Meet The Podcasters – Episode Two: Louisa Lim

In episode two of Meet the Podcasters, we pick the brain of Louisa Lim, who hosts the Little Red podcast, and The Masterclass.

Silvi: What is the Little Red podcast about, and what’s your new podcast?

Louisa: I produce two podcasts at the moment. One is called ‘The Little Red Podcast,’ and that’s a podcast that I co-host with Graeme Smith, who’s an academic at the Australian National University. And it’s a very nerdy podcast about China, really for the hardcore China nerds but we have quite a following among the journalistic community as well. We kind of bridge that gap between journalism and academia. And then my second podcast which we’re launching now is called ‘The Master Class’ and it’s a teaching podcast aimed at teaching audio journalism to students. And the idea behind that was, when I started teaching audio journalism, students had to learn from a book and then they had all these web-links in the book, so if you wanted to hear you had to go online and type things up and listen to stories separately and it was just such a hassle, I thought, “This is such a ridiculous way to learn audio, you need to learn through listening.” So, the aim is, a podcast where you’re learning through listening.

Silvi: Why did you decide to host the podcast?

Louisa: So for ‘The Little Red Podcast’ it was a project that Graeme started when he had been at the University of Melbourne. He’s an academic, he’s an expert in China’s investment in the Pacific and political economy, and I have a radio background so I just thought it would be a fun way of talking about China. And so we decided to work together and it has just turned into a really fun project, because actually there’s a lot of Australian academics doing really interesting work on China that hasn’t been getting out to a wide audience. So I just feel like it’s serving as a useful tool for the community, but also I do feel that Australian journalists are not very well-equipped to cover stories about China, there are very very few people working in the media that can speak Chinese and they don’t have the depth of knowledge that is necessary. In our podcast we’ve been able to do reporting on stories, interview people on issues that aren’t really being covered properly so I feel like we’re really doing a service in different ways.

‘The Master Class’ was a little different. It’s a teaching tool, but it’s a really fun teaching tool. So each episode is an interview with a single master of audio journalism about one aspect of the craft so that, for example, one on interviewing with Hamish Macdonald from the ABC, and one on podcasting with Julie Shapiro from Radiotopia.

This is such a ridiculous way to learn audio, you need to learn through listening

Silvi: How do you go with distribution online in China and social media distribution? Are there any limitations there in terms of making sure it gets out to the right channels, is it kinda difficult to provide it or is it not really a focus?

Louisa: Actually, our podcast has been banned in China so you can’t access it. I don’t know when and where and why that happened but perhaps there was material the authorities didn’t like. But that’s not really our focus, our focus is just putting it out there and people who can listen will listen and those audiences in China who want to listen, and we know there are some, are mainly using VPNs, this is a ‘virtual private network’, so it’s a way of getting around censorship. We’ve found that we have a very international audience, and we’ve had almost 40,000 downloads since we started. We get between a few thousand listens per episode but that’s creeping up quite fast … The latest analytics have been really, we’re really pleased with them.

our podcast has been banned in China

Silvi: What inspired you to be a podcaster?

Louisa: I’ve been a radio journalist for around 20 years and when I went into teaching I just wanted to find a way to continue doing journalism and this just seemed like a really fun way. I actually hadn’t thought about it until Graeme approached me and said “Do you want to be involved?” And at first I wasn’t sure, and then it has just turned into a really fun project, it’s been really interesting for me to meet all these academics doing really interesting work and to try and get it out there, but also I feel like we’ve been able to do some really interesting stories on ‘The Little Red Podcast,’ as well.

We’ve been able to talk in depth about, for example, the way in which Beijing is muzzling academics by monitoring their work and questioning them, interrogating them, sometimes. There’s a case where we interviewed an academic who’d done this research about how China has been actually censoring its own electronic archive of Chinese academic journals. We’ve been able to cover these quite nerdy stories, but really fascinating and interview the people who are at the heart of them. So the case about an academic who was questioned was a PhD student here at the University who went to China to do research on the Anti-Rights Movement, which is something that happened sixty years ago, and he was pulled in and questioned for hours by the police, the internal security. Again, this was a story that wasn’t much known but we were able to talk to him and put it in context of the larger developments. 

Australian journalists are not very well-equipped to cover stories about China

Silvi: Why choose audio over other mediums?

Louisa: Can I just say it’s the best medium? I probably shouldn’t say that—because I do teach video as well, and I love video. But I think that audio is so intimate because you are in people’s ears, you’re with them all the time, and I used to think that it was really there today, gone tomorrow, but I actually think that it’s more memorable because it’s so intimate that people remember the conversations that they hear more than the stories that they read in the newspaper. So I think that in terms of impact, audio does make an impact and I think it can make a deeper impact just because of the power of human voice and that human connection.

SilviWho listens to Little Red? What audience are you aiming to reach?

Louisa: I think what we’ve found is that the audience is growing. That as China’s influence grows, our audience is just inexorably growing as people that are interested, and we do do this, quite a wide variety of topics that mean that we’re gaining listeners all the time.

audio is so intimate because you are in people’s ears

Silvi: What’s been your most successful episode to date?

Louisa: Oh, I would actually have to look at the analytics. I think it might be the one about muzzling the academy where we spoke to a variety of scholars in different places, at the Hoover Institution, at the University of British Colombia, and here at the University of Melbourne who have had their work interfered with in a variety of ways. So that one had a lot of lessons. I’m trying to think. We had a huge bump in audience because I did a completely unrelated interview for ‘This American Life,’ so we got a little shout-out from Ira Glass which was really cool, and then we got a huge bump in listening as well which was great.

