Chinese politics and macroeconomics may be front-page news abroad, but China’s netizens have a slew of more pressing personal concerns that don’t occupy international headlines. Did their Taobao (online shopping website) account get hacked? Is their mobile phone real or fake? Which charities can they trust after netizen Guo Meimei, who claimed to be working for the Chinese Red Cross, famously flaunted her wealth online?
Traditional media has some leeway to cover such topics, but podcasts form the true growth space for today’s hottest topics. As more listeners use iTunes and become more familiar with podcasts, media content in China has diversified. For China-watchers looking for a little humor and spice in their news, this writer recommends Suancai News Podcast (新闻酸菜馆).
Suancai News Podcast–”suancai” literally means pickled cabbage–began airing in October, 2011. The show focuses on daily life, and the joys and tribulations of living in such a dynamic society. As host Wang Zhanggui pointed out in a Chinese-language interview with Tea Leaf Nation, “How people perceive China from abroad and what they learn if they live in China are often totally different.” Some topics will be particularly helpful to those living in China, such as a story about scams to avoid when shopping online or going to an electronics repair shop. Other topics describe how ordinary Chinese react to recent controversies, such as the British tourist who sexually assaulted a young woman in Beijing, and the Russian man who was filmed cursing out a woman on a train ride.
Both hosts add their own two cents on foreigners in China–berating some foreigners as opportunists in China because they couldn’t “cut it” back home, admonishing Han women dressing as minority women to lure foreign bachelors, and speaking against foreigners who perceive Chinese women as easy prey since enforcement against sexual assault is relatively weak in China. Since the hosts are both trained as journalists, they have a keen sense of how to navigate these sensitive waters while still offering a fresh take for listeners fed up with traditional news outlets.
Podcasts and alternative media
The series began as a side project for two Chinese journalists based in Shanghai, Ding Ding and Wang Zhanggui. Infused with humor that is sorely missing from regular broadcast news or television, the show speaks to a younger audience than China’s traditional media targets. Many listeners access the podcast via iTunes, while others download it directly from Mr. Wang’s personal blog. As with most new media, listeners for Suancai News Podcast are concentrated on China’s wealthier east coast, in Guangdong, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.
Listeners who have responded to the show via Weibo, China’s Twitter, range from young elementary students to retired citizens. The largest group, 60-70% of listeners, are college students, who are more familiar with new technology and looking for fresh news sources that speak to them. Surprisingly, download statistics indicate that out of 25,000 monthly listeners, over 4,200 are from overseas (such as the U.K., U.S., and France), almost 2,600 from Shanghai, and the rest from various cities in China.
According to Ding Ding, the challenge for Suancai, and podcasts in China more generally, is finding a bigger audience. Podcasts are still a relatively new format for most Chinese listeners. While some have been around for several years, the new group of podcasts has recently proliferated thanks to the recent iPhone craze (presumably another reason why people love Steve Jobs here). Without their own radio station and limited distribution channels, podcasts have worked hard to find listeners through word of mouth, Weibo and QQ. Suancai co-host Ding Ding estimates that there are only about 100,000 iTunes podcast listeners on the mainland, not surprising given the current dearth of programs like Suancai. Most Chinese-language podcasts are still based in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and tend to focus on entertainment.
Building a “Firefly” Community
Suancai stands out because it hopes to do more than report hot topics. Six months after the podcast launched, the hosts founded the “Firefly Community” (萤火虫社团) so that listeners could do something positive around the stories they heard. As Zhanggui explained to TLN: “Since we have built a community of listeners, perhaps we can encourage the listeners to do something for the public.”
The project is called the Firefly Community “because one firefly’s light is small, but a group of fireflies together is bright enough to cast light on things in the shadows.” When they wrote about the “left-behind” children of migrant parents, the group gathered donations and took it to one of the children’s schools. Because one of the migrant parents had leukemia, they collected donations via Paypal and the Chinese payments site Alipay to help defray hospital costs and find a suitable doctor.
On Taobao, listeners can purchase a postcard book of the children, and the profits are all donated to charity. After a string of scandals in Chinese public welfare organizations, this program seeks to provide listeners with a concrete—not to mention trustworthy–way to give back. And Suancai only donates if they have personally talked to the people involved.
So what’s next for the online version of Chinese pickled cabbage? Now that Weibo also provides streaming services, Suancai hopes it will be able to expand listenership. Many podcasts in China face a similar challenge; creators invest a lot of time, effort, and personal savings for the website and equipment, and eventually must find revenues or cease their podcasts. A link on Suancai’s site allows listeners to support the podcast financially, although both hosts are still not comfortable asking for donations on air. Garnering more listeners remains the biggest challenge, but this listener hopes that the show will continue to expand and provide an alternative voice on fast-paced life in today’s urban China.