James Boo—Director, Story Producer

Laura Perry:

Welcome to the third event of the spring 2021 Podcasting with Purpose series hosted by the Humanities for the Public Good at University of Iowa and supported by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and the Mellon Foundation. As part of our goal to prepare graduate students for a wide range of careers serving the public good, humanities for the public good is exploring new and innovative methods of interpretation, storytelling and meaning making.

This spring 2021 podcast series brings together experienced podcasters to discuss their craft and how academics can connect their research, teaching and advocacy with the wide world of podcasting. I’m Laura Perry, a postdoctoral fellow on the Humanities for Public Good grant and formerly managing editor at Edge Effects Magazine, and radio host at WSUM 91.7 FM at University of Wisconsin Madison. I’m so excited to be speaking today with James Boo. The recipient of two storytelling fellowships at the New York Media Center by IFP, he delivers documentaries that make a social impact through community engagement and partnership and he’s currently managing producer of Self Evident, an Independent podcast for Asian America’s stories. He and the show were recently selected for the 2020/2021 Google Podcast Creator program. 

James, thanks so much for joining us today.

James Boo:

Hey, thanks for having me.

Laura Perry:

I’d love for you to start off by telling us a bit about Self Evident.

James Boo:

What I can do is just give you a brief overview of the show. Then we can work through a case study of an episode of the show, how it was made, and then get into more questions. So hopefully there’s a chance for folks to be thinking about what questions and ideas are popping up as we go along. 

Self Evident exists because right now more than ever people across the United States are actually seriously asking themselves a few questions such as: who is America actually for, where do I fit into that picture, and what am I supposed to be doing during this time of reckoning with race and power and culture. How do we look ahead and move forward, knowing our history and trying to get a clear understanding of it? 

These questions, hopefully everyone in this room can relate to, has asked themselves at some point in the past several years. They also happen to be questions that every single Asian person in the country has had to answer every day of their lives one way or another. That’s where we have a big opportunity for our experiences to reveal meaning and spur an interesting dialogue. So right now today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial demographic in the US. There are record levels of media making by Asian Americans, community organizing, political base building.

I think what’s most interesting and promising is, because Asian America is a broad category, it includes a really diverse range of experiences, diverse range of stories across race, class, wealth, gender and age. So this growth in the broad kind of idea and people of Asian America naturally elevates a lot of tough questions about who we are and who should be. It’s really great grounds for digging into a lot of things, a lot of complicated and nuanced and intersecting questions.

For those of you that haven’t heard the program before, here’s a basic summary of what we do. The big picture. We’re helping Asian Americans and other listeners grapple with these questions of the day through reported stories and radically open conversations that come directly from Asian American communities. Each of our episodes is, so far, about 30-45 minutes long. There is not a strict format, but typically it’s either one audio documentary story in the episode or two or three conversations that revolve around essential question or a theme.

Our production team is a pretty eclectic group. We have public radio producers, reporters, writers, filmmakers, cultural organizers, former social workers. This is great for us. Having this diverse range of skills really helps us find the right angle for every story and try to stay flexible as the show keeps evolving. We also have an audience team, which focuses entirely on growing the listenership, and then making sure that we’re also growing with the people who are getting something out of the show as we learn more about their needs and how this is making an impact on their lives.

So that’s just a rough tour, and I figure we can just stop here and just actually get into some conversation before going onto the production aspect of it.

Laura Perry:

You have such a fantastic team, so I was hoping you could talk about what the brainstorming and thought process was like as you were developing the direction of the show.

James Boo:

This is an idea that I started passing around in late 2017. I’d never produced an audio story before. I came from a writing and video documentary background, and those were also things that I’d never gone to school for. All this to say, people will often say that podcasting is an especially democratic form of media, but frankly everything is democratic if you have the freedom and kind of basic resources enabling you to do it. So, that’s something that we always encourage.

