Toronto's Echo

27 Nov 2005

A month ago, AfroToronto.com was at the media launch party for ECHO, a new arts and entertainment television program. After mingling with the crème of the crème of Toronto’s who’s who, we were excited that the vibrant and exciting show would present the diverse communities of Toronto in a positive light.

Popping into their spacious offices off Queen Street East, it was surprising to see a casual and welcoming atmosphere, full of creative and friendly people who obviously cherish the opportunity to work on such a program.

After being greeted by Producer Nicole Brooks, a stylish young African-Canadian woman who takes me on a tour of their space, I was introduced to Karen Richardson, a segment producer for the show and also an established spoken-word poet and writer. As I had followed Richardson’s work through her La Parole events, I wasn’t sure if I should shake her hand or immediately whip out my business card. And during the hour I spent in the ECHO offices, I had the urge to do that with almost everyone I met.

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The ECHO offices are currently the bastion of some of the most talented young people in Toronto and they boast that over 90% of the staff consists of people of colour. Headed by Executive Producer Claire Prieto, a veteran Filmmaker and Producer, whose work in Canadian television spans nearly 30 years, the production team consists of a collection of African-Canadian, Asian and South-Asian writers and producers. The team was brought together by Karen King, Production Executive of Dramatic Programming at Global Television and a former Executive Director at Toronto1 (now SUN TV).

After sitting down with Prieto, Brooks and Production Manager Jeremy Hood, Prieto explained how the idea for ECHO materialized. “Karen King brought three producers together, putting together show proposals from two people of colour (South Asian producer Bobby Brown and Asian Producer Peter Lee) individually submitted, and decided to bring in a black producer and create this amazing multi-racial show,” Prieto explains. “Because when you look at the demographic makeup of Toronto, minorities are on the rise. I was approached and put in a proposal as well, and from there, she created a team.”

Brooks, the youngest member of the production team was invited to join. Excited to use her previous experiences as a story editor for the sitcom Lord Have Mercy and as a video director, she was also looking for a place to learn more about the production process. “Claire is a great asset to us. She has been in the industry a very long time. Claire knows so many people in the community, and with her leadership and guidance, we were able to access a lot of people, and also thinking broadly about who we are as a people.”

“Basically the theme of the show and what Karen King embraced was the story about amazing people doing amazing things,” Prieto explains. “We were commissioned to find those stories in Toronto. Now, of course we were excited to tell the stories that we wanted to tell, but also have the opportunity to break down stereotypes, because in any form of media, we are always subjected to stereotypes as to what blacks, Asians and South Asians should be. This was now a way of trumpeting that. Blacks are doctors, lawyers and anything else you could possibly think of. And we exist. It’s not like we are ‘coming up’ or we ‘could be or trying to be -’ it’s that we are. And I think our community and even our city, it is time for it. Even when you look in this room, this is our reality and this is what we know to be – we’re not gangsters. We’re doing things in Toronto.” 

While Toronto is a large city, there is still a microcosm of talented people of colour who get the most attention, and on other entertainment programs produced in the city, one tends to see the same people featured continuously. I asked the team how they come up with original story ideas, as I personally wonder whether the same handful of people will be showcased again. “We have hired a number of segment producers who work with the three main producers, and a lot of the ideas come from anybody around the office,” Prieto explains.

“You read the newspapers, you look at things, what sorts of experiences people have, and the versions of experiences they bring. Nicole, for instance, would know all the hot, young poets, and somebody else might know the sports side, and in combinations, this is how it happens.”.

ECHO recently featured a person who works at the Ontario Science Centre, from where he discussed robotics with the host. By focusing on the visual elements, they were able to make a reference to the fact that a black person was working in the field of science without having to make any overt pronouncements about his career choice straying from the usual stereotypes.

“We are not looking at people from where they came from, but what they are doing, so it is first and second-generation Canadians. To give some balance on this, the whole thing about white producers is that they write stories about themselves, and it’s still about who you know and who is around you. These were some of the issues that we had to deal with, and I remember saying to the producers, ‘Hey, where are the stories about black Canadians? And if you say first and second generation Canadians, you have black Canadians as part of that. Where are their stories? I find it particularly exciting because within the black community, you have such a variety of people. Language, culture, religion, and all the things that go with that. You have middle-class types, working- class types – that was another challenge as well,” Prieto admits.

For Brooks, working on ECHO made her aware of the existence of a number of cultural communities within the black community. Noting that there is a wealth of variety in people of colour, such as the black-Latino community, she was excited about learning while working with her segment production team. “It was a challenge for us too, because you have to think outside of your own personal box,” she says.

One of the most interesting aspects of the ECHO production staff is their willingness to assist young people who are just entering the industry with hands-on experience. Brooks and Prieto are enthusiastic about making sure that all of the staff has access to learning positions that are transferable to other departments and for future positions in the industry. As the show has filmed all 13 shows, with 52 segments, the production for the first season is completed, and based on viewer response, Prieto is confident that the show will be picked up for a second season.

As with every new program, especially one in which the subject matter differs from what people are used to seeing on a regular basis, I asked the team how they have dealt with criticism. Hood, who has worked in the film, video and television industry for 15 years, says that he thrives on it.

“Everybody looks in the mirror and sees what they want to see.” And sometimes a dose of reality from real friends will put what you are doing into perspective.

The success of ECHO is in the hands of the audience, and Hood, Prieto and Brooks want to encourage viewers to tell their friends and to write in with their responses. “The other side of this is getting the program on, but without the audience, the show is not going to air again.” Respond to the station. We need to know what you think,” Prieto urges. And Books adds, “There are powers in numbers. That’s how you can be more proactive.” And Prieto adds a final thought:

“Expand the ideas that people have about us, but for me more so, ECHO is to expand our ideas about ourselves.”

ECHO airs on Saturdays at 1:30 pm and 8:30 pm on SUN TV channel 15 in Toronto, XpressVu channel 213 and Star Choice 326 .

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