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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."

Protocol | Fintech

Amazon wants a crypto play. Its history in payments is not encouraging.

It missed chances to be PayPal, Square and Stripe — so is this its chance to miss being Coinbase, too?

Amazon wants to be a crypto player.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The news that Amazon was hiring a lead for a new digital currency and blockchain initiative sent the price of bitcoin soaring. But there's another way to look at the news that's less bullish on bitcoin and bearish on Amazon: 13 years after Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper appeared on the internet, Amazon is just discovering cryptocurrency?

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Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

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Protocol | Enterprise

How Google Cloud plans to kill its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation

Under the new Google Enterprise APIs policy, the company is making a promise that its services will remain available and stable far into the future.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has promised to make the company more customer-friendly.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images 2019

Google Cloud issued a promise Monday to current and potential customers that it's safe to build a business around its core technologies, another step in its transformation from an engineering playground to a true enterprise tech vendor.

Starting Monday, Google will designate a subset of APIs across the company as Google Enterprise APIs, including APIs from Google Cloud, Google Workspace and Google Maps. APIs selected for this category — which will include "a majority" of Google Cloud APIs according to Kripa Krishnan, vice president at Google Cloud — will be subject to strict guidelines regarding any changes that could affect customer software built around those APIs.

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Amazon job opening points to plan to accept crypto payments

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Amazon may be planning to let customers pay for orders with cryptocurrencies.

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Amazon is looking to hire a digital currency and blockchain expert suggesting a plan to let customers accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

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Protocol | Policy

Big Tech tried to redefine terrorism online. It got messy fast.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism announced a series of narrow steps it's taking that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

Erin Saltman is GIFCT's director of programming.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Flickr

A little over a month after the Jan. 6 riot, the tech industry's leading anti-terrorism alliance — a group founded by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter — announced it was seeking ideas for how it could expand its definition of terrorism, which had for years been more or less synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The group, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism or GIFCT, had been considering such a shift for at least a year, but the rising threat of domestic extremism, punctuated by the Capitol uprising, made it all the more clear something needed to change.

But after months of interviewing member companies, months of considering academic proposals and months spent mulling the impact of tech platforms on this and other violent events around the world, the group's policies have barely budged. On Monday, in a 177-page report, GIFCT released the first details of its plan, and, well, a radical rethinking of online extremism it is not. Instead, the report lays out a series of narrow steps that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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