With Podcasts, a Generation of Young Chinese Find Their Voice
SHANGHAI — At a shabby antique shop lost among labyrinthine lanes, Wang Yuezhou leans against a shelf, holding his portable recorder. “It’s like I’ve entered another universe,” the 30-year-old says, his eyes drinking in the worn-out statues and Buddhist altars.
Wearing a polo shirt and khaki sweatpants, Wang looks like a typical white-collar worker. He’s well-versed in the esoteric terminology of stocks and investments, and has spent most of the past decade working as a human resources manager at a Shanghai tech firm.
Outside his narrow cubicle, however, Wang has an ambitious side hustle. He’s the one-man production team behind “Cheng Ji,” or “Urbanlog” — a podcast that collects stories about the people and places threatened by urban renewal.
Wang’s tools for his pet project include his phone, the portable recorder, and an assortment of microphones. Lacking a studio, he sometimes invites his guests to hourly-rate hotels — usually sought out for a very different purpose — to hear whatever story of theirs has piqued his interest.
But when Wang shares news about his side project on WeChat, China’s dominant social platform, it garners few comments. The episode that received the most likes, he tells Sixth Tone, was about predicting economic trends during the COVID-19 pandemic — “because it was the closest to money,” he says with a wry smile.
Still, the modest production value and indifferent attitudes have not deterred Wang and other kindred spirits from heeding the call of aural adventure. The shows they are producing — though amateur — cover diverse topics, ranging from unemployment to museology.
A few years ago, podcasts were a fringe phenomenon in China. But recently, more and more young people like Wang have started producing their own shows, drawn like moths to the medium’s intimacy, immediacy, and freedom of expression. Last May, there were 10,000 podcasts in China, according to Listen Notes, a podcast search engine. Between April and December the same year, some 6,000 new podcasts were launched in the country.
Podcasts have received an inadvertent boost from the deteriorating landscape of Chinese social media platforms, some of which have become inundated with hate speech, sensationalism, and promotional content, according to Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who researches digital media in China.
“Among young Chinese, there’s increasing anxiety and antipathy toward social media,” Fang tells Sixth Tone. “When you’re tired of all the hate and irrationality circulating online and want to listen to lighthearted and civilized discussion, you tune in to a podcast.”
Since Wang created his own podcast, roaming around Shanghai has become a staple weekend activity. In each episode, he invites residents and community organizers to share their stories — about local markets slated for demolition, a grassroots-driven neighborhood renewal project, or a walking tour of “internet famous” buildings and businesses.
As they stroll through the city, his interviewee’s voice becomes woven into the ambient din of braying street vendors, the piercing soundtrack of square-dancing grannies, and the screeching of passing scooters. To Wang, the aural medium is a means of discovering what might otherwise be missed amid the urban cacophony.
“It’s been a great way to feed my curiosity,” Wang says. “Unlike working a corporate job, I can explore and express whatever I want.”
China’s podcasting environment has improved in part due to more advertisers testing the waters. Anticipating a boom during the coronavirus pandemic, venture capitalists began pumping money into the industry. In March 2020, social media startup Jike launched Xiao Yuzhou, or “tiny universe” — China’s first dedicated podcast app. Within a year, other tech companies such as Lizhi and Kuaishou had rolled out their own podcast platforms.
Gradually, outsiders appear to be recognizing the advantages of podcasts. “There are many details in audio that aren’t transferable through other media,” says Kou Aizhe, the founder and host of StoryFM, a podcast driven by first-person narratives. “The accents, cadences, pauses, and inflections — these are all important elements to a story,” he says.
A lean, bespectacled figure with salt-and-pepper hair, the 38-year-old is a veteran of China’s podcasting industry, known for his calm, patient on-air manner. A former librarian, Kou became interested in collecting people’s life stories after growing tired of the dimensional limitations of books.
“The intellectuals I looked up to taught me a lot of theories and values, but they never taught me how to live my own life,” Kou tells Sixth Tone. “Then I realized that becoming a journalist would allow me to meet more people and learn from their stories.”
