Sabbatical Series: Wesley Yiin, Week 5 of 5

“They Call Us Podcasters,” by Wesley Yiin 

“We met by being Asian,” said Phil Yu, a.k.a. Angry Asian Man, and he wasn’t entirely kidding. We were speaking over the phone a few weeks ago, and I had asked Phil how he and Jeff Yang had come up with the idea for They Call Us Bruce, the podcast they host together. The show, to boil it down somewhat reductively, is a conversational podcast about correcting misperceptions of the Asian American community and promoting better, more accurate ones… among many other things, of course. Indeed, the two men have known each other so long that they can’t remember how or when they met, so I suppose it’s understandable the specifics of that meeting remains elusive.

As it turns out, They Call Us Bruce was born the way so many podcasts have: out of many long conversations between two friends. In this case, those friends were two prominent Asian American writers who would constantly have discussions about race, identity, and their own experiences of those things that they, in retrospect, wished were recorded and preserved. So they decided to start a show together — the name, by the way, refers to Bruce Lee, in case you didn’t pick that up — and within six months, they racked up an impressive guest list loaded with notable Asian American figures from a variety of spheres, from Iron Fist actor Lewis Tan to the Fresh Off the Boat kids (Jeff’s son, Hudson, stars in the show) to the actor-activist George Takei. The show is thoughtful, lively, and it does not shy away from current events. In the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s decision to end DACA, Phil and Jeff built an episode around ThinkProgress immigration reporter Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, a DACA recipient herself.

Bruce was always intended to be more than just a conversation between friends. Jeff believes the project provides a distinct opportunity to broaden out specifically Asian American podcast audiences. Part of the thinking behind Bruce, Jeff explained, was to build a show whose very existence advocates for more Asian American listeners, and as a result serves as a diversifying force of change.

At the beginning, Phil and Jeff had no sense of how the show would be received. The two writers had robust social media followings, sure, and Phil hosts an on-and-off podcast (it hadn’t aired any episodes in all of 2016), but they weren’t sure if anybody would actually check it out. Once they started publishing episodes, however, they were pleasantly surprised. “Almost instantly, we were getting tens of thousands of people listening every week,” Jeff said. That initial response, and the way it has sustaining throughout the podcast’s run thus far, are hopeful indications that there is indeed an audience hungry for smart, current analysis from an Asian American perspective.

They Call Us Bruce continues to go strong, seven months and over twenty episodes in. Jeff and Phil have even seen a semi-formal collective of like-minded Asian American-led podcasts form alongside the show. Dubbed the Potluck Collective, the stable includes Good Muslim Bad Muslim, Books & Boba, Asian Americana, and the Korean Drama Podcast.

During our conversation, I asked Phil and Jeff for their thoughts on the Presence of Asians in the Podcast Industry. (Which, in my mind, has always seemed limited.) Jeff responded by pointing out something I hadn’t quite considered before — that Asians have actually been relatively successful in radio and podcasting, but not necessarily for reporting or discussing issues about race and ethnicity. He listed, by way of example, NPR’s Ailsa Chang and Gimlet Media’s Lisa Chow, among others.

“The voices in my head are all starting to sound more Asian,” Jeff said. “I think that what’s also true, though, is that not a lot of those voices are talking about being Asian American.” And while they acknowledge the benefit of their Asian American peers entering other audio spaces, Phil and Jeff are in effect trying to create their own space. Representation by numbers is one thing, they seem to be saying, representation by substance is a whole other thing altogether.

***

I started grappling with the issue of race within podcasting after listening to an interview by Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton with NPR journalist Gene Demby. In this early episode of the podcast, aptly titled “A Podcast of One’s Own,” the three talked about how all radio voices sound the same, typically reflecting the coastal, educated, white parlance of their journalists and audiences.

This was late 2015 or early 2016, and at the time, I was still pursuing journalism as a full-time career. Though I was aware about the news industry’s distinct problems with diversity, I was also increasingly struck by how podcasting, seemingly a new frontier for storytelling (in all genres, but predominantly nonfiction), appears to be replicating that unfortunate structure. Eventually, I started pitching stories on the growing field of “podcasts of color” — a topic that interested me even back in college — only to balk when I actually got the opportunity to write and publish those pieces. The reason why is as complicated as it is personal: while I’m drawn to the topic, I was nonetheless unsure of the actual point I was trying to make. I was unsure of my place in the conversation.

A huge part of that uncertainty comes from my own relationship with being Asian American, and how it informs and relates to my reporting. As happy as I was to research and write about contributions to diversity in podcasting by brown and black talent — stories that deserve to be told and retold — it felt odd to do so when I didn’t see my own community reflected in this trend. Of course, I’m sure there are podcasts that do focus on the Asian American experience. They just don’t seem to be included that prominently in the wider discussions about diversity in podcasting.

