Screenshot from 不合时宜/The Weirdo podcast on Weibo platform
One Sinophone podcast focusing on global as well as local issues is connecting China and its large overseas population thanks to a well-balanced selection of topics and guests.
Just like blogging 20 years ago, podcasting started in English before it spread to many other languages, including Mandarin Chinese. There are now podcasts for every imaginable community, subculture, and topic — with some drawing millions of followers.
Podcasts are also a key connector for societies with large overseas diasporas, such as China. There are an estimated 50 million people in the Chinese diaspora, living mostly in East and Southeast Asia, Australia, North America, and Western Europe predominantly.
One such podcast catering to audiences both in and outside of China is 不合时宜 which literally means “inappropriate” but goes under its official English name, “The Weirdo.” The podcast was started in 2019 and typically includes discussions between the hosts and one or more guests on social issues such as feminism, marriage, being a Chinese person living abroad, ChatGPT, blockchain, cinema, and more.
Its two founders and co-hosts are Ruo Han and Meng Chang, both Chinese who are currently living in the Netherlands. Ruo Han (若含) is a former reporter and editor in China who now studies political communication at the University of Amsterdam. Meng Chang (孟常) is a visiting student at Vrije University in Amsterdam. For the past twelve years, he has worked with various media in Europe, Hong Kong, and mainland China and even co-founded the Caixin Globus media project. He also worked for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing.
In 2020, “TheWeirdo” was named best podcast of the year by Apple for the news category in the China Region, as this tweet explains:
Happy to share that The Weirdo Podcast was just awarded “Best of The Year” by Apple Podcast (China region), in the category of “Biggest New Shows of 2020″.
— The Weirdo Podcast | 不合时宜 (@WeirdoPodcast) December 1, 2020
Global Voices interviewed the two founders in Chinese over email after meeting in person in Berlin to find out more about Sinophone podcasting and reaching global audiences through podcasts.
Filip Noubel (FN): How did you come up with such a name for the podcast? Tell us more about its history and evolution.
Photo of Ruo Han, used with permission
若含: 我们在2019年十一月份正式发布了我们播客的第一期节目，到现在已经快四年时间了。我们想到的第一个播客名字就是：不合时宜。后来又继续讨论了很多的题目，都觉得似乎还是没有这个名字贴近我们希望表达的意思。在我们的定义当中，一个不合时宜的人，跟他所处的现实之间有种永恒的张力，或许正是那些矛盾、不确定和危险的瞬间，才激发出美和创造力。而我们制作的节目希望能传递这部分感受，也希望可以抚慰那些有过这些感受的观众们。(Video) EASC New Book Series: Sinophone Studies - Yuanfei Wang and Xing Hang
孟常: 作为一个生活在中国社会的人，只要你在生活中保持敏锐和反思，总有那么一些情境、瞬间、状态，你会感到你自己是“不合时宜””的。因为生活在中国社会，“时宜”（norms）过于单一、强大、压倒性，你只要观察、思考、不得过且过，你就很难不跟周边的环境发生张力。所以不合时宜的人，也是say No的人，也意味着不麻木的心灵。
Ruo Han (RH): We officially released the first episode of our podcast in November 2019, and it's been almost four years now. The first podcast name that came to mind was: 不合时宜 — ‘not fitting the time.’ Later, as we continued to discuss different topics, we felt the name still didn't fit the message we wanted to convey. In our definition, there is an eternal tension between a person who is ‘not matching their time’ and the reality they live in. Yet perhaps it is precisely those moments of contradiction, uncertainty and danger that inspire beauty and creativity. We hope the programs we make can convey those feelings, and can comfort our audience since they also experience similar feelings.
Meng Chang (MC): If you live in Chinese society, as long as you remain sensitive and keep reflecting upon your life, there will always be situations, moments, and states where you will feel that you are ‘not fitting the time.’ Because in China's society, the norms that ‘fit the time’ are too simplistic, hard, and overwhelming. The minute you start observing, thinking, and muddling through [hard topics], it becomes very difficult not to create tension with your environment. Therefore, people who are ‘not fitting the time’ are also people ‘who say No,’ which means their minds are not numb.
FN: What kind of topics do you cover? Who are your typical guests?
