Protocol | China

China’s Communist Party is coming for podcasting

The medium used to be a refuge for China's young, urban elites. No longer.

A woman in mask looks at phone

Many believe the golden age of Chinese podcasting has just started.

Photo: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Just a little over a month before the Chinese Communist Party's 100th birthday, a well-produced podcast narrating the Party history in Shanghai — "Red Tales of Pujiang River" — was among the top promoted content on Xiaoyuzhou FM, a Chinese podcast app popular among young urbanites.

This podcast — a co-production between Xiaoyuzhou FM (小宇宙), meaning Little Universe, and JustPod, a leading Chinese podcast production company — is part of a series of events celebrating the upcoming centennial of the CCP, which falls on Thursday, July 1. The propaganda department of the Yangpu District's Party Committee, a part of a local government in Shanghai, provided guidance.

The podcast covers major political and economic events and important figures that shaped Shanghai over the past 100 years. It feels out of sync with most of the cultural and social commentary and niche interest-based podcasts offered on Xiaoyuzhou FM, a Spotify-like app that enables subscription through RSS feeds. But the high production value and intriguing storytelling in "Pujiang River" also distinguish it from the dry, often blatant propaganda channels hosted on mainstream podcasting and audio platforms by Party propaganda offices.

The appearance of Party-affiliated content on Xiaoyuzhou FM has irked some podcast creators as well as listeners, with one commenter calling it a "Redcast." "I am not surprised [that propaganda is fumbling its way into podcast]," Emma Li (a pseudonym), a producer of a Chinese-language podcast on social commentary, told Protocol. "Podcasting may have been a one-time kind of refuge for the liberal urban young population," Li said. "I think it's not anymore. The golden age of podcasting was never going to last."

In fact, many believe the golden age of Chinese podcasting has just started, buoyed by the popularity of Xiaoyuzhou FM and the recent IPOs of large audio content platforms Ximalaya and Lizhi.

Years behind the podcast landscape in the U.S., podcasting in China is only a fledgling industry, with most creators pursuing it as a side gig. Until recently, Chinese podcasting was considered a tight-knit community catering to the niche interests of a very specific audience: highly-educated young urbanites. Independent podcasters like Li have in the past few years created a vibrant, albeit small space for social and political discourse rarely seen on mainstream social media.

But it is a fast-evolving industry with tremendous growth potential. Major investments into podcasting are incubating high-quality, professional audio production. But growing popularity inevitably subjects the nascent podcast sector to the same level of propaganda influence, censorship and monetization pressure as mainstream social media platforms.

It's now clear that China's podcast boom took off in 2020, the same year the tech company Jike launched Xiaoyuzhou FM, China's first and only podcast app that aggregates publicly available RSS feeds to podcasts (other platforms require creators to manually upload content). Xiaoyuzhou FM has reached 351,000 installs on Apple's App Store since its inception, data provided by Sensor Tower shows. And according to the podcast search engine Listen Notes, Chinese podcasters created 5,230 new podcasts in 2020, almost totaling the number of new podcasts combined in the previous three years. In the first six months of 2021, 2,346 new Chinese podcasts sprung up. Top podcasters are starting to take on business partnerships, and brands are looking for podcasters to customize shows.

The podcast about Shanghai's Party history is customized content produced for a government office. "I don't think the podcast is that different from our other products in terms of content. If anything, more research and fact-checking were involved in the production," Yang Yi, co-founder of JustPod and the show's editor and narrator, told Protocol. "I looked at it as a content producer; I just wanted to make it interesting and appealing to Xiaoyuzhou FM's audience. I didn't think I was producing propaganda."

Yang's JustPod is one of a handful of podcasting companies in China that are profiting from this form of content production. JustPod owns 18 professionally produced consumer-facing podcasts, as well as eight branding podcasts, which serve as a major source of revenue.

Capital and political forces have both sensed podcasting's potential. China is the world's largest online audio market by sheer number of online audio users. But China's online audio monthly active users only counted for 16.1% of the country's total mobile internet users in 2020, a penetration rate far below that of the U.S. figure — 47% — over the same period, according to China Insights Consultancy. That suggests much more room to grow. Tech giants including Baidu, Kuaishou, Tencent and NetEase are investing in the podcast business. State media agencies Xinhua and China News have both launched their own podcasts.

Encroachment on a utopia?

