This Un-American Life: China’s Struggling Podcast Industry

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What’s keeping Western-style podcasts from carving out a mobile entertainment niche in China?

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Even as their counterparts in the West enjoy unprecedented popularity, podcasts in China have only recently begun to attract the attention of the country’s 560 million smartphone users. From “The New Yorker Radio Hour” to “My Dad Wrote a Porno,” English-language podcasts cater to every conceivable listener and every conceivable taste. Yet in China, use the word for podcast, boke, in conversation, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares.

According to a Pew Research poll, 21 percent of Americans surveyed in 2016 reported having listened to a podcast in the last month, the highest figure since the poll was first conducted in 2008. In China, however, just 5 percent of the population — around 72 million people — listened to “mobile internet radio” in the second quarter of 2016. Why, then, is podcasting so underappreciated in China compared to other forms of content entrepreneurship that seem to have such limitless potential?

One reason has to do with accessibility. Apple’s iTunes, a one-stop shop for mobile media, debuted in 2001 but did not start carrying podcasts until June 2005. As iTunes was not available in China until 2009, Western listeners effectively had a four-year head start.

Even as Ku6, Tudou, and other early podcasting clients, or “podcatchers,” pioneered the trend in China — initially by aggregating radio programming — listeners were hard to come by because there was no RSS-like function through which they could subscribe to channels and automatically receive new episodes. Perhaps tellingly, both Ku6 and Tudou are now exclusively dedicated to video content.

Lifestyle is another factor that influences the popularity of podcasts in China. Because more Chinese use public transport than their American counterparts, people in the two countries face different choices.

“In the U.S., if you listen to the radio on your morning commute, you get to work — but if you watch TV, you crash,” Clay Shirky, an associate professor at New York University Shanghai and a prominent commentator on internet trends, tells Sixth Tone. “In China, this is often not the case.” Because taking the subway or riding the bus is a passive means of transit, Shirky argues, people in China have more options when it comes to entertaining themselves as they travel from one destination to another. According to U.S. census data from 2013, only 5.2 percent of Americans used public transport to travel to work, while 76.4 percent drove alone.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: censorship and the increasingly fickle State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). Shirky credits one particular event for a dramatic upswing in the popularity of podcasts in the United States: a 2008 episode of “This American Life” in which two reporters tried to make sense of the subprime mortgage crisis in a way that average people could understand. The episode won a Peabody Award, a highly acclaimed national medal that recognizes exceptional public service by American media outlets.

“China, meanwhile, had ‘Under the Dome,’ and we saw how that went,” says Shirky, referring to the scathing documentary on the country’s air pollution that initially received praise from state newspaper China Daily and Environmental Protection Minister Chen Jining — before disappearing from the Chinese internet one week later. The film remains a testament to the fact that hard-hitting journalism is inherently more challenging to pull off in China, and explains why investigative podcasts in the vein of NPR’s “Serial” or “Embedded” have yet to see Chinese imitations.

The specter of censorship also explains the relative popularity of audiobooks, which, appearing either in their entirety or in serialized installments, account for 25.6 percent of China’s online audio content. For comparison, 14 percent of Americans surveyed in 2014 reported listening to an audiobook in the past year, according to a Pew Research poll. So why are audiobooks so ubiquitous in China?

The answer may come down to liability, as words that are initially written rather than spoken are easier to police. A word processor’s search function can quickly identify any potentially sensitive keywords; to do the same for audio content would require as-yet-undeveloped technology, Shirky says.

As a result, many of China’s largest providers of audio content, including Ximalaya, Qingting, Koala, and Lizhi, which together account for 80 percent of the market, initially embraced audiobooks and user-generated content — though with increased competition and demand for quality, these companies are now directing more resources toward the higher production value of professionally generated content.

But with such content comes the risk of copyright infringement, an inescapable reality in a country whose idea of intellectual property is less rigid than the West’s. In April 2015, for example, Koala accused its closest competitor, Qingting, of illegally distributing Koala’s own copyrighted material. Now, because of the occupational hazard of having content “repurposed” by other providers, some companies have turned to a “professional user-generated content” strategy, by which they recruit and train amateur podcasters to produce high-quality material. Qingting alone has signed more than 12,000 grassroots content-creators whom it has high hopes of turning into cash cows.

Podcasting in China is a relatively new phenomenon still waiting to truly catch on. Instead, live-streaming — which in the U.S. occupies a specific, largely gaming-inspired niche — garners more devotees in China and draws covetous glances from investors who see its potential. For podcasting to flourish in China, quality content will be key — but whether this is even possible within such a restrictive environment remains a subject of debate, as does the question of whether Chinese consumers, who are just coming around to the idea that high-quality entertainment might actually be worth paying for, will ever be fully sold on the trend.

With contributions from Yin Yijun.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

Editor: Olivia Yang

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