Silvi: When we spoke to Dave Mcrae he also said that success for him wasn’t always defined as the number of listeners, to him success was also just being able to cover a topic that hadn’t been covered in podcasting before, would you say it’s the same for you?

Louisa: Absolutely. Sometimes I absolutely agree, it’s not about numbers, it’s about impact and it’s about trying to keep people engaged and entertained. What we want is that people, every episode that they listen, they come away with one or two amazing facts. And so that’s what we try to do.  

Actually, we did a whole episode on sea cucumbers. It’s a really interesting story but it sounds really obscure, but actually the story is about the power of the Chinese market. There’s this massive appetite for sea cucumbers in China because they serve sea cucumbers at weddings. So the global price of sea cucumbers went up massively because of growing Chinese demand as China got richer, and then, a lot of places, poor places like Papua New Guinea, even places in Mexico as well, they started cultivating sea cucumbers particularly for the Chinese market. There was this massive boom in sea cucumbers and then they were totally over-fished, and some species of sea cucumbers have become extinct and those people, in particularly in PNG, those people who had depended on sea cucumbers suddenly had no crops. So the governments put a moratorium on them, you couldn’t fish sea cucumbers anymore in these places ’cause they were over-fished and people began starving. So it’s a whole story about market forces and the power of the Chinese market. It’s stories like that, that are a little bit obscure.

we got a little shout-out from Ira Glass

Silvi: What have you found most challenging or surprising about podcasting?

Louisa: I mean the challenge has been facilities because the University doesn’t yet have enough facilities [for podcasting]. At the start we were just bringing people into the studio, it was a conversation. But then Graeme moved, first he moved to Newcastle then he moved to Canberra so then it became a lot more complicated and we became a lot more ambitious. We often don’t want to just have one person, we’d like to have a discussion with two or three people and then you’re in a situation where there are people in different countries around the world in different time zones, some on Skype, some in studios, and then it gets quite complicated logistically, so that’s an issue for us. We’re also experimenting with live shows. That will be our next step. We haven’t started yet but we’re doing a couple of live shows at the Association for Asian Studies Conference in Washington in March, so that will be a new level of complication.

Silvi: What’s been your most memorable podcasting moment?

Louisa: For ‘The Little Red Podcast,’ we did one episode on class in China where we had two scholars, Wanning Sun and Yingjie Guo in Sydney and we were in the studio. It’s actually quite a nerdy topic where we were talking about the Marxist view of class and how that has changed over the years in China. So we were talking about class and communism and how that plays out in today’s China.

That episode was great because it was such a good discussion that recently when the new podcast analytics came out, we’ve been watching them and we saw that the average listen time for people on that episode is 99%. So the average listener listens right to the end, and it’s actually really long, I think it’s our longest episode. That really taught us I think that if the people what you’re interviewing are interesting enough people will stay with you for the ride no matter how complicated the subject is, and no matter how unpromising it might sound to begin with, the key is just making it really really interesting and these guys were just fantastic.

the average listener listens right to the end

Silvi: Do you have a top tip, or advice for people who are just starting out in podcasting?

Louisa: Think about your audience and think about them really carefully before you start. I think if you can identify the audience, and if you can cater to that audience then you’ll be in good shape. I would also say that social media has played a very big role. For ‘The Little Red Podcast,’ I think social media has played a very big role in its success, so you can’t forget the importance of getting it out there. You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t get it out there, if you don’t have the following on social media, if you haven’t thought about how you’re going to publicise it, then it’s not going to go anywhere.

Silvi: What podcasts are you listening to at the moment?

Louisa: I love ‘The Daily‘ from the New York Times, and I of course listen to ‘This American Life‘. I’m obsessed by ‘Ear Hustle‘ from Radiotopia, which is amazing, it’s set in a medium security prison, and it’s made by prisoners—fantastic. I’ve been listening recently to ‘Science Friction‘ on the ABC, which is just lovely. I’ve also been listening to ‘The Assassination‘ on BBC World Service, which is just this cast of characters that you cannot believe, it’s like they talk to every single person connected to Benazir Bhutto – this is about the death of Benazir Bhutto –  it’s really, really good. I like ‘Witness,’ on the BBC World Service and I listen to a lot of political podcasts as well. I listen to ‘Trumpcast‘ and the Slate ‘Political Gabfest‘ and things like that.

You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t get it out there it’s not going to go anywhere.

Silvi: What’s the next episode of your podcast about?

Louisa: Depends when it goes out. But I think by the time that this goes out, the next episode is going to be a discussion on China’s cartographic crisis, how China is using maps and mapping to express its border anxieties. We’re talking to a couple of people, we’re talking to the China editor of The Economist, James Miles and we’re talking to a sociologist at Cornell University called John Zinder. So I think it’s going to be a really interesting episode about the different ways that China puts pressure on businesses and on academics at different levels to change the way that its borders are shown on maps.

And ‘The Master Class,’ which we’re just launching, the first episode will be about the power of the medium, about audio and what you can do with it. And every week there’s a discussion with one different journalist, so I think week two is a discussion with Mike Innes from the BBC World Service who’s an output producer on Newshour about how to find the right interviewee and how to turn it into radio. Week three is Hamish Macdonald from ABC on interviewing and that’s just a fantastic conversation all about the importance of robust interviewing.

Thanks to Louisa Lim and the teams behind Little Red and The Masterclass. Stay tuned for more podcasters!