By Beiyi Seow
A lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality, a village covering up abuses and a dissection of the three-child policy — an explosion of Chinese podcasts are wrestling with social issues considered taboo under the country’s strict media controls.
More than 7,000 new podcasts came online last year with an audience tipped at nearly 10 million — a small but fast-growing group in the world’s largest market for web audio content.
While podcasting has long been part of western media appetites, it has just started gaining ground in China’s tightly managed media ecosystem, serving up counter-narratives and critical social analysis.
For student Cheng Yifan, who listens every night, they are a breath of fresh air.
“Podcasts conform less to societal norms than traditional media platforms,” Cheng, 19, told AFP.
“The media may be more supportive and complimentary of topics like ‘positive energy’, for example, but that lacks an element of critique,” he said.
Last year, two students — one who made videos impersonating schoolteachers and another who wrote a cynical essay — were urged to convey more “positive energy”, propelling the phrase into the public vocabulary.
Cheng was among 100 or so listeners from around China who packed into a Beijing bookstore on a recent weekend to meet the hosts of The Weirdo, one of his favourite podcasts.
“I hope our listeners are broad-minded and can become more open to different ideas,” said Meng Chang, 34, one of the programme’s co-hosts.
“There is not just right and wrong. Things in grey areas should also be discussed.”
Popular podcasts have explored China’s low birth rates and hosted discussions with prominent figures like the British ambassador to China, carving out a niche in the ballooning audio industry otherwise dominated by audiobooks and online learning classes.
“Listeners of podcasts are mainly young people who have received higher education, living in first- or second-tier cities,” said Wang Qing, 31, another co-host of The Weirdo.
These groups are more willing to consume in-depth content, said Kou Aizhe, the 38-year-old creator of StoryFM, a podcast featuring first-person narrations from all walks of life. Kou alone has an audience of 1.2 million.
Yang Yi, co-founder of podcasting firm JustPod, estimates the market size is up to 10 million — still just a fraction of China’s population.
For many listeners, less conventional content is the main draw.
On StoryFM, a lesbian recounts why she married a gay man, a teacher tells of how she was molested in a village, and a sex worker explains how she was duped into the industry.
“When people tell their own stories, there are traces of true emotion… this takes you quickly into their world and helps you understand their experiences and choices,” said Kou.
Although not overtly political, his episodes explore themes sometimes scrubbed from the web.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997 but has been banned from films, while feminist activists have been increasingly targeted in social media takedowns.
Wang of The Weirdo said her team explores issues young people care about, like the “996” work culture where staff toil 9am-9pm, six days a week.
“When we talked about LGBT topics, it was during a trend of stigmatisation… and we hoped to create a counter-narrative,” she added.
“At least there is space for clarification and pushback.”
‘Censorship is inevitable’
Audio platforms are betting on new tech to expand what remains a niche trend.
Nasdaq-listed Lizhi has partnered with automakers like XPeng to have livestream podcasts built into car entertainment systems, banking on electric vehicle sales to boost listenership.
But for content to survive, content-makers must tread carefully.
Last year an episode of SurplusValue vanished from Chinese apps — the cultural podcast’s interview with a professor about the pandemic’s impact involved some critical anti-government views.
The show was eventually cancelled and the ex-journalists behind it created a new programme, Stochastic Volatility.
“The censorship system is an issue faced by all those in Chinese media,” said its co-host Fu Shiye.
“What we can do is express ourselves to the greatest degree in a way that we feel safe,” she added.
Creators roll with the punches, picking topics already allowed online or less time-sensitive issues.
StoryFM’s Kou said only two of his 500 or so episodes had been removed, one on peer-to-peer lending and another about job losses during the virus outbreak.
But others were less lucky, having to cut segments or seeing episodes dropped entirely from Chinese platforms.
“When a medium becomes popular, censorship is inevitable,” said Yang of JustPod. “It’s an acknowledgement of your influence.”