On the 10th anniversary of the TV show’s cancellation, we pay tribute to Speaker’s Corner. In the days before the dominance of YouTube and social media, Speaker’s Corner was a medium through which anybody could make their voice heard.
From 1990 to 2008, visitors to Toronto could pay a dollar to get in a Speaker’s Corner video booth and record whatever they wanted for 60 seconds. Originally, the recordings were intended for a public comments segment of an existing news show, but the concept became so popular that the network soon turned the videos into their own weekly TV show, which was also called Speaker’s Corner. In 1993, Wired magazine called the Speaker’s Corner booth a “technological confessional”, “an electronic platform for irreverence, indulgence, and occasionally ignorance,” offering “the ultimate in broadcasting accessibility.”
Actor Scott Speedman described the Speaker’s Corner video booth in a 2008 interview: “You paid a dollar and you could tape anything you want.” And indeed, people did. A daycare worker pleads for people to vote in favor of childcare services. Musicians instruct fans to request their song on the radio. A man urges watchers to participate in big brother big sister. A pregnant woman lets out her anger that nobody offered her a seat on the bus. Another woman pleads for help finding her brothers, from whom she had been separated as a child. Her eyes wander uncomfortably around the booth as she lists off their names and birthdates. “I’ve never forgotten you, and I miss you. I just wanted to say, I hope your life is good.”
Celebrities flocked to Speaker’s Corner. Weird Al satirically sheds light on how unique a platform Speaker’s Corner was for those accustomed to scripting, editing, and production. He mockingly bemoans to the camera: “They took my cameras away from me. They took everything away from me. But they couldn’t take Speaker’s Corner away!” The band Barenaked Ladies debute a song specifically written for Speaker’s Corner — the bandmates are squeezed so close together in the booth that the guitar is inches from the lens. The actress Juliette Lewis takes the ad hoc environment of the booth to heart, singing a song that she realizes too late is a little hokey, but there are no do-overs in the booth. She laments, “I feel humiliated, and I guess that’s the point!”
For eighteen years, citizens of Toronto bared their souls to the video booth. In the Speaker’s Corner, there were no filters, no rules, and no editing. You could tell the world whatever you wanted, and the world just might hear you. Now, ten years after the last show was aired, the outlets for speaking are all too common, but who is actually listening? The “technological confessional” brought importance to the messages it collected. One man looks down at something in his pocket while is blond-haired girlfriend sits on his lap, smiling into the camera. “I went shopping today,” he says. “Wanna know what I bought?” He has her attention now as she looks down to see what he is holding. He opens the package and pulls out a ring box. “I bought an engagement ring. Babe, will you marry me?”
Today, SpeechBooth pays homage to the video booths that came before, while bringing the concept into modernity. In an era where many people talk at once, we still believe, as Speaker’s Corner did, that everybody deserves 60 seconds of fame.