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."

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