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Telling it Loud and Proud: Asian Americans Voice their Stories Through Podcasting

By August 21, 2019 No Comments

“Every day this year, I’ve tried to figure out the alibi of a 17-year-old boy.” Sarah Koenig’s velvety voice fills financial advisor Andrew Wang’s small Toyota Prius, and he settles in to his car seat in anticipation of another great episode of Serial, having grown increasingly hooked to the investigative journalism podcast.

Years later, Wang would go on to start his own business- and sales-related podcast. Rather than experiencing a sudden burst of creative inspiration, setting up shop and creating his own show was a natural progression for Wang, who was already an avid consumer of podcasts. The New York-based podcaster had begun listening to self-help podcasts, and in 2017 created the show Inspired Moneyto get people thinking about money management and 401k plans.

Wang wasn’t the only podcaster whose foray into podcasting was triggered by boredom with daytime radio. Across the country, Marvin Yueh, who would later found the Potluck Podcast Creative, grew weary of the hours he was spending commuting through mind-numbingly slow Los Angeles traffic. Podcasts filled the dead air in his day, and in 2015 the inspired listener co-founded his own podcast dealing with issues affecting the Asian Pacific Islander community, Kollaboration.

Allowing for greater convenience than print media, and presenting a dizzying array of stories to select from, podcasts have seen a meteoric rise in popularity. The auditory experience presents convenience for those on the move or looking to multitask.

“Podcasting has been so successful because listening is more of a passive thing; you can listen to podcasts while doing other things, like driving … or while folding laundry,” Yueh says.

The 2019 edition of Infinite Dial, an annual survey conducted by Edison Research, concluded that more than one in three Americans ages 25 to 54 listen to at least one podcast every month. And while podcasts haven’t yet reached the ubiquity of radio (90% of Americans listen to the radio each week), their unique appeal lies in the agency afforded to listeners, who are able to personalize their own programming.

Podcast consumption has risen – and naturally, so has its creation. Whether they are backed by reputable institutions like the New York Times, or basement-dwelling high schoolers with big ideas, podcasters take to the microphone in ever larger numbers to present original stories and perspectives.

The Success of Crazy Podcaster Asians

The 2018 success of Crazy Rich Asians fueled optimism for continued Asian representation in media. But in their forecasts of a sunny, more representative future, conversations left out a growing segment of the media – the podosphere, which has become a flourishing stomping ground for Asian American podcasters.

Although articlesand studiesoutline rising podcast mania, no rigorous research has lent credibility to claims of increased numbers of Asian American podcasts. There are no metrics measuring the growth of Asian American podcast creators, and it was only as recently as 2018 that Yueh remembers iTunes acknowledging Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by publishing a list of AA podcasts. This is not to say that there aren’t more Asian American podcasters than before – but amidst mainstream media conversations about representation, podcasting is absent.

“When we look at the data, you see statistics that say there are 750,000 podcasts out there,” says Andrew Wang, co-founder of Asian American Podcasters. “We’re not sure how many Asian podcasts there are out there; we’re trying to figure out if there are 5 to 6 percent Asians in the United States, should we take 5 to 6 percent of 700,000? Or if we’re conservative, do we take 1 or 2 percent? Whether we’re looking at 1000 [Asian American] podcasters or 3500, we’re trying to figure that out.”

Podcasting is lauded for its low barrier to entry, but minority hosts nevertheless must navigate a difficult landscape. Yueh speaks to the difficulty his podcast, and other Asian American podcasts, face in gaining attention in a competitive and content-saturated podosphere.

“The number of podcasts has increased exponentially every year,” Yueh says, “but doing well takes some more savvy in terms of … knowing the right people to get your podcast to a certain quality level where people pick it up. There are a lot of conferences that talk about playing Apple’s algorithm to get to [iTunes’] frontpage.”

iTunes is just a small part of the challenge, though. Other podcast streaming sources, like Spotify and Google Play, are saturated with other programming options like music. And South Koreans, the biggest podcast consumersin the world, largely use Podbbang, with only 20% of Korean listeners using iTunes.

Advertising power and name recognition wielded by established players –NPR and This American Life, for example, present another hurdle. These entrenched institutions have the resources and the existing “clout” to reinforce their podcasts’ popularity.