I don’t know if there are specific data points on this, but I think it’s easy to imagine Jeff and Phil’s broader point: when we think of prominent Black podcasters, we tend to think of Heben and Tracy, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, Brittany Luse, Aminatou Sow, Crissle and Kid Fury, etc.  — in other words, Black podcasters who podcast about their Blackness some if not all of the time. There aren’t really analogs like that for Asian Americans.

(To some extent, this makes sense. The histories and needs of Asian American communities differ from those of Black communities, after all. Maybe the solutions differ too.)

***

It can’t be denied, though, that communities like the Potluck Collective, and shows like They Call Us Bruce have so much power, as they serve as vessels for unique Asian American insights into a timely conversations.

I’m distinctly reminded of that recent episode with Esther Yu Hsi Lee, the ThinkProgress immigration reporter who is a DACA recipient herself. Lee is an immigrant from Taiwan, and part of the episode’s function was simply to say, “Hey, we exist in this conversation too,” and that this shit is complicated, and that there’s no one narrative. But the episode also had surgical purpose: it explored how reactions to the Trump administration’s decision on DACA sometimes echo the uncomfortable proclamations of Asians as the “model minority” — how certain language is deployed, usually by conservatives but also some liberals, to divide and pit DACA recipients against each other, with some being tagged as “good immigrants” compared to others.

Layers like these need to be established in the broader conversation, but I think this can only happens when the right people give voices to those layers. That’s the value of a show like They Call Us Bruce and the Potluck Collective at large: they aim to consolidate and elevate Asian voices so that our perspectives may be more widely heard and disseminated.

In describing Bruce’s origin story, Jeff recalled the podcast’s first two episodes, which covered the Netflix series Marvel’s Iron Fist. In the wake of that show’s whitewashing controversy, Phil and Jeff made a decision. “We couldn’t not talk about this anymore,” Jeff said. “And we might as well do it in front of a mic.”


Wesley Yiin is an MFA student in screenwriting at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. As a freelancer, he’s been published in Slate, Pacific Standard, and the Washington Post. Don’t miss his piece on bronies.

Sabbatical Series: Rachel Taube, Week 4 of 5

“The Hardest Medium to Troll,” by Rachel Taube 

Podcast technology is notoriously unsophisticated, especially when it comes to audience engagement or community building. Listeners can’t favorite or comment on episodes. It’s difficult to discover new shows and nearly impossible to share them. You can’t tweet an audio clip. But for all the headaches, there’s an upside for podcasters: it’s also harder for trolls to get in touch.

“Maybe I’m in podcasting because I don’t handle trolling very well,” Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Pineapple Street Media, tells me. “I definitely think it’s the hardest medium to troll.”

By and large, online harassment doesn’t seem to be as prevalent for podcasters as it is for journalists, entertainers, or activists primarily working in other media. Indeed, it appears that this quirk of bad technology has allowed podcasts by women, people of color, and other marginalized groups to flourish where they otherwise might not have.

Online harassment is a problem that grew up with the internet. A Pew report published in July found that 41% of U.S. adults have experienced online harassment, ranging from name-calling to physical threats. 58% of respondents said their most recent incident of harassment occurred on social media, and another 23% in comments sections. Podcasts aren’t included in this study (the medium is still relatively nascent, so there aren’t many studies about any aspect of podcasting), but the fact that podcasts aren’t particularly well-adapted for social media or commenting is relevant here.

“I’ve never received any sort of harassment [for my podcasting],” Aisha Harris, culture writer at Slate and host of its podcast, Represent, tells me. This is in contrast to her writing, for which she does get harassed on social and other media. Ann Friedman, co-host of Call Your Girlfriend, also gets far less harassment in response to podcast episodes than to her written work, much of which covers similar topics like gender, politics, and tech. Weiss-Berman, who was formerly Director of Audio at BuzzFeed, has found the same: while many writers at BuzzFeed received large volumes of harassment or were doxxed for their written reporting, “we had basically no problems with harassment with the podcasts that I can remember.”

The same contrast is often true for television. Angela Rye, who is harassed for her television appearances on major networks like CNN, says she doesn’t get any harassment related to her podcast, the news and culture show On 1.

A number of factors may account for the difference. For one, podcasting is still a niche industry (only 15% of Americans listen weekly, according to Edison Research), so podcast content is less likely to find its way to potential trolls. Podcast listening is an active choice; one must explicitly choose to subscribe or download episodes. Podcasts aren’t showing up on your Twitter or Facebook feed in a form you can seamlessly consume (yet). Podcast listening, at least in its current form, still requires a fairly large time commitment.

