Paola Mardo is a podcast producer and host based in Los Angeles. While she has had audio stories featured on KCRW’s Good Food and Honolulu Civil Beat’s Offshore, this past year, she has been making waves with Long Distance; the first and only documentary podcast series about stories within the Filipino diaspora. CAAMFest alumnus Patrick Epino also serves as a producer and voice actor for the podcast. Since its premiere in 2018, it has been praised by the likes of Rappler and KQED, and earlier this year, it became one of six podcasts selected for the inaugural Google Podcasts creator program with PRX.
Ahead of Long Distance’s second season premiere, Mardo talked to CAAM about how the reception has been to the podcast in its first year, the creation of Long Distance TV, and how being part of the Google Podcasts creator program has helped with making Season 2. Mardo and Epino were both also featured presenters at CAAMFest 2019 at Self Evident: Asian America’s Stories.
For those who don’t know, can you explain what Long Distance is all about and how you came up with the idea for it?
Long Distance is a documentary podcast series about stories in the Filipino diaspora. What that means is we tell stories about Filipinos living anywhere outside the homeland.
The idea for the podcast really came from my own experience. I am Filipino American born in Los Angeles, but I grew up in Manila, Philippines and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before I moved back to the U.S. to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was 15-years-old. Moving to a new country in high school is an experience and I think a lot of that has informed what I do now. I didn’t really know anyone back then who had that same 1.5 generation Filipino American experience, meaning that you immigrated to a new country as children and teenagers.
That’s kind of where it all started, just wanting to understand my own experience as a 1.5 generation Filipino American, but also the experiences of Filipinos who have to leave their homeland or who never really grew up there, whether if you’re an immigrant or second generation and so forth.
How has the reception been to the podcast so far?
Really amazing! The one year anniversary was on October 15th. That’s when I put out the first episode and back then, it was just monthly and I was doing it as really a passion project. I started interviewing people actually in 2016, just collecting interviews of people in the Filipino community in L.A. because I was very interested in Historic Filipinotown. Over the years, that kind of branched into something wider in terms of stories in the Filipino diaspora.
Since we launched, I was really surprised to find that people were listening. It was such a personal project for me, but just to see people really connect with it was a surprise, but also pretty awesome too. It’s a podcast so anyone can access it. It’s for free. Most iPhones or smart phones have podcast apps and I think people were just able to find it somehow and also through Instagram actually. I started an Instagram account for this before the podcast even launched, and so a lot of people found the show before it became a show.
The show also got selected to be part of something called the Google Podcasts creator program with PRX, which is essentially an accelerator program where they provide funding for the show and also develop the show a little further. So that’s what I’ve been doing since we got accepted in January and that’s why we’re really able to do the second season that’s hopefully more ambitious than the first.
What we do at Long Distance is we really try to tell stories that are personal, but also [tell stories] that you not always hear or read about elsewhere. I feel that there are narratives of the Filipino experience that tend to get told a lot. I think those are important, but I think especially for this season, we are really trying to dive a little bit deeper. It’s not just about being a Filipino person, it’s really about being a person and finding your place in the world.
What were some challenges that presented themselves as you started making Season 2?
Good question! I think we’re very ambitious. So I work on the show with another producer, Patrick Epino. It’s just a two-person team; he focuses a lot on our video content. So this season, we’re doing something different. For every episode of the show, there will a companion video episode of Long Distance TV, which is our documentary video series that highlights important elements of the stories. The challenge was how to create both pieces of content at the same time. We kind of find ways to record a podcast but also taking into consideration of the visual elements that we want to put into the video series.
Another challenge was also trying to find stories that were Long Distance stories. I don’t even know what that really means yet. To me, Long Distance stories are stories from the Filipino diaspora, but I think every story talks about the different aspects of being Filipino wherever you are and the kind of challenges and experiences that come with that. That’s what we try to portray; trying to find those right stories.
So as you mentioned earlier, Long Distance is part of the inaugural Google Podcasts creator program led by PRX. How has being a part of this program helped you with creating Season 2?
It’s been a really great experience. When I started the show, it took two years to really figure out what it was going to sound like and what it would be about. Basically, it was a show that evolved into different kinds of shows. At one point, it was going to be like an NPR Code Switch-like talk show, with maybe some recorded stuff, until I narrowed it down to it being this documentary-style series that starts in the Filipino diaspora, with some personal stuff from my end as well. That’s what I figured out when I launched the show and then when I got into the Google Podcasts creator program, it just kind of helped me dive deeper into what the show really is and who it’s for.
For example, we were asked to look at our podcasts and ask how we are designing it for our audience. So [Epino] and I contacted a bunch of Long Distance listeners and asked if we could talk to them one-on-one. That really informed a lot of what we are doing now for Season Two. It helped me understand why people even listen to the show besides the fact that it’s a show about Filipinos. What else is there about it?
Basically what this program gave us was an opportunity to get to a really granular level of understanding. What does our audience like and what should we focus on? It’s really helped shape Season Two, I think.
What are you hoping for listeners to gain from this particular season?
I think the season, like I said, really challenged us to cover different stories; stories that we haven’t heard or seen before in terms of the Filipino experience in the diaspora. I hope listeners understand that and appreciate that when they hear these stories.
The first episode is about an immigrant couple who open this quirky Filipino restaurant in SoHo in New York in the 1990’s, which to me is unheard of, and I only heard about this a couple years ago. This couple paved the way for Filipino American food wave that we’re in now and nobody really knows about that, and I think it’s an important story to tell because there’s this common misconception that Filipino food only recently became popular because people think Filipinos aren’t really good at businesses or our food wasn’t presentable, but the story we tell shows that, “No, it was possible.” Also, even before this couple started this restaurant, there’ve been Filipino restaurants. I’ve seen footage of restaurants in either Stockton or Delano, catering to the farm workers there, and that was way back when.
So there is a history of Filipinos sharing our food that dates years and decades ago, and hopefully through this story, we shine a little bit of a light on that.
Any additional thoughts you want to add?
What we do is documentary storytelling, through audio and now video as well. I think it’s a lot harder than what most people think, to put together an audio documentary podcast, and that’s why we had to take a break between the first season and this season, and that break was very short. We basically wrapped the first season and jumped into the next, which I’m glad to do, but I want to keep it going and I really want to make this sustainable. I don’t know what Season 3 will look like or when it will come out, but I want to keep doing this. Hopefully listeners tune in, and if they appreciate it, join the Patreon, become a sponsor, or literally share the show with friends and family, because the more people hear about it, the more the show just gets out there.
I have pitched this show to non-Filipinos, pretty much mostly white folks, and it’s hard. It’s really hard to sell these stories. I know Filipino filmmakers and other artists have a hard time selling their stories too. It’s just as hard in the podcast world. So whatever support people can give, whether it’s just like telling a friend about the show or posting about it on Twitter and Instagram, that really helps a lot.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.