Self Evident: Asian America’s Stories is a podcast taking on what it means to be American by presenting reported stories and community conversations by and about Asian Americans. With host Cathy Erway, Self Evident tackles today’s tough questions around identity, cultural change, and nationhood, with direct input from its audience.
We interviewed two of the show’s producers, James Boo, Managing Producer, and Talisa Chang, Head of Audience Development (see the entire team here). Self Evident is currently raising funds to complete their first season. Check out their Indiegogo campaign here.
Season 1 premieres in May 2019 and is presented with the Center for Asian American Media, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and additional support from the Ford Foundation.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, and how you got into media or podcasting?
Talisa Chang: My path has zigged and zagged quite a bit. I was a reporter for a local community paper out of college, and then spent a good chunk of my career as a copywriter and user experience researcher in tech. During that time, one of my side projects was Her Girl Friday, an events-based group focused on building community amongst nonfiction storytellers. After the election, I knew I wanted to refocus my efforts in storytelling and community. The podcast has been an incredible opportunity to do that.
James Boo: My background is in writing and documentary filmmaking, so Self Evident fits into a body of work I’ve done over the past decade as a nonfiction storyteller. I actually decided to focus on audio after realizing that I was listening to over 12 hours of podcasts and public radio a week. Like a lot of other people, I was really drawn to the intimacy and nuance that you can achieve with an audio story — without sacrificing the foundation of reporting, or the feeling of having a dialogue with the audience. So it’s a great medium for digging into tough, open-ended questions.
How did the two of you end of teaming up for this project?
JB: Before Self Evident, my biggest project was a 60-part micro-doc series representing local New Yorkers through a lens of food, ownership, and community. I learned a lot about how format and the degree of participation affects the impact of a story. But after a few years of mostly working solo on that series, I decided to never again commit to producing anything without a great team on board from day one. Talisa was the first person I called to jumpstart this podcast because I wanted a partner in this who could really focus on our audience and make sure we weren’t creating something in a vacuum. She’s really pushed our team to find meaningful ways to bring listeners and already-active community voices into our show-making process.
TC: Our production team has incredible editorial chops, so it’s been nice to feel like I can bring something different to the table. Audience development for the podcast felt like the perfect way to put my experience as an organizer, marketer, and researcher to work! But I also joined because I knew that James was an experienced manager.
JB: What that means is I spent eight years working in tech while running around with a camera and a microphone on nights and weekends.
TC: “Side projects” can be incredibly rewarding, but they also have so much potential for burnout, disorganization, and unrealized efforts. I knew James was really focused on building out an organization, setting clear goals, and empowering others. I think it’s reflected in what we’ve accomplished so far, and it’s how we’ve been able to recruit so many incredible people onto this team as volunteers.
JB: Also, we actually first met at a bowling alley in Queens a decade ago. So maybe we could have just said “those who bowl together, roll together” or something else that might be on a t-shirt in the late ‘70s. Or one of those aughts t-shirts pretending to have lived in the ‘70s. Was I supposed to reveal this much about how my brain works?
What kinds of topics will you cover and will you have special guests on the show? How would you describe the style of Self Evident?
JB: Our show is asking “What’s our stake in America? In this culture? Are we down with that? And what are we going to do about it?” We think a lot about the question of American identity and how the terms of being American are negotiated, because it’s something the whole country is grappling with right now. These questions are not limited to Asian Americans, but Asian Americans know that our experiences tap into this negotiation of identity in all kinds of complicated ways.
TC: We have plenty of voices on the show, but I wouldn’t say it’s guest-driven. More of the focus is on stories. A third of our stories are reported features, where every voice is part of a greater series of events taking place in an on-the-ground narrative. A third of our stories are community conversations, where the guests are actually audience members who share their stories in response to an open question we’ve asked them. And the last third of our stories is a grab bag, ranging from historical tales to deeply personal narratives. A lot of this pilot season is about demonstrating the range and breadth and depth that we know Asian American stories have to offer.
JB: So for example, one episode unpacks a racialized headline about Asian homeowners in order to question our reverence for the American Dream. Another episode follows the personal journey of a person who goes to extremely painful, sometimes comical, lengths to reconnect with his first-gen Filipino American parents. The people in these stories are Asian American, but the topics range from the insidious nature of bootstrapper mythology to the question, “Dear Lord, why is it so hard to talk to my dad?” Actually, sometimes in the same story.
TC: Coming back to our efforts with community engagement — another episode presents conversations with our listeners on the term “Asian American” itself. Why they have a hard time identifying with the term, while recognizing how much of a positive role it can play politically and culturally. So I guess you could say our own audience members are the most special guests we can think of!
How do you see Self Evident fitting into the larger podcast and media landscape?
JB: We’re launching this show to call attention to the broader world of Asian American storytelling and motivate investment in Asian American storytellers. There are a lot of Asian American podcasts advancing conversations and bringing community voices directly to listeners and building audiences for audio. But it’s really tough for independent podcasts to pull in the kind of resources needed for reported storytelling. On the other hand, public radio is working overtime to launch amazing new shows — but we haven’t seen as much growth in Asian American programming as there could be. So we’re trying to bridge public media and grassroots podcasting approaches to storytelling, to mobilize demand for stories by and about Asian Americans.
TC: When we talked to Asian American reporters and producers about contributing to our show, one thing we heard again and again is how hard it is to pitch stories with Asian American characters to mainstream outlets. In the year of Crazy Rich Asians, we heard a story from a producer that nobody would believe that Asian Americans were worth advertising to, which was more confusing than anything.
JB: I think a lot of people understand this frustration of representation being constrained by the assumptions and stereotypes entrenched within any given industry. Our team sits between nonfiction storytelling worlds, and we’re aiming to build bridges between Asian American communities in documentary, reporting, public radio, and personal storytelling. I’d say what pushes me the hardest is the chance to build this kind of infrastructure for Asian American stories across media. Audio’s a great medium for this, and we’re just starting to tap into that potential.
Where will listeners be able to find Self Evident podcasts down the line?
TC: Everywhere podcasts can be found!
JB: I’d like to change the game by actually advertising our show on expensive subscription-based underwear. Seriously, though, in addition to launching on every podcast app, it’s a goal of ours to bring this show to public radio stations across the country.
Can you talk about CAAM’s support, and why it’s important for the public to support Self Evident?
JB: CAAM’s really given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on producing a pilot season, and see how audiences — Asian American audiences, plus broader public radio and podcast audiences — respond. We’re making a case that Asian American stories need to be heard and understood and discussed on a national scale in 2020, when our stake in the country will matter more than ever.
TC: Right. It’s our first season, and it’s a testing ground to try out different formats, styles, and audience engagement approaches. CAAM’s helping us find our footing and prove out our vision. I really can’t wait for people to hear the finished product.
JB: But we do need public support now to show that there is demand for more Asian American stories, that the project should continue past this pilot, and that the rising tide of Asian American voices in media has been a long time coming. The crowdfund campaign we’re running right now is about highlighting that support. And every single donation, no matter how big, truly counts. What we’re really asking for here is votes. Even a $1 contribution adds proof that more shows like this should be funded and sustained.
We’re so excited to feature Self Evident at CAAMFest — can you share more about what the event will be like?
TC: We’re creating a live storytelling event that we hope will really bring the show to life! We’ll be adapting audio from Season 1 episodes, and pairing that with live discussion, images, sound, and hopefully some interactive components, too. Of course our host, Cathy, will be part of it all.
JB: Don’t forget the special guests!
TC: Yes! We’re planning on bringing a great range of people on stage — people from our stories, fellow storytellers, entertainers. It’s an opportunity for us to meet our community and put them on stage with us.
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