Chinese Podcasting during the Pandemic

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At the end of my first post, I mentioned that this edition will share how China's podcasters spent their days during the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is, the epidemic is gradually being tamed both in China and beyond. When you read this post, you will find that what we Chinese podcasters were going through was no different from your experiences. Chinese podcasters were also trying to help foster a more diverse environment for public opinion and do more to fight against the epidemic.

Interviews in this post were made this February, during which we were suffering the most from COVID-19 in this country. The original version was written by our writer Chen Hengyi in Chinese, and translated into English by Tang Xiao.

So, without further ado, let's get jump into it.

A Chinese man wears a protective mask, goggles, and coat as he stands in a nearly empty street during the Chinese New Year holiday on January 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer)

Stay with You

While millions were sequestered at home, feeling anxious and worried about the coronavirus outbreak, podcasts provided people with comfort and a sense of normalcy in their unique way.

Before anyone could expect the pandemic, "Gushi FM" (Story FM), one of China’s most popular storytelling podcasts, had already finished an episode to be released 3 days before Chinese New Year (January 25, 2020) and announced a holiday break. As people across China realized the severity of the outbreak, Kou Aizhe, the creator and host of the show, decided to quickly put out a pandemic mini-series with "Diaries of Five in Wuhan" as the first episode. All this began the night of China's New Year Eve, and more in different positions were reached soon. From frontline medical staff to people from Wuhan quarantined in other cities, and an infected patient, they were all telling their own stories. With such a tight turnaround time, such a great diversity of subjects was not the result of comprehensive pre-interviewing or elaborate post-editing. What "Gushi FM" did is just represent people and their experiences, as it happened.

Yang Yi, host of "Go LIVE", also put out a fast turnaround episode responding to the pandemic. After noticing discrimination online against people from Wuhan as the city was put on lockdown, he phoned some friends in Wuhan to learn about their real daily lives. Their long conversations were later edited and presented as a 30-minute episode of "Go LIVE" named "Calls to Friends in Wuhan: New Year's Eve during the Pandemic". By doing so, Yang Yi hoped listeners could better understand the situation of people there. "Some of Wuhan residents were eager to leave the city before the lockdown, which drew much criticism. But Wuhan is a city of ten million people. Whatever their choices were, to leave the city or not, they made decisions according to their situations. All Wuhan people shouldn’t be punished for the actions of a few. " Yi tells JustPod.

Despite all that, Kou Aizhe believes contributions brought by podcasts are nothing compared with what the frontline reporters do. They are risking their lives to report, and their work is irreplaceable. A closer look at them is in the 49th episode of "Surplus Value" podcast: "News at Crisis". A live telephone connection from a frontline reporter was arranged with the studio, and the feeling of "as if you were there" just shocked the host Zhang Zhiqi and led to her decision to keep almost every detail, even if some "unfavorable" contents were contained—in the eye of regulators. The episode, of course, was not made accessible to audiences on domestic audio platforms.

In one episode of ''Gushi FM", the story of a frontline healthcare worker was shared with audiences yet in an abridged version, enabling listeners to realize that what was happening maybe even worse than we thought. The medical resource was in shortage; almost all medial stuff got ready to help with a little break; hospitals were operating overload. They were risking their lives to save other lives. But these were probably not what people see in media outlets, especially in those traditional ones. To represent truth without being targeted, "self-censorship" seems to be the only way.

Stay at Home and podcasting!

Podcasts in general did explore more. Like others working in traditional industries, podcasters at this special time also adopted a work-from-home policy.

Fan Yiru, host of "Jinghuduan Huiyi"(Medium Talk) tried Live-streaming Audio. To be honest, he made a good job. He followed the headlines, enhanced his interactions with listeners, and emphasized on adequate sound quality.

Among the efforts of seeking new productive ways to provide comfort, solo podcasting also proved popular. Quarantined at home after a trip to Wuhan, host of "Lao Talk" had to take on this form. Yet the flexibility of arranging things all by himself made his work more efficient in the end and he even started to enjoy it.

Through these two ways, hosts and listeners interact more with each other in a more cost-efficient way. Hosts get topics that interest audiences by directly putting out call-outs on social media platforms, and then gather feedback in the same way. However, the problems facing podcasters range from what to talk on the pandemic to how to navigate in a regulatory environment that is increasingly tight.

Thanks to the coronavirus and social distancing, necessary studio time only had to be reduced. "Bessie’s Notes"—a podcast on how advertising impacts our lives and society—has managed to solve the problem by shifting to online recording. Some say face-to-face communication provides better audio quality and deeper conversations, and some others argue that online recording secure timeliness and high-efficiency. Podcasters are combining their advantages.

Chinese podcasts also offer their own perspective of reporting news. They tell stories rather than drowning people in information. They look at individuals rather than the abstract concept of the outbreak.

It's indeed not appropriate to measure the benefits gained by podcasts as a success that came out of a terrible thing happening, yet as another source of comfort and release, podcasting is doing well.

Record More

Miya, CEO of "Da Nei Mi Tan"(Midnight Talks)was pondering how to give some material help to frontline medical workers. Her idea? Support their health by donating them eggs, a good one that attracted many. The show collected enough money by selling branded merchandise to make a purchase. Two friends A'bin and his wife, with whom Miya made friends during a trip organized by the podcast to FujiRock Festival, were responsible for the supply and transportation of the eggs; and other podcasts sold merchandise to help. By 11 a.m. on Feb. 12th, more than RMB 180,000 was raised from supportive listeners to buy 120,000 eggs for frontline healthcare workers. It was fair enough to call it a success.

This donation effort introduced new listeners to the podcast.

But "this was not about promoting our show", the podcast emphasized. According to the show, it was the active listener-base that brought the success of this activity. The show always aims to become "a comforting podcast that explores humanity" and valued transparency so much in donating.

"Da Nei Mi Tan" is not alone. Under the coronavirus, podcasters not only record about the pandemic. They record around the pandemic, trying their best to do something.

"The Unemployable" highlights voices that are easily overlooked. The host Lu Taiyang believes that critical podcasts like "Surplus Value" boast their prominence, but other perspectives are also needed. What she cares much more is the feeling of individuals and how they express themselves. In newly made episodes, she and two guests talked about how they feel in this pandemic, with sound effects reminding listeners of their ordinary lives.

"Wu Suo Bu Ji" focuses on the LGBTQ community and less-mainstream discussion. Considering that the lives of homosexuals and their hardships during this particular time are often overlooked, the show broadcasts stories from HIV patients, same-sex couples, and many others in this group. Listeners were deeply touched by these narratives, giving confidence to the show to record more.

There are also podcasts intended to equip the public with more enriched and specialized knowledge. They talk about the relationship between the spread of rumors and collective psychology, and the value of building hospitals for infectious diseases. Except for comfort, we do need professional knowledge to pull through. So these shows come.

You see, every podcast aims to record, maybe in their own distinct fashion but for one shared goal: to represent a bigger and more diverse picture of China during the pandemic.

Maybe you've noticed that PodFest China has released its first survey of Chinese podcast listeners earlier this month. You will find my insight into it in the next post. The reason to follow? Well, to be honest, the exciting results of the survey may impact you, although you may not live in China or listen to Chinese podcasts. You won't want to miss them.

See you really soon!