Hearing a Different Voice：When the News Meets Podcasting
Tina Xie /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byScott Williams
You could say that 2020 has been “Year 1” for podcasting in Taiwan, with amateur podcasters exploding in popularity and podcasts such as Bailingguo News, Gooaye, and Commute for Me attracting tens of thousands of listeners.
As a result, some larger Taiwanese media organizations have begun experimenting with this new form of broadcasting, using audio to spotlight issues and reach an audience that doesn’t do much reading.
Taiwan Panorama recently invited Mario Yang, host of the Drink with Mario podcast at pioneering digital media startup The News Lens, and Jason C.H. Liu, who hosts a podcast for independent non-profit media outlet The Reporter, to talk about this new approach to narrative and how they produce their podcasts.
Mario Yang, host of the Drink with Mario podcast, thinks that podcasting has become popular for the same reason as blogging: people want to share new ideas and information with an audience.
“Hello! This is Drink with Mario, and I am Mario. One, two! One, two, three!” Jazz music plays for a moment and then a substantial but free-flowing conversation begins. For Mario Yang, the podcast is both an aspect of his broadcasting ambition and an experiment.
Yang, a cofounder of The News Lens and its chief content editor, had long dreamed of becoming a DJ and having his own program. When he began listening to and researching podcasts in 2016, he learned that while it is hard to hold people’s visual attention, podcasts can hold their auditory attention for extended periods. Furthermore, he recognized that the format of the livestreamed online program Talk to Taiwan, for which he was a producer, was well suited to listening. These factors, together with the relatively low cost of producing audio content, encouraged him to try his hand at podcasting.
At the advice of veteran radio host Wang Wenhua, Yang began his first season of podcasts under the title Drink with Mario. The show is structured around an interview, with Yang inviting well-known creators and professionals from a variety of fields to share their thoughts and stories. For the second season, he focused on Taiwan’s bars and ventured out of his recording studio, traveling to Kaohsiung to interview locals on Qixian 3rd Road, which is known for its shopping and entertainment. His goal was to better understand the bar culture that emerged in the city in the 1950s, when it was a destination for US soldiers on R&R. Season 2’s oral documentary format is similar to one used by the US podcast Serial, which spent its first season taking an in-depth look at a 1999 murder.
An extended experiment
Yang’s podcast is now more than three years old and airing its fourth season. His interview subjects have run the gamut from business owners and the minister of culture to singer‡songwriters, psychological counselors, and investigative journalists. At the end of Season 3, he invited eight ordinary listeners into his recording space to share their unusual life stories. His program is kind of the “celebrity studio” of the Taiwan podcasting community, orally documenting guests’ achievements with a degree of feeling that is hard to match in print.
In 2019, Yang established the Podcast Club on Facebook, inviting fellow podcasting enthusiasts and founders of the Bailingguo podcast Ken and Kylie to join in hopes of encouraging the club’s rapid development. The group currently has around 9000 members. Some ask about recording devices and editing software, while others share their own new podcasts. In addition to these online discussions, the club also holds in-person activities every six to eight weeks, at which well-known podcasters share their experience and five group members take turns talking about their own programs.
With the podcasting trend taking hold and recording technology improving, Taiwan has seen a rise in the number of podcasters, which has in turn created business opportunities in recording devices and advertising. Yang is often asked where the Taiwan podcasting market is in its development. His answer is that no one really knows. “Right now, Taiwan has left the ‘innovator’ stage, and is already in the latter part of the ‘early adopter’ stage. But we haven’t entered the ‘early majority’ stage yet. To do so, we need even more new program genres to attract audiences that haven’t started listening to podcasts.”
Streaming data showed Jason Liu, podcast host at the Reporter, that the majority of his audience were diehard listeners willing to listen to an hour-plus program all the way to the end.
The Reporter launched its The Real Story podcast in August 2020. Hosted by Jason Liu, The Reporter’s deputy editor in chief, it features journalists offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of news gathering, experts answering listeners’ questions, and guests telling their own stories relevant to social issues. The podcast aims to reach audiences who don’t usually read long-form journalism and engage them in dialogue.
The podcast’s first two episodes talked about Taiwan’s role in the transnational amphetamine production chain. The first season also included an interview with Hong Kong democracy activist Gwyneth Ho and healthcare reporters answering questions about SARS and Covid-19 collected from listeners via Instagram. Though the subject matter of the podcast is serious, it has succeeded in attracting a number of listeners who have never read The Reporter.
“After hearing the episode on amphetamines, a listener shared it with a friend who was the kind of jobless, unmarried middle-aged man it mentioned. The man had been thinking of becoming a drug mule, but was persuaded by the episode that this would likely be a bad choice. He thanked us for understanding the reasons why he would consider that path.” Liu says that a person in that kind of situation isn’t likely to read a 10,000 word article, but he or she might listen.
The Reporter's partnership with Sound On has former handling content and planning, and the latter taking care of editing and postproduction. The photot shows Sound On's recording studio.
From story to understanding
Liu used to be a print journalist, and eight years ago wrote an article about the Taitung Miramar Resort project. He recently spoke to the article’s interview subjects again for a podcast. When asked what was different between the two rounds of interviews, he says, “Their voices are finally being heard.”
Liu believes that in print articles, journalists act as interpreters. They can place interviewees’ statements wherever they like in their articles, and readers never get a chance to hear the person speak in their own voice. Podcasts are different in that the audience hears the conversation and has context for each statement.
“The written word and podcasts convey very different things.” Liu explains that print reporting can use graphics, photographs and layout to present news in a structured way, whereas podcasts use emotional connections to tell a story in a linear way.
As an example, he cites an episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily entitled “Tilly Remembers Her Grandfather.” The episode looks at the collective harm caused by Covid-19 via an interview with a young girl comparing her life and mood before and after her grandfather passed away from the disease. Her responses offer listeners insight into how one might face such a situation. The host refrained from explaining the economic decline caused by Covid, or interjecting any other information. Instead, he simply allowed listeners to hear about this particular case from someone directly affected and interpret it however they liked.
On the day we interview Liu, he is recording the last episode of The Real Story’s first season. When we ask about the impact of his podcast experiment on The Reporter, he says that in addition to the positive responses he’s gotten from listeners, there has also been a show of support through increased donations and messages. He sees The Reporter’s next step as retaining the listeners that the podcast has attracted.
Asked how profound an impact podcasts will have on the news, Liu says, “I don’t have an answer to that. The only thing I can do is ask even more questions. For me, podcasting is tossing questions to the audience to see what kind of response I get.”
Sound On has launched several of its own programs in an effort to interest more people in podcasts.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama