90s and we were both on the main stage together. We definitely got along, had a huge affinity for each other, and had huge respect for each other’s comedy and styles. In 1997, we were at his apartment, and he had been trying to get me to watch Speakers Corner forever. I never had any interest, just because it would make me cringe seeing people like that. I think the idea of Speakers Corner was amazing: Having an electronic soapbox where anyone could come on pay a loonie, and the loonie goes to charity—very noble of Moses Znaimer. But the reality was that, since it was so close to the clubs, you would mostly get guys coming to the booth complaining about how they couldn’t get laid, and likewise you’d get girls complaining about why guys where such big douchebags. That’s what I didn’t want to watch, but Al sat me down and said, “You’re going to sit through an episode whether you like it or not.” Little did I know he had an ulterior motive: He wanted us to do a sort of guerilla injection into Speakers Corner.
Albert Howell: I had never seen anything like Speakers Corner before. I was fascinated by it. For a while there, I was sort of obsessed with it, and I used to videotape it back in the day when we had videotapes. Andrew and I used to hang out all the time and we’d be over at my place. I played a couple of shows and we just started making smart-ass remarks at the TV back and forth. It was making both of us laugh a lot doing that, and we thought we should do this.
Andrew Currie: We literally came up with the characters in maybe 15 minutes. The idea of the horns and glasses were just to hide our identity as much as we could. The British accents seemed a natural fit because they were pompous. The cigars were something we could do with our hands, and that was pretty much it.
Albert Howell: The reason we chose the devils outfits was because the first time we did it was on Halloween.
Andrew Currie: Paula [Virany] was really part of the equation. She could have shown us at our worst. She was usually pretty complimentary. We would get through all our notes and the editing was entirely up to her. We would keep going and going and going. Sometimes, we would make a joke about the fact that we’re running out of loonies and don’t have bus fare to get home.
Paula Virany: Another thing I loved about The Devil’s Advocates is people talked back. They dished out and they also took it on the chin. They did it with a lot of grace and humility. Those comments were spicy, but people were spicy right back.
Andrew Currie: I think we peaked the third time we were on. The third time, I had an idea that we were going to do a break-up episode. It started off with us on together and then we had some stupid fight and we basically said, “We’re breaking up. I’m striking out on my own. I’m gonna do my own thing. You do your own thing. Best of luck to you.” That kind of thing. Then Al did his own version of The Devil’s Advocates. He went sort of low-rent with that real guerilla, super-political kind of thing, and my take was all showbiz and polished. They both sucked. At the end, he happened to walk on set as I was doing it—and by “set” I mean the booth—and then we sort of made up on screen. In my mind, that was the best episode we ever did.
Albert Howell: I really liked the first one, just because it was so shocking. We were so cruel. I don’t think anyone was expecting that. There was another one where there was a guy who was very muscular. We made fun of him and he came back and made fun of us. We just kept going back and forth for a while. That was a pretty good one.
Paula Virany: We did a whole show, a special on The Devil’s Advocates. We felt they merited that, because they had done so much work. We had hours and hours of them and people saying we love them, we hate them, we’re big fans. We started getting fan mail. Then they got picked up by CTV. For two years, they had a special on the Comedy Network.
Speakers Corner after dark
Doug Slack: There were some late-night versions [of the show] that were kind of wacky. There was a lot of stuff that we couldn’t put on the air that sometimes ended up down at some of the nightclubs. The Bovine Sex Club used to run it on some of their monitors.
Peter Whittington: I don’t know how it happened but, of course, there was always this X-rated stuff that kept showing up. I don’t know why people would even do it. It was funny. There was nothing we could do with it, but we saved it because you don’t throw stuff like that out, ya know? The funny thing was we would hide the tape, and someone would find it, and it would always go missing. Always. So we had to keep redoing them.
Doug Slack: It ranged everything from sexy, to scary, to political. There was stuff you couldn’t put on because it was just too weird. There was stuff you couldn’t put on because there was just too much nudity.
