Speakers Corner toronto

Someone is trying to recreate Speakers' Corner on Instagram

Once upon a time, when the world wide web was still in its infancy and camera phones were but sci-fi props, TV pioneer Moses Znaimer gave birth to Speaker's Corner.

The concept of the show was simple: Put a video booth outside a news station for members of the public to speak their minds. Pull out the best, most appropriate footage and air it for all to see.

It was 1990 when CityTV set that booth up at Queen and John Streets in downtown Toronto. Reality TV wasn't even a a term yet, let alone the world's leading incubator for rich peoples' kids to get famous. And yet, appetites for regular people on television were strong.

The segments were fresh, thought-provoking and often hilarious; the video booth was incredibly popular.

It wasn't long before City gave the feature its own 30-minute-long weekly TV program and, eventually, Speakers' Corner blossomed into a cultural phenomenon with more than a dozen video booths across the country.

Then, in 2008, Rogers shut the entire thing down after acquiring CityTV from Znaimer's CHUM Limited. The telecom credited YouTube for killing the program's modern relevance and then sent it off into the annals of Canadian media history.

Eleven years on, the people of Toronto want their booth back—but they'll settle on Instagram. For now.

Toronto actor Aaron Williams is the man behind a relatively new Instagram account called @CornerSpeakers and a related campaign to #BringBackTheBooth.

"I was talking to some friends about the heyday of Canadian television—Speakers' Corners, Fashion Television, all those shows that used to be on City," said Williams by phone on Thursday. "I was walking home and it just struck me that the format would work well on Instagram."

So, he scoured the internet for publicly-available episodes (of which there are tons on YouTube). A whole bunch of downloading, clipping and careful curation later, he Williams says he wound up with "a few hundred" choice clips for his account.

He's only just started to roll them out, and eventually wants to add new submissions, but what's live on @CornerSpeakers right now is a perfect representation of why we all loved the original show.

It also highlights how little things have changed since the early 90s.

"I found a whole bunch of interesting thoughts and opinions from people on social issues; racism, politics, conversations about homelessness," says Williams. "Which is interesting because it doesn't seem like too much has changed on that front."

There are also all the jokes, the impressions, the funny drunk people and the musicians looking to hit it big (hey, it worked for The Barenaked Ladies). 

"It's nostalgic, but its full of substance as well," says 28-year-old Williams of the material from Speakers' Corner. "[The booth] was a unique edition to the city that we just let go of. I think people would line up to get into the booth today."

He might be right. Torontonians are doing increasingly risky things on camera in the hopes of being featured by massive Instagram accounts like 6ixbuzztv.

"It's like, defining what Toronto is now for the world," says Williams of the content on 6ixbuzz. "People are trying to do things to just get on 6ixbuzz—that World Star model of trying to get clout online."

He sees a rebooted Speakers' Corner as a different kind of outlet—a "second lane to talk about issues in Toronto." It's something to give the city a voice that hasn't yet been heard.

"We're already accustomed to sharing our thoughts—on Twitter, in Facebook comments," he explains. "The only difference would be turning and saying those comments to the camera."

Whether they do it in a booth or with their own phones, people who submit to the new Speakers' Corner would be able to get attention for their thoughts and talents, as opposed to, say, throwing chairs off balconies or riding the top of a GO Train.

"The most lofty goal of the account would be to eventually bring back the booth at Queen and John," says Williams, who is not affiliated with Rogers or CityTV.

"I don't own the content, but I'm doing what I can to build the brand back up on Instagram," he says. "To continue the Speakers' Corner legacy online."

If his account gets big enough, Williams hopes it can operate "kind of like a petition... coaxing the powers that be to rebuild that booth."

It's been 11 years, sure, but a public place to air grievances outside of social media could be just what Toronto needs right now.

Lead photo by

Stephen Gardiner

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