And podcasters are competing against a dizzying array of other forms of entertainment –Netflix, YouTube, and video gaming to name a few, making consumer attention a prized but limited commodity.

While barriers to representation in other forms of media are institutional, though, one can hardly blame Apple, or any one corporate or societal culprit, for the dominance of non-minority hosts in the podosphere. In Hollywood, Asian Americans roles were few and far between for many decades, and Asian actors occupied stereotypical roles that cast them as studious and/or lacking sex appeal. Unlike actors, aspiring podcasters aren’t faced with the fear and uncertainty that accompanies not having role models to emulate, because a quick Apple Podcasts search reveals more than a handful of Asian American podcasts aspiring AA podcasters could be inspired by.

Janet Wang of the ABG (AsianBossGirl) podcast believes those frustrated with the Asian American podcast status quo have the agency to create their own podcast.

“I grew up feeling that Asian Americans were under-represented in media, and one of the things that we really love about podcasting is that … there’s not a producer saying ‘we’re not going to put that content out because we don’t think there’s a market for it,’” Wang says. “Podcasting is a democratized space where anyone could make a podcast and upload it. So if there is a lack of Asian American voices it’s kind of on us.”

(Left to right) Janet Wang, Melody Cheng, and Helen Wu host the Asian Boss Girl podcast.

If you examine the numbers alone, it is clear that the challenges regarding competition that Yueh described are likely to be felt by the vast majority of the 700,000 podcasts clamoring for greater listenership. And Lee Uehara, creator of the Asian American Podcasters, speaks to the fact that the market for Asian Americans is inherently smaller.

“I think it’s a question of how to market your show. Are you niched-down, [and] is your show good?” Uehara says. “I don’t think that it’s an Asian American issue, it’s a podcaster issue.”

Andrew Wang agreed, citing the sheer number of podcasts and the inherent difficulties that all podcasters, not just Asian American ones, face in gaining traction.

“With 700,000 podcasts out there, it’s not easy to differentiate yourself and rise above the noise,” Wang says. “It’s not the same as if you were podcasting in 2005 and there were just far fewer shows. Podcasting is … a war of attrition. If you’re creating a show and improving over time, the longer that you can do it and be consistent at doing it, you do inevitably grow an audience over time.”

But to many podcasters, reaching iTunes fame or widespread recognition might not be the ultimate goal anyway. For people like Yueh, the aim was simple: to reach the Asian American community, and perhaps even just a subsection of the Asian American community, nothing more.

“As a marginalized people, in general, we’re always put in the position of being the cultural guide for our white friends,” Yueh says. “I can see the need to explain [Asian traditions and references]; it’s not a danger, [but] you should decide who you’re making your program for. Am I making it for my community, [or] another community?”

The Podcasters’ Stories

Motivations are varied for the Asian Americans who have taken the deep dive into podcasting.

For comedians David Nguyen and Imran G, creators of the Bad Asians Podcast, certain content would not translate into live acts on stage. The pair first conceived of the podcast as a bolster for their live acts, but the weekly segments experienced their own independent, organic growth.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese American and Bay Area native who grew up in a predominantly Asian community, had a vastly different upbringing from Imran, who is ethnically Indian and Muslim but who, growing up, moved around the country and lacked a consistent Asian community. The podcast, they say, has been a space for the close friends to explore each other’s ethnic backgrounds. One of their main goals, apart from playing a part in increasing Asian American representation, is to present the Asian American experience as nuanced, rather than monolithic and homogenous.

Imran G and David Nguyen of The Bad Asians Podcast.

“When we do have guests, we like to dive into the idiosyncrasies between cultures,” Nguyen says. “There’s not only Asians but also subcultures within it, and where you’re raised in America will put [added] perspective on how you operate in life. West Coast Asians are different than East Coast, Norcal and Socal, North Bay and South Bay [Asians].”

Beyond the desire to explore different pockets of Asian American identity, the pair is also motivated by the need to exhibit honesty. Sometimes, they realize, there isn’t one right or wrong opinion –– but the pair doesn’t shy away from presenting less obvious or controversial perspectives, especially ones that deviate from divisive, binary viewpoints.

