I’ve been thinking a lot about this fascinating Politico piece, written by Shen Lu, that profiles a cohort of progressive Mandarin-language podcasts that have emerged recently.
Independently-created and distributed over the open architecture for a transnational audience, these shows might be relatively small in the industrial scale of things — one example, In-Betweenness, was noted as having brought in about 17,000 downloads since launching on June 21 — but that’s besides the point: they were formed to open up a front of discourse that might not naturally exist within any conventional context.
A wave of independent Chinese-language media platforms, based mostly outside of China — podcasts like In-Betweenness, as well as blogs, newsletters and video series — has sprung up in recent years to cover America and the world for a Chinese-speaking audience. Most of the audience are educated millennials living in cities in China and abroad, and most of the platforms can be accessed anywhere in the world, including China. Even if some episodes are removed by government censors from podcast stores in China, people can still access it by subscribing to RSS feeds.
In a way, these podcasts embody the original ideological promise of the medium. More so than serving as a space for new entrepreneurial opportunity (and the creation of new multi-millionaires), podcasting was largely carved out to allow the facilitation of proper alternatives to mainstream media. This is perhaps most cleanly represented by Open Source, one of the earliest podcasts that came out of a collaboration between the former Times journalist Christopher Lydon and the RSS technologist Dave Winer. (That show is still on-going, currently distributed by Hub & Spoke). According to the origin story, Open Source started out of frustration with the way the news media handled the run-up to the Iraq War in the early 2000s as well as the corporatization of news more generally.
I suppose it can be said that this political sensibility has been somewhat lost in the contemporary framings of podcasting’s open-publishing merits: the “anybody can publish” proposition tends to be mostly talked about in terms of creative and entrepreneurial opportunity, but it’s equally — if not more — about political and ideological opportunity. (It’s also worth noting that there are some corners of the podcast universe that view the very notion of monetizing podcasts as antithetical to its founding purpose in the first place.)
Anyway, this emerging cluster of podcasts reminds me of the cluster of transnationally Asian digital publications recently profiled by Tammy Kim over at the Columbia Journalism Review:
New Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan focus on Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively, but in ways that avoid the biases of foreign correspondents and policy wonks or the narrow concerns of in-country English-language newspapers. Their orientation is not so much postcolonial as anti-nationalist and internationalist, meaning that they’re keener to explore what’s shared between working people in say, Taipei and Los Angeles, or Bangkok and Davao City, than to ask whether Canada or Vietnam has the more capable government — a temptation of traditional journalism.
As mentioned in the piece, these publications tend to not be all that financially viable, but again, that’s somewhat besides the point. Instead, the value of those publications is to build a structure that gives these ideas and ideologies a discrete home, that gives them for potential visibility, and that helps the formation of these identities with the accelerative support of the internet.
(Kim, by the way, also co-hosts a relatively new podcast called “Time To Say Goodbye,” which similarly offers a transnationally-Asian discussions on Asia, Asian-Americans, the coronavirus pandemic, and more recently, the protest movements that are grounded in the experiences of the three hosts, who all reside in America. I’m an avid listener.)
I don’t really think I have a particularly novel or thought-out point to make about this thread, other than to feel strongly (albeit amorphously) about the whole thing, speaking as a transnational Asian myself. (Despite passing as having assimilated well, I remain a foreigner in America.)
But I suppose I can say that the promise held by these Mandarin podcasts should be considered pertinent to any on-going discourse about where the RSS feed goes from here — whether open podcasting will “die” or “wither away,” whether it will be superceded by closed profit-seeking platforms controlled by companies that can be pressured by certain governments, and what we gain and lose in any of those futures.
On a somewhat related note… Not podcast-specific but podcast-related, but there’s a curious Substack-within-a-Substack effort called “Discontents,” which seeks to establish an on-platform collective organized around “writers and podcasters on the left.” In other words, it’s an effort to create a bundle around atomized independent publishing efforts of shared beliefs, which may or may not be a natural counter-balancing outcome of this trend that sees all these writers branching out on their own.
Not that anybody asked, but I don’t think the whole “everybody’s going to be their independent writer/publisher/media operation and that’s the future of news and media and journalism” discourse is very smart, or sufficiently nuanced, or all that honest, frankly. This life ain’t for everybody, and there are distinct limitations to extreme structural individualism, which is probably why we’re going to see a lot more of this kinda thing — i.e. a recreation of the bundle, in some form or another — moving forward.