Friedman sees podcasting as “fundamentally different than an article that is easily clicked on by anyone on the internet, who doesn’t even have to read to the bottom to get angry about it.” Put simply, trolls tend not to bother podcasters because “it requires more work.”

“If you want to harass someone on Twitter, it’s very easy,” according to Weiss-Berman. With podcasts, in contrast, “if you’re looking to hate somebody, you’re not going to listen to their podcast because it means spending an hour with that person.” As a result, much of the harassment that is related to podcasting tends to occur on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or even YouTube, rather than directly on podcasting platforms like iTunes or Soundcloud.

Chris Morrow, CEO and co-founder of podcast network Loud Speakers, puts it this way: “[Trolls] hang out on some of the larger platforms…but they won’t come into your neighborhood.” On Soundcloud, the “neighborhood” where the network’s shows get the majority of their community interaction, comments are “almost universally positive.”

Instead, Weiss-Berman finds, most harassment related to podcasting tends to be from people who clearly haven’t listened to the show. Pineapple Street closely monitors iTunes reviews and social media posts about the podcasts they produce, and they actively report clear cases of harassment. These are a small percentage of comments—the iTunes reviews are “overwhelmingly positive”—but, as with other media, women of color and members of the LGBTQ community are often the recipients of the worst of it. As in radio, women are also subject to criticism for vocal patterns like uptalk and vocal fry. (Weiss-Berman, Friedman, and Harris all differentiated these cases from negative reviews by listeners, which are a normal part of comment sections.)

Though harassment is relatively rare in podcasting, the medium isn’t airtight, and instances of intense trolling do happen. Personal stories, especially, can trigger harassment, according to Stephanie Foo, a producer on NPR’s This American Life. “The women who make themselves the most vulnerable,” who share details about their personal lives or political views, “are the women who are punished the most.” Her worst experience of online harassment was when she did a story about dating while Asian for Gimlet’s Reply All, after which she received racist and sexist messages.

Harassment can also occur when podcast content gets picked up in other media, whether that’s because it’s controversial or particularly newsworthy, allowing it to overcome the discoverability and shareability issues. After Call Your Girlfriend interviewed Huma Abedin at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, the transcript got picked up in other outlets, including some rightwing sites, which resulted in a small email harassment campaign.

However, cases like this are relatively limited. The majority of community interaction with podcasts tends to be from people who are regular listeners, and nearly all of that is positive, according to several people I spoke with. “Most people are brought in because they tend to agree,” Friedman explains, “and in general I think that those kinds of spaces tend to have less harassment.” The people who do listen are invested.

“And I think that’s part of why you’ve seen such a rise in especially black podcasting over the past few years,” says Weiss-Berman. Though podcasting has been notoriously white and male, there are a growing number of podcasts hosted by women and minorities, whether racial, sexual, or religious. “You can say what you want and know that you’re speaking to like-minded people.”

Many use the word “intimate” to describe the relationship between podcasters and their listeners. Podcasts often feel more informal than writing, television, or traditional radio. On the one hand this is simply a trend in the way we podcast. But it could also be a result of the way we listen—often alone, and with the host’s voice right in our ears. It feels like a private conversation. If there’s sharing or discussing to be done, it’s likely later, after we’ve finished the episode.

Foo has seen this intimacy result in a different kind of harassment or criticism than she often sees on other media. “People have very emotional reactions to [This American Life]… They’ll write us these super super long emails about how furious they are. People’s feelings will actually be hurt.” Though this criticism might be less expletive-laden, it can also be more “jarring and/or persistent because there’s so much invested behind it.”

The intimacy of podcasting isn’t a unique phenomenon. Tinyletters experienced a boost in popularity a few years ago, in part because the form provided a relatively safe space for women and minority writers to explore ideas that had been attracting trolls on blogs or other public outlets. With newsletters, as with podcasts, public commenting isn’t a big part of the experience, readers have to actively subscribe, and there’s an intimacy to inviting someone’s voice into your inbox, just as there is to inviting them into your ear.

“That’s what I love about podcasts, is that you can really speak to your audience,” said Weiss-Berman, but “there’s something about the safety of it that can be a little bit scary.” Just as the liberal-minded are finding a safe space in podcasting, so are members of the alt-right, which also has a growing number of podcasts. “It’s a place where people can go pretty unchallenged, because they know it’s their superfans who are the ones who are mostly listening… It normalizes some of the outlandish things that they’re saying.”

Morrow acknowledges the major benefits of podcasting as a safe space, but also sees this as an issue the industry will have to face: “Is [podcasting] just going to be about preaching to the choir, or are we going to figure out a way to start influencing people who might not think that they have that much in common with the host? Because we know that there’s an echo chamber… [that’s] the reason a lot of people woke up surprised the day after the election.”