As far as the team, one thing that has really been great about this project—that I have not successfully done in the past—is taking time to actually work just with the idea and then see what people want to bring into it. I spent three months just recruiting people to work on the project without making a single story or making a pitch for a story. We didn’t even think about any of those things. The focus of the first several months was really just development, which is something that was foreign to me before and is often kind of left to the wayside with media projects. Giving yourself enough permission and space to just go to a person. Maybe you’ve never met them before, maybe they’re a friend of a friend, maybe it’s an old friend. I did all these things.

I started with a very close old friend of mine who is now working towards a new career in TV writing. We were talking about how we have an inkling that this is an interesting idea that could lead to an impactful, for lack of a better phrase, media product. Then we were just responding to positive reactions. Over the course of several months, we would reformulate what the idea was, present to someone on the phone, and then we’d just see how people would react, and then feel like, once we knew we were onto something more, it was easier to then get more people on board.

We didn’t start producing anything until nine months after the start of the project. I think that’s kind of crazy because it’s almost an entire year of just talking through something and letting people put their own kind of imprint and vision into it, and then continuing to grow without ever making something. Seems strange. But I think that it works when the idea actually is good and when people are finding something to contribute. That was a process of just realizing and kind of continuously validating, oh we’re actually onto something and that’s why people are still with us. So, let’s take a little more time to get closer to what we want.

This is not the only way to do something, but for me the big takeaway was: really feel like you have permission to share what you want to do, even if you’re not quite sure what it is. Then, if someone is excited enough about it, they’ll want to start doing it with you. 

Laura Perry:

I love that answer because it makes it clear how collaborative and thoughtful this podcast was even from the beginning, and that’s something that we can see in every episode and everything the podcast puts out — how it is so team based, and also responsive to the audience, responsive to the people who are on the other end of these stories that you’re sharing. I was hoping you could talk about who the audience is and whether it’s the same as the audience you intended, if there have been any surprises, if you have a sense of who is listening, and who did you want to listen when you were imagining the show.

James Boo:

The first person I told this podcast about was a filmmaker I met at a film festival where I was screening something. She just happened to be the only other Asian person in the room at that moment in time. We met and I said, hey I have this idea… I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I don’t hear this kind of thing centered on Asian American voices. She just said, “Well, I wouldn’t listen to that, but it sounds like a good idea. You should do it.” Then said, “You should meet my mentor.” I was like, ooh, I’ve never had a mentor. Then I call this guy. That guy is now the executive producer of our show. That’s, to me, kind of amazing, but also just an illustration of what I was discussing. 

The same thing with the audience. We did a lot of going onto private Facebook groups or public Facebook groups and creating surveys and asking people. It’s more market researchy, but the closer we could get to actually just talking to a person who could be a potential listener, and then understanding how they think about podcasts, how they think about Asian American media, what do they think is missing, how would it fit into their lives, the better a sense we could get for who’s going to listen to this thing and then how are we going to make it for them, or make it with them with their participation.

So now to answer your question directly, our audience is Asian Americans and I think particularly other BIPOC folks. When you think about representation, you look around and you see you’ve got some people in movies. That’s cool. You have some people who are CEOs. But then you turn around and it’s like, is that really what matters to me? When we think about the importance of representation, is that what would make me whole as a person living in this country trying to make my way through it? Obviously for me, the answer is no. The deeper question I think that our audience shares is, what is the country we actually would care to represent in the first place? 

One thing that’s been really interesting is, when we started, there were some Asian American centered podcasts and some of them inspired us greatly. Over the years, since we started this work in 2018, there’s just been exponential growth in Asian American podcasts. But when we come back to people who are really big fans of the show, people who are our core listeners, and we ask them what they listen to, they actually don’t listen to those shows.

We’re still working through revisiting this research conversation with the listeners, but I think it’s kind of a sign that, when we talk about stories from underrepresented communities, our main concern is not simply to hear someone who literally looks like us, from whatever Asian community we come from. The things that are drawing people to the show are these questions that I brought up at the start and how Asian Americans fit into them, as well as just the specific kind of craft of storytelling itself. A lot of our listeners don’t listen to that many interview shows or conversion shows for example, which are the vast majority of podcasts.

