NPR x JustPod
Yang Yi, the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of JustPod, is a prominent figure in China's podcasting and digital audio industry. Based in Shanghai, JustPod is recognized as China's premier podcast and digital audio company.
In this interview, we learn more about Yang Yi, and JustPod's work with NPR to introduce "NPR's Podcast Start Up Guide" to China and the revision of its Chinese version.
Why did JustPod choose to partner with NPR and how has that partnership looked?
It's no exaggeration to say that NPR brought me into the world of podcasting. About ten years ago, I discovered a format of radio at NPR that I had never heard before, which combined taped interviews and ambient sound. More importantly, it was storytelling, not just conveying information or a simple news bulletin. This format was something I had never heard on Chinese radio, and it sparked my interest. I started listening to NPR programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Planet Money, and later on, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, How I Built This, as well as other public radio programs such as This American Life, 99% Invisible and RadioLab. These shows became my first batch of teachers in the audio field. Through listening to these programs, I learned how to do audio storytelling.
In 2014, the massive success of Serial made me realize the enormous potential of audio storytelling and podcasts. So in 2015, I started my first personal podcast, trying to introduce the way of audio storytelling to China. Of course, at that time, I still had a full-time job at a TV network, and producing narrative podcasts was very time-consuming and costly. I only did it for half a year, and the podcast was suspended. But it allowed me to learn more about audio production and podcast distribution.
So when my good friend and now business partner Roland Cheng invited me to co-host a podcast in 2018, I gladly accepted and also took charge of producing and distributing the new podcast. Soon, we established JustPod, a podcast company. NPR, in some ways, also became an inspiration for our podcast business. This is why we chose to collaborate with NPR, not only because of its long history, industry-renowned reputation and leadership in the audio and podcasting field, but also because there is a deep emotional connection between JustPod and NPR.
JustPod and NPR's collaboration has been ongoing for almost two years, and it mainly focuses on helping the Chinese podcast community better understand podcasting and improve their creative abilities. As our first step, JustPod and NPR jointly launched the #AskNPR campaign, where JustPod collected questions from Chinese podcasters covering production, monetization, distribution and promotion, and NPR executives were invited to answer these questions. The responses were then compiled into a video that was played during PodFest China 2021.
Together, we also launched a series of podcast workshops. JustPod recruited 90 podcasters from China and invited well-known NPR podcast hosts or producers to share their experience in audio storytelling via Zoom meetings.
In January 2023, the Chinese version of "NPR's Podcast Start Up Guide" was published, and JustPod played a vital role in introducing the book to China. We searched for a suitable publisher and excellent translator for this book. I personally wrote a lot of notes from a localization perspective for the Chinese version of the book and proofread the manuscript.
How has NPR been instrumental in helping to develop the podcasting landscape in China?
NPR was one of the earliest broadcasters to repackage its radio programs into podcasts, and it launched exclusive podcast shows like Planet Money and Pop Culture Happy Hour very early. This made NPR one of the most well-known foreign podcast publishers among Chinese podcast listeners. For many Chinese podcast listeners who have been listening for over five years, especially those who have lived or worked overseas, listening to NPR's podcasts has become a habit.
NPR's narrative-style podcasts have broadened the horizons of Chinese podcast listeners and creators. As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, there were no narrative audio or sound documentaries on Chinese radio, and shows like Invisibilia and Throughline were a refreshing change. NPR has inspired the Chinese podcast community to rethink the creativity and possibilities of podcasting.
NPR's rich experience in audio production has always been an important learning source for Chinese audio creators. NPR Training was already a place for many podcasters to gain mature creative experience even before JustPod and NPR launched a series of collaborations. In our collaboration with NPR, we strongly emphasize using NPR's most advanced audio narrative experience to help Chinese podcasters improve their skills.
What is your overall goal for podcasting in China?
Our primary goal at JustPod is to increase engagement with podcasting among the Chinese people, both in terms of listening and creating. JustPod has the largest podcast network in China, and we aim to provide audiences with informative, entertaining and emotionally engaging content. Additionally, we started organizing China's first podcast-themed event, PodFest China, in 2019, which helped establish a community around podcasting that includes listeners, creators, producers and distributors.