Xiaoyuzhou FM and JustPod aren't the only companies that have received the state's attention. One creator of a Chinese-language podcast told Protocol that they have been approached several times by government agencies for collaboration. "Podcasting is not a special medium. As long as a show has gained popularity, all kinds of clients will pay attention to you and look for ways to take advantage of your influence," they said, requesting anonymity.

Across social media, propaganda has encroached on spaces that used to nurture subcultures and fringe ideas. Over the past five years, hundreds of central and local governments and law enforcement agencies have set up accounts on platforms like Douyin, Kuaishou and Bilibili. These platforms have become home to entertaining propaganda content created by grassroots nationalists and state actors for China's youngsters.

For now, podcasting is still cool and edgy and far less popular than short-video sensations. But the Shanghai Party-affiliated podcast serves as an early sign that some government officials are experimenting with "emerging media," said Kecheng Fang, who teaches journalism and studies propaganda at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. "[Some local officials] probably are just testing the waters with podcasts as a deliverable handed to the upper-level government," Fang says. "It doesn't necessarily mean that a centralized propaganda undertaking is underway."

Where there's propaganda, there's censorship. Protocol spoke with the hosts or producers of four podcasts; all have either had single episodes removed by audio platforms including Xiaoyuzhou FM, or they have seen their accounts deleted. All said the level of censorship has stepped up over the past three years.

For some independent Chinese podcasters and personalities who cherish the medium as a rare public platform to speak their minds freely, they sense a clear message: The oasis they have carved out for themselves and for people who are personally and politically like-minded is shrinking. "I am trying to monetize my podcast but I feel very ambivalent about this," Li said. "Everybody knows that if you are trying to make money in China's [censored Internet] you have to watch what you say."

But for podcast production companies, freedom of expression takes a backseat to business. "We need to adapt to the environment if we want to do business," said Yang, who produced the Shanghai podcast. He believes it's the reputation of Chinese podcasting — liberal, creative, a venue for personal expression — that will hinder the industry's growth, "not censorship."

Theranos’ investor pitches go on trial

Prosecutors in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case are now highlighting allegations the company sought to mislead investors.

The fresh details of unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Theranos trial continued this week with testimony from Daniel Edlin, a former product manager at the blood-testing startup, and Shane Weber, a scientist from Pfizer. Their testimonies appeared to bolster the government's argument that Holmes intentionally defrauded investors and patients.

The fresh details about audacious and unproven claims made about the viability of Theranos' blood tests and efforts to conceal errors when demonstrating testing equipment added to the evidence against Holmes, who is accused of fraud in her role leading the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporting fellow at Protocol, based out of Los Angeles. Previously, she worked for Ernst & Young, where she researched and wrote about the future of work, emerging technologies and startups. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where she studied business and philosophy. She can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Policy

8 takeaways from states’ new filing against Google

New details have been unsealed in the states' antitrust suit against Google for anticompetitive behavior in the ads market.

Google is facing complaints by government competition enforcers on several fronts.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Up to 22%: That's the fee Google charges publishers for sales on its online ad exchanges, according to newly unredacted details in a complaint by several state attorneys general.

The figure is just one of the many details that a court allowed the states to unveil Friday. Many had more or less remained secrets inside Google and the online publishing industry, even through prior legal complaints and eager public interest.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Workplace

This tech founder uses a converted Sprinter van as an office on wheels

The CEO of productivity startup Rock likes to work on the road. Here's how he does it — starting with three different WiFi hotspots.

Kenzo Fong, founder and CEO of the 20-person productivity software startup Rock, has been working out of his converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van since the pandemic began.

Photo: Kenzo Fong/Rock

Plenty of techies have started companies in garages. Try running a startup from a van.

In San Francisco, one software company founder has been using a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van — picture an Amazon delivery vehicle — as a mobile office.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Protocol | Policy

Most Americans want AI regulation — and they want it yesterday

In a poll, people said they wanted to see artificial intelligence technologies develop in the U.S. — alongside rules governing their use.

U.S. lawmakers have only just begun the long process of regulating the use of AI.

Photo: Louis Velazquez/Unsplash

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want the U.S to regulate the development and use of artificial intelligence in the next year or sooner — with half saying that regulation should have begun yesterday, according to a Morning Consult poll. Another 13% say that regulation should start in the next year.

"You can thread this together," Austin Carson, founder of new nonprofit group SeedAI and former government relations lead for Nvidia, said in an email. "Half or more Americans want to address all of these things, split pretty evenly along ideological lines."

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

ai
Latest Stories