Laura Perry:

The extra editing and producing and community work that you do each episode is so evident whenever you listen to one of the episodes. I would love to jump into the case study and think about all the intellectual and creative labor that goes into making the incredible episodes possible.

James Boo:

To get started, there are a couple of things I want to kind of illustrate with this approach of using an episode as an example. But this is kind of a core value of ours. It informs how we do things. I’m going to play some of an episode and walk through it, how it was made. Then we can just hold this thought in place and come back to how it’s reflected at the end of this tour through the making and the life cycle of one of our episodes.

This is an episode from our first season called Hello Freedom Man. It’s a collaboration that we had with a Vietnamese American producer named Thanh Tan from Seattle. It follows Thanh’s

investigation of why the Department of Homeland Security is aggressively deporting former refugees from Southeast Asia, and then along the way the personal ramifications for this for Thanh and her fellow community members, how there is a myth about a good refugee versus a bad refugee, which is a subset of a good immigrant versus a bad immigrant, and how that influences her family and upbringing.

Essentially, this is a scene in the episode where Thanh is narrating a scene where this gentleman, Dy, was suddenly and without warning detained from his mother’s home and incarcerated on an open order of deportation. This was part of a big sweep that happened in 2017 where ICE was disproportionately targeting Southeast Asian former refugees who had a prior conviction.

The scene is following both his experience of exactly what was happening, how they took him to the prison and detention center, and then concurrently what Phi, who is a lawyer who works at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta, the steps that she was having to take to find out where they were taking all these people and then figure out how to make contact, understand what was going on, and then find a way to get them out.

So I’m going to walk you through everything about this episode basically. So starting from the inspiration, Thanh Tan is … she’s not quite a journalist at this point in time, but she did create this podcast called Second Wave, which I also highly recommend. It was an inspiration for our show based out of Washington. It does a really good job at presenting and deconstructing how Vietnamese American communities conceive of themselves through the mythology of their history and pathology of their identity as Vietnamese Americans and as Americans.

So, we’ve just been big fans of this show. The development process was really direct. Basically, we knew we were getting this podcast off the ground and we were inspired by her work. I had met her at some point at a journalist convention and all I had said was, “Hi, I love your work. Thanks. And see you later.” I found her on LinkedIn, sent a message. She responded, we exchanged some emails, then at some point I remember I was sitting in a car outside a café. We just talked through what was going on with her work, what projects she was excited about and if she wanted to do something for the show. 

Eventually, we got to this point of just talking through multiple ideas. It’s just a lot of kind of trading notes, trading docks and having phone calls. What we ended up doing was, we spent like three or four weeks on a totally different idea and then decided to can it. It was regarding veterans of the South Vietnam Army who are now living in the states. 

At one point, she sent me an email about something she couldn’t get out of her mind, which was that so many of these former refugees were being detained and deported. She just had this really strong desire to understand why and understand how our community was responding to it.

In total, going by numbers, we did about a dozen pre interviews of potential people for this story. We recorded seven interviews and we used six of those in the final episode. We pulled two or three archival clips. I did two days of field work in Atlanta to spend time with Dy, who is the gentleman in the clip. Spending a weekend with his church community and then doing an extended interview in person with Thanh on the phone. Then we had three recording sessions after that, one to record narration with Thanh and our host Cathy, and then I recorded a couple of Vietnamese language sections for Thanh’s family. So we recorded some English voiceover for that. Then had one final kind of pick up recording of Thanh to finish the work. All this happened I think over the course of a few months. 

Going even deeper into the behind the scenes of this process. There was this rough outline that was consistently being revised between Thanh and myself about what the story could be before we had recorded things and as we started to record things. Then interview prep, questions that we were coming up with and structuring based on initial conversations with all the folks that Thanh wanted to speak with, that we thought if we spend an hour, hour and a half with each of these people on tape, we can build something with that.

