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Sabbatical Series: Wesley Yiin, Week 5 of 5

“They Call Us Podcasters,” by Wesley Yiin 

“We met by being Asian,” said Phil Yu, a.k.a. Angry Asian Man, and he wasn’t entirely kidding. We were speaking over the phone a few weeks ago, and I had asked Phil how he and Jeff Yang had come up with the idea for They Call Us Bruce, the podcast they host together. The show, to boil it down somewhat reductively, is a conversational podcast about correcting misperceptions of the Asian American community and promoting better, more accurate ones… among many other things, of course. Indeed, the two men have known each other so long that they can’t remember how or when they met, so I suppose it’s understandable the specifics of that meeting remains elusive.

As it turns out, They Call Us Bruce was born the way so many podcasts have: out of many long conversations between two friends. In this case, those friends were two prominent Asian American writers who would constantly have discussions about race, identity, and their own experiences of those things that they, in retrospect, wished were recorded and preserved. So they decided to start a show together — the name, by the way, refers to Bruce Lee, in case you didn’t pick that up — and within six months, they racked up an impressive guest list loaded with notable Asian American figures from a variety of spheres, from Iron Fist actor Lewis Tan to the Fresh Off the Boat kids (Jeff’s son, Hudson, stars in the show) to the actor-activist George Takei. The show is thoughtful, lively, and it does not shy away from current events. In the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s decision to end DACA, Phil and Jeff built an episode around ThinkProgress immigration reporter Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, a DACA recipient herself.

Bruce was always intended to be more than just a conversation between friends. Jeff believes the project provides a distinct opportunity to broaden out specifically Asian American podcast audiences. Part of the thinking behind Bruce, Jeff explained, was to build a show whose very existence advocates for more Asian American listeners, and as a result serves as a diversifying force of change.

At the beginning, Phil and Jeff had no sense of how the show would be received. The two writers had robust social media followings, sure, and Phil hosts an on-and-off podcast (it hadn’t aired any episodes in all of 2016), but they weren’t sure if anybody would actually check it out. Once they started publishing episodes, however, they were pleasantly surprised. “Almost instantly, we were getting tens of thousands of people listening every week,” Jeff said. That initial response, and the way it has sustaining throughout the podcast’s run thus far, are hopeful indications that there is indeed an audience hungry for smart, current analysis from an Asian American perspective.

They Call Us Bruce continues to go strong, seven months and over twenty episodes in. Jeff and Phil have even seen a semi-formal collective of like-minded Asian American-led podcasts form alongside the show. Dubbed the Potluck Collective, the stable includes Good Muslim Bad Muslim, Books & Boba, Asian Americana, and the Korean Drama Podcast.

During our conversation, I asked Phil and Jeff for their thoughts on the Presence of Asians in the Podcast Industry. (Which, in my mind, has always seemed limited.) Jeff responded by pointing out something I hadn’t quite considered before — that Asians have actually been relatively successful in radio and podcasting, but not necessarily for reporting or discussing issues about race and ethnicity. He listed, by way of example, NPR’s Ailsa Chang and Gimlet Media’s Lisa Chow, among others.

“The voices in my head are all starting to sound more Asian,” Jeff said. “I think that what’s also true, though, is that not a lot of those voices are talking about being Asian American.” And while they acknowledge the benefit of their Asian American peers entering other audio spaces, Phil and Jeff are in effect trying to create their own space. Representation by numbers is one thing, they seem to be saying, representation by substance is a whole other thing altogether.

***

I started grappling with the issue of race within podcasting after listening to an interview by Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton with NPR journalist Gene Demby. In this early episode of the podcast, aptly titled “A Podcast of One’s Own,” the three talked about how all radio voices sound the same, typically reflecting the coastal, educated, white parlance of their journalists and audiences.

This was late 2015 or early 2016, and at the time, I was still pursuing journalism as a full-time career. Though I was aware about the news industry’s distinct problems with diversity, I was also increasingly struck by how podcasting, seemingly a new frontier for storytelling (in all genres, but predominantly nonfiction), appears to be replicating that unfortunate structure. Eventually, I started pitching stories on the growing field of “podcasts of color” — a topic that interested me even back in college — only to balk when I actually got the opportunity to write and publish those pieces. The reason why is as complicated as it is personal: while I’m drawn to the topic, I was nonetheless unsure of the actual point I was trying to make. I was unsure of my place in the conversation.

A huge part of that uncertainty comes from my own relationship with being Asian American, and how it informs and relates to my reporting. As happy as I was to research and write about contributions to diversity in podcasting by brown and black talent — stories that deserve to be told and retold — it felt odd to do so when I didn’t see my own community reflected in this trend. Of course, I’m sure there are podcasts that do focus on the Asian American experience. They just don’t seem to be included that prominently in the wider discussions about diversity in podcasting.

I don’t know if there are specific data points on this, but I think it’s easy to imagine Jeff and Phil’s broader point: when we think of prominent Black podcasters, we tend to think of Heben and Tracy, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, Brittany Luse, Aminatou Sow, Crissle and Kid Fury, etc.  — in other words, Black podcasters who podcast about their Blackness some if not all of the time. There aren’t really analogs like that for Asian Americans.

(To some extent, this makes sense. The histories and needs of Asian American communities differ from those of Black communities, after all. Maybe the solutions differ too.)

***

It can’t be denied, though, that communities like the Potluck Collective, and shows like They Call Us Bruce have so much power, as they serve as vessels for unique Asian American insights into a timely conversations.

I’m distinctly reminded of that recent episode with Esther Yu Hsi Lee, the ThinkProgress immigration reporter who is a DACA recipient herself. Lee is an immigrant from Taiwan, and part of the episode’s function was simply to say, “Hey, we exist in this conversation too,” and that this shit is complicated, and that there’s no one narrative. But the episode also had surgical purpose: it explored how reactions to the Trump administration’s decision on DACA sometimes echo the uncomfortable proclamations of Asians as the “model minority” — how certain language is deployed, usually by conservatives but also some liberals, to divide and pit DACA recipients against each other, with some being tagged as “good immigrants” compared to others.

Layers like these need to be established in the broader conversation, but I think this can only happens when the right people give voices to those layers. That’s the value of a show like They Call Us Bruce and the Potluck Collective at large: they aim to consolidate and elevate Asian voices so that our perspectives may be more widely heard and disseminated.

In describing Bruce’s origin story, Jeff recalled the podcast’s first two episodes, which covered the Netflix series Marvel’s Iron Fist. In the wake of that show’s whitewashing controversy, Phil and Jeff made a decision. “We couldn’t not talk about this anymore,” Jeff said. “And we might as well do it in front of a mic.”


Wesley Yiin is an MFA student in screenwriting at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. As a freelancer, he’s been published in Slate, Pacific Standard, and the Washington Post. Don’t miss his piece on bronies.

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