Peter Whittington: We had lots of celebrities on there, too. We had Jean Chretien. We had Madonna, and Harrison Ford. We had Mike Myers on many times. He always prepared a bit and we just loved it. That might have been during the Saturday Night Live years for him, or just before, and that was a huge help to him. To think that, in a small way, I could help our young comedic stars get ahead in some way, it was a great.
Paula Virany: It was great to take the Speakers Corner [mobile] units back at the MMVAs and the Festival Schmooze. We would get both everyday people and some celebrities. Some of those celebrities were so kind and so gracious and they would just mingle with the crowd there. Some of those people I would just go right up there and say, “Hi would you like to do something in this giant thing there that’s the size of a fridge box—a mobile Speakers Corner?” And they were like, “It’s a what?” Most of those celebrities would say, “Wow that is great. What a fantastic idea. I wish we had that in Hollywood.”
Speakers Corner international
Peter Whittington: Moses would bring in these dignitaries, and these were guys from broadcast [media] who were doing things the traditional way, which was with a big expensive studio. He showed them these offices where people worked and they were shooting the shows. And at the very end of the tour, he would always take them outside and they’d go in Speakers Corner and they could be on TV, too.
Doug Slack: It had an impact on North American media. You’d get TV people from Los Angeles, and people coming in from New York, because they heard about what was going on. We have testimonials by some of these people.
Peter Whittington: Part of Moses’ master plan with CityTV and MuchMusic was to turn them into international franchises. He sold a franchise to a newspaper publisher in Bogota, Colombia. I went down there for two and a half weeks to help them. I was working more on the launch of the CityTV service than the Speakers Corner booth, but the Speakers Corner was part of the whole package for them.
Doug Slack: I came out here to Victoria and one of my jobs was to start Speakers Corner here. We set up one booth mid-island in Nanaimo and one in downtown Victoria and it was a great way to get to know the people. It was such a political end of the country as well, with a great mixture of people.
Peter Whittington: There was one in Helsinki, Finland and I’m pretty sure there was one in Rio de Janeiro. We had a MuchMusic franchise there called MuchaMusica.
Peter Whittington: The company changed hands, basically. Moses had left [in 2003], and things changed a little bit. Then, in 2005, Allen Waters, the patriarch of the Waters family who owned CHUM, died. Everyone knew it was only a matter of months, maybe years, until the three siblings who were the heirs put the place up for sale. What happened initially was CTV, now BellGlobe Media, bought the whole thing—all the channels. The problem was the CRTC has this rule where you can’t have two conventional stations in the same market. They already had CTV; they couldn’t have CityTV as well. So they had to sell CityTV. They went through the process and Rogers immediately bought it. CityTV was a brand and Speakers Corner was such a pivotal part of that brand, it was surprising to me when, first of all, they got rid of the show, and secondly they got rid of me and all the upper management. It was a business decision. I understand. It’s not a charity and the place was losing money. But it always seemed to me that they were throwing out a valuable franchise with Speakers Corner.
Paula Virany: It was an exciting time. It really was. You look back on these things as being a kind of golden era, I would say. Something really special happening in the heart of Toronto. We were doing really creative, pretty free stuff for television at that time. It was a great professional climate.
Peter Whittington: You can say the logical heir to the thing is YouTube and social media, but there was something kind of nicely low-tech, and homemade, and kind of warm and human about it. We weren’t trying to put anything over on anybody. We never took anybody’s words and twisted them by cutting. We never editorialized. We always just let the material speak for itself. There was something, I don’t know, honest, for lack of a better word, and pure about that. I sure remember it fondly. All you got to do is talk about it and the golden memories start flooding back.
Paula Virany: I was meeting with Moses after I was laid off and he and I were laughing about it. He said, “Yeah, I think they’re calling it user-generated content now.”
Additional interviews by Stuart Berman.