This dispatch appeared in S01 Episode 1, along with Rich Kids English Police, and IG’s Chinese Meme Boom by Tianyu Fang.

Caiwei: Podcasting is having a moment in China. In 2021, it’s not unusual to find “podcast lover” as a profile tag on Beijing Tinder—a result of the medium’s recent popularity. “Podcast lover” has now entered the hallowed lexicon of China Tinder Guys, joining such legends as “travel enthusiast,” “gym fanatic,” “crypto nerd,” and “cat owner.”

I was an avid Chinese-language podcast listener for three years before I started my own. In early 2018, a few sharp and witty women I followed on Weibo started Loud Murmurs (小声喧哗), a show that later introduced me to a whole new world. There was a strong “pirate radio” vibe to these early Chinese podcasts: emo philosophy guru Li Houchen’s FlipRadio (翻转电台), foreign correspondents Du Chen and Xu Tao’s East to West (声东击西), and tech writer Lawrence Li’s Yitian Shijie (一天世界) . At the time, podcasts were a “supplementary” medium—a niche to park your more experimental ideas in.

Calling yourself a Chinese-language “podcast lover” would not have made sense in 2018. There just wasn’t enough out there. But last year’s lockdown saw a huge surge in both creators and listeners.

Yan: In addition to the ones Caiwei has mentioned, there’s the popular Gushi FM (故事FM) and BB Park (日谈公园) podcasts that blew up starting 2018. Parallel to the lockdown podcasting boom in 2020, a show called Surplus Value (剩余价值) got taken down for an episode discussing the pandemic. They then rebranded as Stochastic Volatility (随机波动) and gained a huge following.

Caiwei: Right! 2018 was an eventful year for Chinese podcasting, but not the first! Forerunners like IT Talk (IT公论) and Midnight Talk (大内密谈) date back to 2013.

Tianyu: A precursor—the program that introduced me to the podcast world—was the tech podcast Youdeliao (友的聊播客), which started as an online radio station about BlackBerry phones in 2011.

Caiwei: I launched my podcast on the first day of 2021. When my trailer episode went online, I remember anxiously switching between every podcasting app to check for feedback. I lingered on Xiaoyuzhou FM (小宇宙), known as the most newbie-friendly podcasting app because of its sense of community. In the comments section, I saw one familiar name pop up: 七个梦 (qi ge meng, “Se7enDreams''). “I’m here for support,” he commented in Chinese, just a few hours after the episode dropped. He became one of my first subscribers.

I don’t know Se7enDreams personally, but he’s instantly recognizable in China’s podcasting scene. On Weibo, he’s known for his “podcasting notes,” which contain daily short reviews of recent podcast episodes. A living encyclopedia of Chinese podcasts, he calls himself an “omnivore podcast lover,” because there’s almost no genre that he does not listen to.

The Xiaoyuzhou profile page of Se7enDreams. Numbers from left to right: accounts following, followers, shows subscribed, and accumulative listening time.

Investment advice, wuxia deep-dives, marketing insights, urban love stories—nothing escapes Se7enDream’s notice. From established prestige shows to emerging ones, he follows over 1,000 podcasts and has clocked over 3,500 hours on Xiaoyuzhou FM alone, an app launched barely a year ago. He is also one of the first advocates of the “podfaster lifestyle,” i.e. listening to each show at 1.5x playback speed (or higher).

“Listening to podcasts is like drawing blind from a box,” goes a recent Se7enDreams Weibo post. To a hardcore listener like him who leads a #PodcastLife, the Chinese podcasting world is indeed a box of chocolates, you just never know what you are gonna get. The box also keeps becoming larger, with a richer variety of chocolates in all shapes and sizes.

Krish: Podcasting Any% noskip? The only other genre of cultural consumption I can compare this to is video game speedrunning.  

Ting: I’m also thinking about how it’s common for people on the Chinese internet to call themselves “美剧爱好者” (American TV show lover). What leads to a medium (versus a genre of content) being the basis of identity?

Henry: For some, what we’d consider “mediums” ARE genres in the narrow sense, like being into “k-dramas” without differentiating between romance and historical dramas.