We also want to explore more opportunities for monetizing podcasts in China. Unlike in the US, Douyin (the original version of TikTok) was already popular in China when podcasting started becoming more well-known. To monetize podcasts in China, we must provide value distinct from short videos. We have found that both brands and audiences welcome branded podcasts, and we are also integrating podcast advertising campaigns for brands.
We aspire to become a podcast company with a global vision. In addition to our collaboration with NPR, we have also partnered with podcast companies from different countries, such as Studio Ochenta and Adonde Media. We are actively integrating ourselves into the global audio production industry, from production and audio engineering to sound design.
What was the outcome of the workshops with NPR hosts?
The series of workshops organized in collaboration with NPR had a surprisingly positive outcome. Firstly, the five workshops were very helpful for podcasters in China, as well as for those who aspire to become podcast producers. On the one hand, they broadened their horizons and helped them understand narrative audio. On the other hand, they inspired them to realize that they, too, can create this format, and it is not something unattainable.
Secondly, what surprised us was that these workshops indirectly brought many NPR listeners and fans together in China. Coincidentally, many of these listeners had also started creating their own podcasts. During the Q&A sessions, we often heard questions from attendees who identified themselves as long-time listeners of the podcasts and were excited to have the opportunity to speak directly with the hosts or producers behind it.
Lastly, the workshop participants were very serious and sincere in their desire to learn about the podcast production process. Not only did they attend the workshops, but they also organized and shared their notes on social media. We collected many of these notes. Compared to simply listening to NPR programs to conjecture the production process, or reading "NPR's Podcast Start Up Guide", this face-to-face communication can better inspire podcasters to gain insights and summarize their own experiences. The fact that the workshop with Glen Weldon was the only live-streamed event and received over 10,000 views, despite being conducted solely in English without simultaneous translation, reflects the growing interest in podcasting in China.
How has podcasting been introduced to China and what has been the overall response?
In the first few years of podcasting, there were already creators in China making audioblogs, just like in other parts of the world. However, podcasting has become more widely recognized in China in the past five years, and we are honored to have been witnesses, participants and, to some extent, promoters of this trend at JustPod.
Currently, most Chinese podcast listeners are young people, with an average age between 22 and 35, mainly living in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. For them, podcasting is a trendy lifestyle choice. They enjoy listening to other people's stories and conversations, satisfying their curiosity, relaxing and finding companionship. According to projections, by the end of 2022, Chinese podcast listeners will have exceeded 100 million. And in the next three years, the annual growth rate will exceed 15%.
Of course, many people enjoy using Douyin, but they will gradually discover they need other choices too. Podcasts provide them with rare moments of immersion where they can listen to people's conversations, stories and experiences, which is a completely different experience from short videos. This may be a significant reason why podcasts have grown so rapidly in recent years. Only with a strong comparison can people truly appreciate the value of listening.
What has been the response/reaction to introducing NPR podcasts?
During our promotion of "NPR's Podcast Start Up Guide" and our workshop series in China, we also introduced the NPR Podcasts brand to Chinese listeners with the support of Wanyu Zhang from NPR.
In China, there are many listeners like myself who have been listening to NPR programs for many years. They may have listened through podcasts or the website. For them, NPR Podcasts are like a new face of an old friend. It brings them new experiences and reestablishes connections with NPR and its rich podcast programs.
What surprised me was that this series of collaborations with NPR actually brought NPR's listeners in China together and made them more visible. I know that there are many NPR listeners in China, and when I share my own podcast production stories or how NPR influenced me in the past, I often receive feedback like, "Hey, Yi, I'm also an NPR listener." Our collaboration with NPR in China gave more of these listeners a chance to engage. They could show their love for NPR by buying books, or they could talk to NPR hosts and producers in the workshops. NPR is no longer a distant news outlet for them, but something they can touch and feel. I think this is what touched me the most, because it was through my contact with NPR that I realized NPR is not so far away.