They say it’s a golden age of podcasting, and it’s hard to argue. Serial and S-Town drew even the wariest listeners into rapt attention. Homecoming, 2 Dope Queens and My Brother, My Brother and Me made it on TV. Marc Maron hosted Barack Obama in his garage.
On the corporate side of things, Spotify devoured Gimlet Media and Anchor—banking on the 53% of Gen Z-ers and millennials who listen to podcasts monthly. And while he’s not a corporation, Joe Rogan probably makes enough off his show to be one.
So podcasting is good listenin’, good watchin’, and definitely good money makin’. And sometimes it seems like everyone has a podcast. But as podcasts like Code Switch, The Stoop, and Nancy can attest to, it’s not that everyone has a podcast so much as it is a whole lot of, well, white folx do.
Self Evident, an upcoming podcast hosted by the IACP award-winning Cathy Erway, herself a Gimlet Media alumna, seeks to bridge that gap for Asian American listeners.
“Self Evident is a podcast that takes on what it means to be American by telling Asian American stories,” says managing producer James Boo. “This is a show that tackles who America is, who we should be, who we’re going to be. And the way we do that is by presenting reported stories, community conversations, and personal stories, by and about Asian Americans.”
The podcast, which launched its crowdfunding campaign this week, is one of several Asian American media efforts that appeared in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, a film touted for its East Asian American representation, though criticized for its lack of meaningful Southeast or South Asian representation. In the months that followed, Crazy Rich Asians inspired more Asian representation in Hollywood, though that often seemed limited to the film’s own East Asian focus.
Self Evident, Boo says, is deliberately trying to avoid that trap. “An early conversation was, how do we frame this? We learned from Pacific Islander storytellers and leaders that you can’t flippantly use [the term “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders”] and just merge it into whatever you’re saying,” Boo says. “We have Iranian voices on the show from the very first episode, as well as South Asian experiences, referencing the history that’s often ignored when there’s so much focus on East Asian history.”
That goal, to represent the multiplicity of Asian Americans when “Asian American” itself begs disaggregation, seems daunting. Potluck, an Asian American podcast collective, hosts no fewer than 11 podcasts, each with its own particular Asian American niche. American Desis Podcast, The Pacific Current, and Asian Boss Girl fill even more.
To that end, one way Self Evident aims to tell marginalized Asian American stories is by literally inviting those Asian Americans to tell them.
“The response that we got from this one question, ‘do you identify as Asian American? Why or why not?’ was so rooted. It’s not just a fly-by topic. It’s experienced, lived and thought about,” says Boo. “And we think it helps to be able to create that space and hear personal stories about what’s influenced their relationship with that term. And that will be one of the early episodes we put out. And it includes two audience members.”
With a “community panel” of over 200 members, who provide regular feedback on early episodes, Self Evident is being careful when interpreting Asian American identity, and making that feedback loop a literal part of the show. It’s a deliberate reframing of the national conversation on “Asian American representation”—not just telling stories about marginalized Asian Americans, but giving Asian Americans the chance to tell them.
“Everyone would agree [diversity and inclusion] is nice to have,” says Boo. “But the real question is how you do that.”
Highlights of our interview with James Boo follow. Read the full transcript of our interview.
On Self Evident’s thesis statement
We’re really centered on this question of American identity, because I think that’s what the whole country is grappling with right now. And in a lot of ways, that’s what we’ve seen and what’s inspired us. It’s undeniable that more Asian American community leaders and community voices are getting up and not waiting to speak up.
We don’t think these are new voices, but I think that there is a new way of voices joining the stream. We’re trying to build a storytelling hub that’s very concerned with this question of, “what’s our stake in America?”
This is not about you learning what Asian people are like. I think it goes beyond that. I think it’s time to make that connection, particularly because it’s 2019 and next year there are a lot of things happening, at a monumental scale.
So we’re trying to build a show that is open enough.
On tackling politics in the show
It factors in broadly speaking. I think it’s a big reference point. It’s something we’re all aware of, and in terms of stories, we have stories that touch on and report on homelessness and inequality. I think in this first season, we’re not doing a lot of direct election coverage or political campaign coverage. We’re asking questions like, do the political parties make sense for Asian American communities? Why would it matter if, say, a Vietnamese American chooses to vote Republican or not?
Those are different conversations, quite frankly, from asking whether a white person votes Republican or not. There’s a lot more depth. And a lot more that’s very close to stories that have been told, but we’re trying to see how it fits in right now. And especially what that means to people who make decisions about where they’ll fit in, who they’re going to vote for.
On tackling new vs. well-trodden Asian American issues
Our general approach is that we trust that people can Google stuff. For example, “self evident,” the name — that is a name we’re very intentional about. Because we didn’t want a name that would signal to everyone that we only think Asian Americans are East Asians, and that’s it.
And we wanted something that would acknowledge two things: one, this is something about American identity writ large, that Asian Americans have been a part of that for a long time. And that we’re very intent on looking forward with the confidence that we have a stake in this, and we’re trying to explore what that stake is, and what our stories tell about being part of this country going forward.
It’s a done deal — we’re part of the American story as broadly speaking, we’re the fastest-growing minority group.
This is something I’m confident I’m saying: we don’t believe we have to catch everyone up to one spot and then you can have the next conversation. One advantage of podcasting is you can have the conversation you want to have, you can tell the story as fully as you can. And people will respond to the story, and if they feel like they need to learn more, that’s great. That’s an amazing outcome.
Disclosure: The author is a donor to Self Evident’s crowdfunding campaign.