Photo of Meng Chang, used with permission
若含: 我们讨论的话题主要集中在社会议题上，包括环境、性别权益、贫富差距等等，也包括一些国际议题，比如乌克兰战争，柏林墙倒塌 30 周年以及能源转型的相关议题等。除此之外，我们也从个体的经验出发，探讨亲密关系的公共性以及我们个人生活的一些反思。我们的嘉宾包括各个领域的学者，也包括一些会在自己的作品中进行现实关照的导演、艺术家、作者和记者等。
因此我们节目的话题辐射范围很广，本质上， 我们按照newsroom的思维，在进行选题和内容的挑选—— 我们讨论公共媒体会关注的话题。(Video) Comparative Postcolonial Theory and the Question of Chinese Empire | Shu-mei Shih
乌克兰战争这些宏观的问题——在过去三年， 我们是中国大陆少数关注这些“冷门” 议题并提出不同于主流观点的媒体，我们反对俄罗斯入侵乌克兰， 关注难民境遇，谈论世界范围内的取消文化（cancel culture）或气候变化议题。
本质上，we don't just talk about politics, but we are political. 我们相信，一个社会公民，尤其是全球化语境下的公民，
不可能只低着头过自己的日常生活，而不去关注更大的世界， 与此同时，也不可能24小时都只关注乌克兰战争这样的宏大叙事。 人需要参与公共生活，但也需要关注自身的日常生活，这是可以统一的。
我们会邀请一些我们认识的朋友和peers来作为我们的嘉宾。 有一些名人来上过我们节目，但总体来说， 我们不强调嘉宾的名气，不追求明星效应。
所以专业性最重要。嘉宾至少要有某个专长、擅长领域。因此， 我们的节目也很少会请普通人来讲述自己的经历、故事。 我们不呈现故事。我们呈现叙事、视角和分析。
RH:The topics we discuss mainly focus on social issues, including the environment, gender rights, the gap between the rich and the poor; as well as international issues, such as the war in Ukraine, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and topics related to energy transition. In addition, we also explore the public nature of intimate relationships as well as reflections about our personal lives, from the perspective of individual experience. Our guests include scholars in various fields, as well as directors, artists, authors, and journalists who focus on those topics in their creative work.
MC: Since we — the founders of the podcast — have professional backgrounds in public media, the topics of our programs include a wide range of issues that we select based on the same logic as in any newsroom — we discuss what public media pays attention to.
We focus on large issues such as climate politics, the global recession, cancel culture, the refugee crisis, the war in Ukraine. In the past three years, we are one of the few media in mainland China that focuses on ‘unpopular’ issues and put forward views that are different from mainstream opinions. We oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine, focus on the plight of refugees, talk about cancel culture or climate change issues worldwide. Basically, we don't just talk about politics, we are political. We believe that a citizen of any society, especially in the context of globalization, cannot live their daily lives with their head bowed down, not paying attention to world. At the same time, it is impossible to focus only on the grand narrative of the Ukraine war 24/7. People need to participate in the public sphere, but they also need to pay attention to their own daily lives, and both can be liked.
We create a space for quality conversations, that is the basis that determines who among friends and peers we invite to be be our guests. Some celebrities have been on our show, but generally speaking, we don't emphasize the fame of our guests, and we are not interested in the “star effect”.
For us, the most important thing is whether the guests understand the relevant topics and fields, so professionalism is essential. The guests must have at least one field of expertise. Therefore, our program rarely invites ordinary people to tell their own experiences and stories. What we offer are not stories but rather narratives, perspectives, and analysis.(Video) Honorary Doctorate: Professor Howard Goldblatt, 2014 Graduation, SOAS University of London
FN: Who exactly is your audience, and where are they based? How do they interact with you?
可能有 70% 左右的人住在中国，最近几年也有观察到越来越多海外听众的趋势，他们大部分是在海外读书或者刚刚留下来工作的群体。主播的生命经验在不断变化，我们所做的选题也会随之而变，我想这两年里我们在海外生活的经验和感受，可能也在越来越多的吸引一些人在国外的受众群体。
RH: Judging from the audience data, most of them are well-educated people who study and work in first- and second-tier cities. Occasionally, we also receive private messages like ‘My mom is also listening to your show.’ Generally speaking, the audience span is relatively wide, but our mainstream audience is still young people. About 70 percent live in China. In recent years, there has been a trend of more people living overseas. Most of them are people who are studying or working abroad. Our own life experience as anchors is constantly changing, and the topics we choose change accordingly. I think our experience and feelings of living overseas in the past two years may also attract more and more people who live abroad.
FN: What are the main challenges of designing and sustaining a podcast?
RH: For us, the challenges differ based on different periods. For example, in the early days, the biggest challenge of podcasting was to explore our own style and to determine the tone of our topics. We all work part-time to maintain the operation of this program, therefore, it took some effort to adjust the production rhythm at the beginning and to turn it into a weekly program.
At this stage, our biggest challenge is how to break through the existing way of thinking and talking about topics s and to create more high-quality content that can be listened to often and is up to date. The second challenge is how, as creators, we can establish a sustainable business model so that we can concentrate on producing high-quality content without worrying about survival and income.(Video) Shu-mei Shih: "From World History to World Art: New Geographies of Feminist Art in Asia"
FN: What are the most sensitive issues you have discussed?
RH: During the pandemic, we released a series of programs to discuss China's COVID policies and the experience of living in lockdown. At the beginning of the epidemic, we also made a series of programs to follow up and report on the differences between domestic and foreign policies about COVID measures. At that time, we also interviewed the last batch of foreign reporters who left Wuhan when the city was shut down. These programs were taken off the internet in China shortly after they were released. Of course, some topics that discuss current affairs can easily to be censored, such as the Tangshan incident of violence against women, and the Xiaohuamei case of the chained woman that we have covered.