Issue 206,  published April 23, 2019

Career Spotlight: Nick Liao, KCRW

 

This week, I traded emails with Nick Liao — oh look, another cool Asian fellow in media named Nick! — who produces Good Food, KCRW’s great food radio program and podcast hosted by Evan Kleinman. The show recently received a James Beard nomination in the radio category for its tribute to the late Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times’ beloved food critic who died last summer.

Liao wrote about his winding road into audio, having a complicated relationship with the notion of a career, and what radio brings to food media.

Hot Pod: What do you do?

Nick Liao: I’m currently the managing producer of Good Food on NPR member station KCRW in Santa Monica, California. It’s an hour-long weekly radio show and podcast covering Los Angeles’ dynamic food scene as well as stories of broader interest in the food world. The program is an eclectic mix of two-ways with culinary figures, reported features, and restaurant reviews.

The show’s perspective, as seen through the eyes of our host Evan Kleiman, is that food is everything: culture, identity, politics, family, soil. There’s little that we won’t discuss as long as there’s a connection to eating, no matter how obscure or remote. And though LA foodways are a big focus, we have listeners around the world — our show also airs in Berlin on KCRW’s English-language station there — and we’re always thinking about how to serve them better.

We’re also grateful for our longtime relationship with late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, who for two decades had his own restaurant review segment on our program.

As managing producer, I wear as many hats as you’d expect for a lean, scrappy public radio show. I create rundowns, write scripts, edit audio, supervise music, work with freelancers, and help engineer recordings. I also oversee web content and socials plus external partnerships and live events.

HP: How did you get here?

Liao: I started off pretty far from podcasting. I majored in business and went on to study religion in grad school. The latter delivered me into the publishing world for several years, including a stint at HarperCollins. During that time, I held a wide range of positions that included marketing, business development, and editing. But writing was always the thing that gave energy. In my spare time, I’d freelance for various publications, writing everything from features to music reviews and op-eds.

My entrance into public media was in 2013, when I landed a news producer role with the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly in D.C. (The show ended in 2017, after a 20-year run). There, I learned the rudiments of much of what I do today: research and fact-checking, writing scripts on deadline, shaping rundowns, producing in the field, and booking studio conversations.

As that show was nearing its end, I pivoted to non-profit communications for a short time, which turned out not to be a great fit. I missed producing and found myself listening to a lot of podcasts. So I decided to switch to audio, figuring that my TV producing experience would come in handy. Wrong! It was not an easy transition. I applied to jobs all around the country, only managing to land one interview with my local public radio station. I went to the Asian American Journalists Association conference in Vegas hoping to meet recruiters, but left without any strong leads.

Around that time in 2016, I was listening to a lot of Maximum Fun podcasts and ended up applying to MaxFun’s paid fellowship program on a whim. I got accepted, which was both thrilling but slightly terrifying. The job was in Los Angeles, and my wife and I were living in Cleveland at the time. After some hand-wringing, we sold our house and moved out to LA — a slightly more expensive city — for the gig. I was in my early 30s, and though we had some savings, I won’t lie: it was scary as hell.

Once at MaxFun, I found that audio editing came easily. I had messed around with DAWs in college, and I’d always been interested in audio gear from my teenage years playing music with friends. In one of my previous jobs I had also edited a few podcasts on Audition. What MaxFun gave me was a chance to build a portfolio and network, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

That year I co-produced The Turnaround with Jesse Thorn, a limited run podcast spotlighting interviewers like Terry Gross, Errol Morris, and Katie Couric. I also helped create and manage the show’s partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review. After that, I was tasked with helping to launch the music podcast Heat Rocks, which is still one of my favorite shows. I also worked on NPR’s Bullseye and a few great comedy shows like One Bad Mother.

Towards the end of my fellowship, I spotted a job posting for the KCRW position on a Facebook group for Los Angeles area podcasters called Listen Up, LA — an incredibly helpful resource if you happen to be around here.

It’s been a long journey, sometimes requiring a step backward in order to move forward, but everything kind of connects in hindsight.

HP: What does a career mean to you?

Liao: I’ve always had weird relationship with the word “career.” For instance, I never expected to be working on a food show, but I’ve always liked collecting cookbooks and looking for interesting restaurants. I also grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B, but figured that would remain what it was: a hobby. But producing has given me a chance to explore many of my curiosities in a professional setting. I’d be grateful for any chance to continue that.

In the future, I’d love to continue supervising shows, whether that’s one or many. As a writer with an entrepreneurial background, I’d love to create a project of my own at some point. Having worked in audio, TV, and print, I’m fairly agnostic about what form that could take.

HP: Let’s talk specifically about the food radio genre. In your mind, what does the format uniquely bring to food journalism? Relatedly, what do you think is missing from food radio?

Liao: A lot of food media tends to be consumed in short bursts online: listicles, viral cooking videos, etc. I enjoy much of that content myself, but I really enjoy the intimacy of the audio medium, which allows for nuance, texture, and depth. And with food being so autobiographical, there’s really no end to the voices and personal stories that can be mined for great sound. It’s very democratic in that way — if you eat, you’re part of the conversation.

Last year we did a live show in New York where our host Evan Kleiman joined The Splendid Table’s Francis Lam for a tongue-in-cheek debate about pasta shapes with The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman as referee. No food was served, which I feared was a terrible mistake. But the venue was packed, and the audience was incredibly enthusiastic. One of the things I’m still surprised by is how much people love talking and hearing about food, abstracted from the visual appreciation or eating of it. You’d figure the subject is far better suited for video, but our listeners are really engaged.

As for what’s missing, I think many of us in food audio are still trying to innovate new formats and ways of telling stories beyond two-ways and traditionally reported segments. Though there are shows that I think are charting new ground — like Richard’s Famous Food Podcast, which is doing so in a fun and admittedly weird way.

HP: What should I be listening to right now?

Liao: Racist Sandwich is doing yeoman’s work at the intersection of food, culture, and race. Spicy Eyes is a great new show that takes a look at Las Vegas food culture through a similar lens. I’ve really liked what I’ve heard of Proof by America’s Test Kitchen. And for a comedy food pod, I’ll always recommend the fast food review podcast Doughboys. (Spoon Nation for life.)

In terms of non-food shows, I have to give a shout out to Long Distance, which is part of Google Podcasts creator program with PRX. The show’s host and producer Paola Mardo is an exceptional talent who’s telling important stories about the Filipino diaspora. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Dad Bod Rap Pod, kind of a panel discussion about the sort of rap music you might have been into if you were a backpack-wearing, socially awkward teen in the mid-to-late ’90s.

You can find Nick on Twitter, and KCRW’s Good Food here.