Moving forward in the process, there is our beautiful tape. It’s just a lot of files. I love naming conventions. I hope you do as well. Then we use a program called Descript. It’s just a thing we use. There’s no specific program that’s the best one for you. It really is a matter of access and comfort. But we use it to do our initial tape logging and selecting. By that, I mean going through and highlighting things where we think these could be key moments of the episode. These could be things that could construct a scene. You can also do that in a non tech space format, but we just like Descript. 

Then we have a cut down. Now that I’ve gone through each person’s tape, I had already imagined that there would be this theme and this is why it went into the asking of the questions as well, where we could cut between Dy experiencing being detained and Phi trying to find out what was going on and trying to find him. So together their voices could be intercut. I’m starting to bring these clips together to build more of a plot.

The key thing here is we’re starting with tape. We’re starting with the recording of the people speaking, whether that’s following them around on their day or doing an interview. We’re not starting with, what do we want people to say, because we’re looking for these key moments that come out in real audio, and then we start to think about what’s the narration going to do to clarify and create a structure around these moments, and then how does the narration carry the listener towards those moments.

Then we have to take that and write a script. People have different approaches to how they do script writing and we actually have done different approaches for different episodes and stories. For me and Thanh, the workflow we had was, she’s just going to dump a bunch of ideas out and I’m going to try to start structuring them and then bringing them back to her and seeing how the exact wording should go.

So that’s how we started. Then a couple drafts later, in the middle, we start to get actual lines. Other folks are jumping in and adding suggestions. Then the final version has things like sound cues, what are really getting to the final thing. Also, it’s fact check information. We ended up with six drafts. That’s pretty typical for our show. We usually have five or six drafts of an episode before we feel like we’re done and can record the narration. Then a few more versions after that to edit in the actual audio, which is where we’re going next.

Then there is the great and terrible Pro Tools. Same kind of disclaimer. Pro Tools is a program. Any of these things will work. What I’m hoping to bring attention to is just the thought process. What do these tools help us do? Whether it’s Pro Tools, Audition, Reaper, any of these audio editors. 

So, once we have the script and we’re satisfied with it, Cathy and Thanh go in. They record the narration, the conversation pieces, etc. We bring all the audio in and then, from here on out, we’re editing by ear. This is something we try to do throughout the process. You never want to edit a script, for example, just by looking at the writing and then just changing that.

Ideally, you’re listening to the tape and you’re always writing for the ear. Then, when you’re editing, it’s even more important to just get away from the paper because this is meant to be listened to, and there are some things you just can’t make decisions without unless you’re using that sense. This episode has 46 tracks. It’s what we call a sound rich show. 

We try to have every person’s voice and every sound on its own track, because then you can control everything about that one source of sound.

There’s some technical reasons for that in the way that ProTools works, but to me it’s just a rule of thumb whenever possible. If you can be working with one interview on one track, and even if you’re recording… Let’s say we record narration. We have to fix some things, so our host goes back and then records some things. That’s a new track because every recording is an original moment in time. Unless you’re in a really hermetically sealed studio, like a professional music studio, then there’s going to be some variation. So that’s why there’s so many tracks. It’s not because more is always better.

A lot of times you’ve got to make trade offs between how complex you want to be and how much time you actually have. Of the 46 tracks, 12 of the tracks are music stems. We don’t think of music as a song. We’re not picking songs and putting them in. In our approach, we think of every music as we try to get the individual instruments. The music is helping to sculpt what the listener is experiencing and every instrument is kind of its own voice.

Sometimes some instruments come in and come out. If you’re able to edit in this way, it just gives you a finer degree of control over what is it you want people to feel ideally. Sometimes, when you have just music as a floor or a bed and it’s just the whole song, it can just be tiresome to listeners. Your ears can be barraged by sound. There’s a very fine distinction between what we perceive in sound, but ultimately it’s like, if you have too many things on the high end, then the listener is going to get really fatigued or not be able to distinguish between the voice and the guitar that keeps jumping in for no reason. 

So that is, in a nutshell, everything that went into making the episode. Now we’re talking about releasing the episode. I’m not going to go that much into marketing because we’re bad at it. What I will say is that there’s one very specific thing as podcasters that you have on your side, which is that you can find shows that you are friends with and then cross promote. For instance, we received an invitation when we were sharing out this work with our colleagues to talk about it on another show, In The Thick. It was a great experience. We’re really just grateful and honored that they would invite us.

