In China, a Podcast Impressed by ‘This American Life’ Offers Voice to the Actual

BEIJING — Kou Aizhe, the creator and host of one in all China’s hottest storytelling podcasts, has just one criterion for choosing tales.

“Any topic can work,” he mentioned, “so long as it surprises me.”

What emerges is a group of bizarre tales instructed with an authenticity not often heard within the nation’s tightly scripted, propaganda-heavy state-run media.

A employee for a Chinese language development firm describes a harrowing escape from battle in Libya in an episode titled “I Shot an AK-47 at Them.” A younger man recounts accompanying his ailing father to Switzerland to die by assisted suicide. A lesbian tells of her determination to enter a wedding of comfort to a homosexual man.

Taking inspiration from American packages like “This American Life” and WNYC’s “Snap Judgment,” Mr. Kou’s “Gushi FM” (Story FM in English) options tales instructed within the first particular person by peculiar Chinese language of assorted backgrounds.

The present highlights tales from each the margins and the mainstream of society. They’re tales of loneliness, heartbreak, journey, betrayal, love, loss and the absurd — tales of a form not usually publicly shared on this age of so-called humblebrag social media.

Since Mr. Kou started broadcasting “Gushi FM” in 2017, it has develop into one of the profitable audio packages in China’s small however rising podcast motion. In a rustic of multiple billion individuals, this system attracts practically 600,000 listeners and counting. Every month, this system positive factors about 35,000 new listeners, in accordance with Mr. Kou.

“Today, I really feel prefer it’s so uncommon for the media and folks round us to talk very truthfully,” mentioned Su Da, 35, a researcher based mostly within the central province of Shanxi. “However ‘Gushi FM’ is completely different. The storytellers deliver out the authenticity of our lives. That authenticity is sophisticated, and it could make us really feel uncomfortable, however it’s real.”

The comparatively restricted variety of listeners for a rustic of China’s dimension might be the explanation the podcast is ready to fly below the radar in an more and more managed media surroundings. In latest months, the Chinese language authorities have cracked down on investigative journalists, social media celebrities and seemingly innocuous impartial bloggers, a part of a broader effort to impose management over China’s data ecosystem.

“Gushi FM” not often touches on political or newsy matters, but it surely usually offers with social themes which were topic to media censorship previously. In a single episode, a girl describes studying about intercourse solely after her elementary schoolteacher molested her — a delicate nod to the #MeToo motion. Different episodes have handled L.G.B.T.Q. points, compelled relocation and the black marketplace for surrogacy, which is illegitimate in China.

Of greater than 200 episodes, censors have erased just one: a narrative a few household who went bankrupt due to a peer-to-peer lending rip-off, which was a fraught subject on the time.

“We’re very cautious,” Mr. Kou mentioned.

Every episode is round 20 to 30 minutes, and the tales unfold with drama and suspense. The storytelling shouldn’t be dogmatic; quite, the political context of issues which have emerged after many years of Communist Occasion rule is solely implied.

One episode, titled “My Cousin Squandered His Household’s Fortune to Purchase 4 Wives for an Common of 13,000 Renminbi Every,” dives into the story of a rural man’s struggles to discover a spouse. Not talked about is that 4 many years of delivery restrictions and a conventional desire for boys have created a big gender imbalance in China, making it tough for a lot of poor rural males to seek out wives.

“By each story, my aim is to indicate the complexity of every particular person,” mentioned Mr. Kou. “Particularly within the web period, individuals are fast to come back to judgments about different individuals based mostly on figuring out only one side about them. I need to present the completely different angles.”

With salt-and-pepper hair, glasses and a peaceful demeanor, Mr. Kou suits the mould of the nonjudgmental, empathetic podcast host solid by audio idols like Ira Glass, Terry Gross and Mr. Kou’s favourite, Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media.

A educated librarian turned journalist, Mr. Kou is a 36-year-old native of Jilin Province in northern China. He first significantly thought-about making a podcast whereas working as a information assistant for a Swedish radio station in Beijing.

“I did many lengthy interviews and the tales had been so fascinating, however in the long run we might solely use a number of seconds of dialogue for the story,” mentioned Mr. Kou. “It was such a disgrace.”

Over the previous two years, Mr. Kou has constructed up a staff of 10, together with journalists, sound engineers and interns. On a latest afternoon, the “Gushi FM” staff sat round a big convention desk at their modern workplace in Beijing, batting round concepts for future episodes.

Concepts for interview topics included an individual who cloned a pet canine, the Chinese language translator of the “Recreation of Thrones” books and a person who was compelled to interrupt up together with his girlfriend as a result of his dad and mom didn’t approve of her. A number of the story pitches had come from listeners, others had been generated by the staff members themselves.

The staff works quick to make the three episodes per week mandated by the podcast’s mum or dad firm and foremost monetary backer, the favored on-line content material creator Daxiang Gonghui, which publishes articles about historical past and tradition.

“Gushi FM” sells some advertisements, Mr. Kou says, but it surely faces a relentless battle for survival. Podcasts have but to catch on in China as they’ve in america and Britain. Consultants say a part of the reason being the federal government’s monopoly on radio in China. Advertisers are nonetheless drawn to conventional broadcast stations that rent radio hosts to speak and play music.

One other problem going through “Gushi FM” is that the present is firmly rooted in actuality, warts and all, at a time when many Chinese language need to tune out each day anxieties. That need has fueled a surge in escapist leisure like on-line live-streaming, Korean tv dramas and blogs that churn out feel-good clickbait content material.

These exist alongside a strong state media equipment bent on selling “constructive vitality” by pushing celebration propaganda, together with in kinds as unlikely as rap performances and recreation exhibits. Even in style audio streaming web platforms usually focus extra on selling self-improvement via academic programs and audiobooks.

For a lot of Chinese language, studying about social ills whereas figuring out that little may be completed to resolve them can really feel like a needlessly miserable endeavor.

“When individuals take heed to ‘This American Life,’ they’re moved by the storytellers and their tales,” mentioned Yang Yi, the editor of JustPod, a Chinese language-language publication concerning the podcast business. “However an peculiar Chinese language listener will suppose: ‘My life can also be very arduous, so why ought to I hear concerning the hardship of another person?’”

But “Gushi FM” has a distinct segment, and rising, viewers. Listening to others describe their struggles and successes in such an intimate means, followers say, is exactly what units it aside.

“I had a disaster at work and was feeling very misplaced and panicked,” mentioned Shao Xueyan, 32, previously an engineer within the northern Chinese language metropolis of Tianjin. “However discovering ‘Gushi FM’ was like destiny.”

“By listening to different individuals’s tales I might mirror by myself life,” she added. “It made me notice that there’ll all the time be good issues that occur in life so long as you’re alive.”

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