“Our podcast fits in an unoccupied space, because … we try to give it the most truthful critique or perspective or analysis,” Nguyen says.  “So even if Asians come off in a bad light, we’re fine with it.”

Imran echoes the idea of not reaching beyond contrived preconceived notions, especially in today’s polarized environment. “There are a lot of Asian people who are riding the social justice wave, but there are also a lot of Asian people who did vote for [President] Trump, and that doesn’t usually get brought up,” Imran says. “We like exploring both sides of an issue just to see what we can find.”

For Marvin Yueh, creator of KollabCast and many other podcasts, podcasting supplemented professional pursuits. Kollaboration, Yueh’s day-job and an organization that focuses on Asian American issues, needed consistent, original content, preferably without the costly production values of videos. For fan Yueh, podcasts seemed like the obvious choice, and born months later was KollabCast, a pop culture podcast presented from an Asian American perspective. In subsequent years, Yueh has since created two more podcasts: Books and Boba, in which he and co-host Reera Yoo review books written by authors of Asian descent, and Fresh Creatives, in which Yueh free forms stories inspired by random prompt generators.

In creating his podcasts, Yueh recognized the marginalized status of Asian American podcasters. While Yueh was part of a large and flourishing community of Southern California-based Asian American creatives, he realized that many others did not have this support network.

“At Asian American community events, people stick around after to talk about what people are working on, [and] what’s going on in the industry,” Yueh says. “We always have a really good conversation. It’s always something we wish more people could listen in [on] and share.”

Yueh’s creation of KollabCast in 2015 coincided with the conception of many other Asian American podcasts. Yueh and his community of podcast-making friends would frequent podcast conferences and festivals, often exchanging advice in what they perceived as a white and male-dominated creative space. Recognizing the lack of a concrete Asian American support network and the value in pooling ideas and expertise, Yueh created the Potluck Podcast Collective, a group of ten podcasts created by Asian Americans. Yueh hopes to expand the loose collective by organizing more meetups, panels, and speaker events.

The value of community and conversation has not been lost on the three women who started the AsianBossGirl podcast. A tipsy, post-social event conversation about the lack of Asian American representation and encouragement from YouTuber friends led Janet Wang, Melody Cheng, and Helen Wu to create ABG. The three hope to fill what they perceive as a void in the Asian American podcasting sphere.

“The three of us are your 9-5 working, corporate Asian American women,” says Janet Wang. “[People told us that] you represent most Asian American people; [we’re] not beauty bloggers, [we’re] not fashion people, [we] work 9-5 jobs, and [we] date, and [we] have struggles with [our] careers.”

Despite facing many initial setbacks, like the unexpected difficulty of recording segments (“we drank wine, and couldn’t think on the fly,” Cheng recalls), the trio has fallen into a comfortable rhythm, one that they hope to sustain even while growing the podcast as a business, with merchandise and meet-ups.

Across the country, Andrew Wang and Lee Uehara recognized the value of bringing Asian American podcasters together, much like Yueh had done years earlier. In 2019, they created Asian American Podcasters, which, naturally, has a podcast. In their Impact Calls, which feature in many episodes of the podcast, Wang and Lee interview AA podcasters such as Jeof Vita of the Kung Fu Drive-In Podcast, who spoke of the importance of passion in creating a podcast.

Wang also has a personal goal: to compile and maintain an ever-expanding list of Asian American podcasts. So far he has catalogued 425, and that number keeps on climbing.

“I think that the data [surrounding Asian American podcasters] is opaque,” Andrew Wang says. “It’s really hard because if you look at Apple podcasts as one of the largest directories of podcasts, they’re not going to categorize by the creator’s race or ethnicity, so it doesn’t matter if [the creator is] African American or Latino or Asian or even Caucasian, I can’t find a breakdown.”

While Andrew Wang is unsure of how successful he will be in his quest to track the number of Asian American podcasters, he is confident that it will continue to grow as a medium that Asian Americans embrace to present their unique perspectives.

Yueh agreed, saying that the appeal of creating a podcast “is only going to grow, and offer people the opportunity to create something where all they really need is an idea and a voice, and maybe some basic editing skills.”

— Emma Cockerell