At the age of 26, Kou left the library and became an intern at Southern Weekly, a well-regarded Chinese newspaper. Later he became a research assistant — first for a Swedish radio station, then for a Canadian television network. Throughout it all, he traveled across the country collecting people’s stories.
But working for foreign media meant that many details got left on the cutting room floor, Kou says. By tending to focus on the big — and often political — picture, personal narratives were simplified and nuance was neutered. To Kou, this was an unfortunate waste.
So in 2016, he quit his job and started his own podcast, Aizhe FM. The first episode, expanded from an interview he had conducted for the Swedish radio station, centered around a “mistress dispeller” hired to break up affairs between married men and their girlfriends. By interviewing a practitioner of this niche profession, Kou had hoped to shed light on larger issues such as social hierarchies, corruption, and marriage as an increasingly unappealing institution.
In 2017, online content creator Daxiang Gonghui, or Elephant Magazine, invested in Kou’s project, later renamed StoryFM. Now one of the most popular podcasts in China, it has produced stories ranging from an astronaut training for life on Mars to a man who established his own “country,” naming himself head of state. Kou hopes his podcast — which also highlights the struggles faced by China’s LGBT community, as well as the extreme lengths many parents go to in order to give their children the best educational opportunities possible — will spark wider conversations about public issues.
“I’ve found that the medium of sound is more suitable for fostering mutual understanding,” Kou says. “It can reach people from different generations and across the (political) spectrum.”
Kou’s success has inspired other journalists, too. Some of them, disillusioned by the shrinking space for independent reporting in China, have come to view podcasting as a new frontier for public discussion, and have left their traditional institutions to start their own podcasts.
However, some industry insiders worry about a lack of diversity in the current catalogue of Chinese podcasts, which they see as an impediment to podcasts reaching a broader audience and finding a place alongside established public media. According to a survey by PodFest China, most podcast listeners in the country are young urban elites: Some 86% have college degrees, and 89% are under 35.
“Most podcasts follow a cookie-cutter chat format, inviting well-educated scholars to sound off on culture and society,” Yang Yi, the co-founder of digital audio company JustPod, tells Sixth Tone. “It would be nice to see more innovation, to see what else can be accomplished through the medium of sound.”
For now, instead of trying to expand the influence of the industry as a whole, many creators are laying claim to their own niches, hoping to create alternative spaces for solidarity and connection.
Xie Ruohan is a co-host of “Weirdo,” a podcast dedicated to people who feel like they don’t fit in. By day, she works for a major tech company in Beijing’s central business district. But in her spare time, she interviews scholars, feminists, and activists about topics ranging from global warming to travel literature and beyond.
“Working a corporate job really stifles my creativity,” the 27-year-old tells Sixth Tone. “Having my own podcast attracted many people with similar interests. It created a lot of opportunities for me to meet different, interesting people and made me curious about the world again.”
Last year, in an episode about the #MeToo movement and convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, Xie mustered the courage to share her own experience of being sexually assaulted — the first time she had done so publicly. She talked about the institutional barriers that had discouraged her from pursuing legal action and called for solidarity for and mutual support among women.
After the episode was released, Xie received an outpouring of support. Some listeners shared their own similar experiences, which fueled Xie’s determination to bring more marginalized gender issues a step closer to the wider public consciousness.
But creators like Xie must face the reality that podcasting isn’t yet a lucrative business in China. Most podcasters have day jobs and still rely on donations from listeners to keep the lights on and the microphones powered.
“When it comes to monetizing the podcast industry, there’s a paradox,” says Fang, the communications professor. “On the one hand, we want creators to be better off financially. But on the other hand, traditional business models might turn podcasting into just another iteration of the ‘attention economy,’ causing it to lose its charm.” It’s also unrealistic to expect podcasting to remain unfettered by the limitations that apply to other public media in China, he says.
Xie, for her part, isn’t in a rush to squeeze money from her show. For now, she’s just hoping more like-minded listeners will find refuge in her content.
“To many of us, self-doubt is a familiar emotion. We feel like misfits — we have to try hard to fit in,” Xie says. “My hope is that podcasting will remind us that we’re not alone.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Visual elements from JulsIst/VectorStock/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)