Maria and Julio brought me and also brought Phi, the lawyer from the story, to talk on their podcast, play some clips from the story and get more directly into the policy or the politics about it. The thing I would convey with this example is this is not about influencing. The idea isn’t who has a million listeners and then let’s just put our show there, and then some percentage of listeners will become listeners of our show. It almost never works. In our experience, what does work or at least has its own impact is whose show has listeners where we’re pretty sure they would also love what we do. They just don’t know about it. Rather than trying to do kind of this web marketing funnel, more common sense. Yeah, people who listen probably would be into this. They’d be into this exact topic. There’s a lot of commonalities. We were able to talk about the intersecting issues and how this affects both Asian communities in the states but also of course Latinx communities in various different ways.

There’s another whole leg of stuff that is really, really important to us, which is impact. One of our listeners, her name is Katie Quan. She lives in San Francisco. She’s an educator, teaches classes in high school and in universities. She is also an illustrator and has this really great illustration project called This Asian American Life. You can find that on Instagram or just look on the web. Katie has been a listener of ours since the beginning. She actually assigned this episode in the high school Asian American history class that she teaches in San Francisco.

What was really interesting about the story was it’s been used in multiple universities across the country, at UCLA, other places, community colleges. We’re talking about a range. It’s not really for a specific kind of student. It’s being presented in Asian American studies classes where that opportunity is there.

Our educators are using it to help students empathize with undocumented people and to really learn how the criminal justice system works, and raise a lot of interesting questions about citizenship. It’s fantastic. It’s an amazing experience to know that the students are getting something out of it, but they’re also bringing a lot into the process.

Another thing that happens with this episode and others is that our listeners have listening parties. These are events where people, mostly coworkers so far, are getting together and listening to pieces of a story and then having a discussion in a very comfortable and a very supportive space. One event happened in NPR headquarters. These events are run by listeners, but what we do is we offer best practices or discussion guides, things to give some structure and help people get started and choose what they want to do with it.

Then people also hire us. If there are folks working at an employee resource group that has a budget, they can actually bring us into the workplace or, in these days, to the Zoom to facilitate the discussion, which sometimes can be tricky if you’re also the person who works there. What we’ve learned is that these events have been successful because they’re helping people reconnect. They’re helping people just have some real talk and share some of their own stories with each other. It’s made us a lot more confident about what can happen with this story.

Stories can make an impact when they lead to real conversations among the people who are listening and help people build relationships by sharing their experiences. That is something we’re just constantly fascinated with, me personally especially. We live in a mass media culture and the default assumption, I would say, is we think the point of a story is to be seen and to be heard. As a result, we focus a lot on what happens at that point of consumption. We think about people watching a show or a movie, people listening to a radio program or a podcast, but I would really hope for everyone to imagine what can a story do if you’re expanding the function of the story beyond that consumption.

If we think about everyone else who’s involved, all these people who came together in making this story, identifying what was important about it, creating it, sharing it, having discussions about it, teaching it, they’re all equally important. Doing this kind of work, we hope can make every story open a lot of doors to something that’s more meaningful. It could be a conversation. It could be an ongoing act of education or a source of support for the people who are in the story. That’s what makes it all worth doing.

I’d love to jump into questions about any of that. 

Question 1:

Earlier, you had said that you’re interested in attracting and getting the word out about your podcast and attracting a wider audience. But then I was really struck by what you said about the goal isn’t to necessarily get this huge millions of people audience. The point is to really think about who are the listeners that make sense for you. So I’m going to ask you a question, but it’s kind of a false dichotomy. Are you primarily just interested in talking to and for Asian Americans? In other words, if you never reach a non Asian American person, is that fine because the podcast really is about telling stories for Asian Americans by self identified Asian Americans, because of the absence of those stories in the world?