Caiwei: When my second episode dropped, he appeared again. “来了,” he commented (“omw”), only minutes after the episode was online. He leaves a stream of feedback as he listens, marking time stamps in his post. He has another important mission: cuigeng (催更), a term used by avid fans to urge the creators of their favorite shows to put out new content.

For any content creator, having an attentive audience, generous with their feedback, is a blessing. And thanks to Se7enDreams, I became part of this lucky bunch. “First listeners'' like him are now a central part of what keeps Chinese podcasting moving. Through Weibo's hashtag “podcast recommendations” (播客推荐) and a namesake WeChat group, hundreds of podcast lovers (and some creators) practice a similar routine. They rush to the podcasts they love to show support. They scramble to new podcasts to “mark” their presence. They keep a log of their listening history to share in the community. They cuigeng creators for new content. They tend to the blooming podcasting scene with infinite tenderness, patience and care.

I was struck by the originality and vitality in these communities. In the WeChat group, anyone can share their favorite new episodes with a simple message, then a voluntary coordinator congregates entries into a daily, public Weibo post. On Jike (即刻, roughly a Reddit-Facebook hybrid), the kindness and heartfelt compliments are amplified through the popular hashtag #一起听播客 (“let’s listen to podcasts together”).

Although relatively mainstream, there’s a unique indie spirit in podcasting that is rare in other Chinese-language media formats. A lot of podcasters pride themselves on their deviation from traditional media. Chen Hengyi, curator of the newsletter 推播助栏 The Podcast Pick and a die-hard podcast lover himself, told me, “Podcasts are a different format because of the intimacy they cultivate.” Thanks to the conversational and critique-heavy tradition some pioneer shows established, most Chinese podcasts skew informational and intellectually stimulating rather than “hang-out chatty.” “Over time,” Chen says, “it is just natural to develop feelings and special love for this format that seems to belong to you.”

I think I understand the first listeners. They are witness to a fading sense of individuality in Chinese media, and they’re intervening. They are doing their part to create a more diverse opinion sphere, tending a garden that can bloom full of surprising encounters.

So maybe, after all, placing Tinder and podcasting side by side makes sense: both are about finding birds of the same feather and flocking together, about wanting to express, connect and belong.

We made you a China Podcasts Starter Pack.

Yan: In a highly controlled media environment, podcasts can feel more direct. Unmediated.

A journalist and filmmaker called Ashley Jiang started OutChina Radio, a podcast about LGBTQ culture in China, in April 2020. In her first episode, she said she listened to a lot of podcasts during lockdown. "Like many people, the pandemic has severely affected my mental health... and I found podcasts a format that's intimate and offers more companionship than video."

Yi-Ling: Why does audio as a medium cultivate intimacy? Why might that particular form of intimacy be even more rare and fragile in China? I can’t help but think of the short-lived heyday of Clubhouse - how the human voice somehow created a sense of safety and belonging, even if participants were not as cocooned from the outside world as they imagined.

Simon: I think podcasts can oddly be like sitcoms in a way: they can project this sense of friends coming together to have the funniest conversation ever. The pace of life in big Chinese cities makes it hard enough to see friends, and though many of the pandemic restrictions have eased, the craving for this sense of connection isn’t going away anytime soon.

Krish: That theme of "belonging" within a medium extends to our second story this week, which asks: “What if memes were therapy?”

Caiwei Chen is a writer, journalist and podcaster. She cooks with boxed ingredients but tries to finish all her dishes with a gourmet touch.

Tianyu Fang is a writer who grew up in Beijing. He spends most of his free time eating Lanzhou beef noodles and subtweeting.

Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. He was once the mod for a big Final Fantasy VII forum. He has never played Final Fantasy VII.

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She likes to wall-dance—both online and at the climbing gym.

Ting Lin is a Beijing-based writer from Guangzhou. She believes in Nanyue supremacy.

Simon Frank is a writer, translator, and musician in Beijing. He is embarrassed to say he is a DJ, but is, in fact, also a DJ.

Henry Zhang is a writer and translator who has often crashed his scooter in Chaoyang.

Yan Cong is a Beijing-based photographer. She is not the guy in Jilin who carries a rock on his head, despite Google’s insistence.