Already, a number of companies, including NPR, Anchor, and Podbean, are working on ways to make podcasting more discoverable and shareable. Friedman, too, is of two minds about what’s to come: “I will feel a little torn if and when that technology comes about. Between being excited about the discoverability or the shareability factor, but also recognizing that’s probably going to come with more harassment for many people, especially people from marginalized communities.”

Better technology will be necessary if podcasting is to grow and succeed as an industry. It’s true that we currently rely on bad technology to make podcasting safe and open. But there’s an opportunity here: as platforms develop, we can keep it safe and open.

We can see the future, and we know what it looks like when Silicon Valley ignores the reality of online harassment. Instead, podcast developers should build protections against harassment into their product development (79% of respondents to the above Pew study think tech companies should be doing more in this area) and put female and minority developers in positions of power (since developers create technology that matches their experience). The podcasting platform of the future need not be another Twitter.

A few weeks ago, Lauren Duca wrote, “Here’s a thought that haunts me: What about all of the young women who won’t become writers because of [online harassment]”? In podcasting, at least for now, they can speak up. As listenership grows and technology improves, it is the responsibility of industry leaders — both platforms and the production companies and hosts who can influence them — to keep it that way.

Rachel Taube is a writer and self-described “recovering New Yorker” who now resides in lovely Wilmington, North Carolina. She is an Editor-at-Large and book reviewer for Cleaver Magazine, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at University of North Caroline Wilmington. Once upon a time, she worked communications for the Financial Times.

She is also a pleasure to work with, and I await her future work.

Sabbatical Series: Breakmaster Cylinder and Claire Friedman, Week 3 of 5

The Hot Pod Visual Issue

I don’t know what you see in your mind’s eye when you’re listening to pods, but I see lots of things: colors, vistas, shapes, people, movement, a melange of different things from the backlog of the stuff that my brain’s accumulated over time.

As a matter of mental phenomena, I suspect it’s the same for other people. And so I figured, why not get very talented artists to visualize the things they see? For this issue, I reached out to Claire Friedman, who I previously commissioned to design the new Hot Pod logo, and the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, who you might know best as the figure that scores Reply All, to create three of such pieces each.

We’ll start with Breakmaster.

Breakmaster Cylinder

Reply All #104 – The Case of the Phantom Caller.
“A woman receives a maelstrom of weird phone calls from random phone numbers, playing her ambient recordings of people’s lives that may or may not tell a larger story.” — B Cylinder

 

David Rakoff on This American Life no. 464, pt 3
“Three months before his death, David Rakoff (who I adore) dances for a live audience, his left arm hanging from his side ‘ heavy and insensate as a bag of oranges.'” — B Cylinder

The Books on Song Exploder, no 22
“Nick Zammuto from The Books explains a technique where he carves up the center circle of records and plays them like organic drum machines, while it turns out crows are everywhere.”
— B Cylinder

So, this one’s pretty cool: Breakmaster recorded the sound that the altered record produced, and then built a ditty around the sound that came out. Here’s the organic sound, and here’s the ditty.

***

Claire Friedman

Hardcore History. “Hardcore History to me has always felt like half college seminar half punk show. Dan Carlin has managed to paint such an intense world with just his voice, no fancy production, no sound design, no interviews, just story. He’s been on a real Roman kick for the past couple of years, so I wanted the design to feel like Julius Caesar was playing their first big venue after months of touring basements.” — C Friedman

Reveal. “I think Reveal is one of the best examples of investigative journalism happening anywhere. The allusion here is pretty simple — there’s a big monster, only a small part of it is visible, it’s dangerous and scary but they’re going to find it. We need people to find that monster.” — C Friedman

Your Stories. “Your Stories was the first podcast I was ever involved in. It’s a live storytelling show taped once a month in Chicago, and its focus is on letting anyone and everyone get up in front of other people and share a story that they think is important. The pattern made me think of a playmat, a place where a bunch of disparate kids can come together and goof and share with each other. It’s simple, smiley, not quite symmetrical; it’s accessible and full of joy.” — C Friedman

***

Breakmaster Cylinder is “an anonymous composer/producer for ads/podcasts/hip hop/yuks” with more than 40 podcast themes under ze’s belt. Likes dogs.

Claire Friedman is an artist, illustrator, and comedian living in Brooklyn. She formerly ran the Chicago Podcast Cooperative while working at Cards Against Humanity, where she was also the proud mother of a Big, Pointless Hole. She is hella available for freelance work.

They were both absolutely wonderful to work with, and you should give them all your commissions. Also, you should contact them directly if you’re interested in buying these images as ~prints~.