James Boo:

So I’ll go through a couple of thoughts. Actually, one is more of a fact. Our listeners, roughly speaking as far as the data that we have, are about 70% Asian identified. I think it’s something like 25% white folks and then a mix of everyone else for the rest so far. We’re still waiting for more demographic survey data for our latest season to come back. It seems like it’s diversifying a bit more, but it is primarily Asian Americans who obviously gravitate towards the show.

I think the way I would put it is we definitely are prioritizing reaching Asian American listeners, but we also have an assumption that they live in places. They live in places where they’re interacting with a diversity of people. Some of them live in places where most of the people are white. Some of them live in places where it’s very, very diverse. Some of them live primarily with communities of color and Black communities. We think there’s something to offer pretty much in every case.

You mentioned the phrase ‘false dichotomy.’ I think there is such thing as a show about people of color that’s for white people, but I don’t think it’s a choice you always have to make. If we focused primarily on the listener needs for Asian American folks… That is the difference essentially between a show that says show up every week, download our podcast, you’re going to hear from a different Asian American person and then move on to the next one. That is a format where then I think I would be questioning what’s the ripple effect. With our program, I think we do see that, number one, if people are tuning in from other backgrounds and other communities, when they give us their feedback, they’re saying the same thing. They just have an extra layer, but at the same time they are learning more. I think the verdict is still out, to be perfectly honest. It’s not something we can observe, and I know that people in academia would have a more rigorous eye to this. 

But we kind of have an impulse that says, if the story is done well and makes sense, you don’t have to go to a lowest common denominator. You don’t have to catch people up. People can also Google things. So, all of these kind of classic anxieties about do we need to explain what this word means, we air on the side of not explaining certain “ethnic phrases,” because the main question is, how does it function in the story. We generally have confidence that people will just look up things that they haven’t heard of before. But we do believe that, by focusing on our core audience, what we need is people who are helping us make this thing persist.

We’re still learning about what those ripple effects are, whether it is most strongly resonating within just who they consider to be the Asian American community or how broadly these effects can go. All that said, there is one problem we started this whole thing to help solve and that is the lack of diversity in public radio. It’s almost an entirely separate conversation, and I think it’s much more simple. It just has to do with who gets money. We don’t, but that’s basically it. I’m sure everyone is familiar with this. Who isn’t, in higher education and research?

That question never goes away and it’s actually not that complicated. We will continue asking that as much as we can.

Question 2:

Well, first of all again, thank you so much. It strikes me how incredibly generous you’ve been in really taking us through the details of your production. I just want to give that a shutout because it’s such a gift. We have a lot of emerging audio makers here and folks who are already in that journey. The way that you’re offering that kind of community building in this space is rad. Thank you so much for doing that.

My question comes from a different angle, that is kind of centering around your title. From my disciplinary background, I’m pretty used to seeing ‘Asian American stories.’ But of course, the subtitle of your podcast is ‘Asian America’s stories.’ I’m wondering if you could just kind of piece that out for us, and what that decision making process was like, and why you advocated for that particular phrasing, and what it means to you.

James Boo:

I think it was completely arbitrary and no one asked to follow up. I think it was more of an aesthetic thing. I don’t know. It may just be a memory gap. I wasn’t necessarily the leader of the “branding process.” But if I’m remembering correctly, I think that definitely came up at some point. I think there’s some implication of communicating a sense of place and keeping the emphasis on stories, where they come from and who they belong to, as opposed to selling Asian things, which I think is a default approach we’re used to … this show is about Asian comedians. This is a show where we talk about Asian food.

We just wanted to veer away as much as possible from culture as a product and think more about race and culture as settings and backdrops.

Question 3:

I am so in awe of your organization, I cannot even tell you. I’m wondering, do you often work with academics? I know that some of the people I’ve talked with who have podcasts are actually kind of leery of working with academics with hyper-specialization, other concerns. So I just wondered do you have those collaborations too?

James Boo:

We have had an academic in one of our earliest episodes. She is finishing her PhD and this is a person who is a Black woman with Japanese heritage as well. It was specifically talking about her lived experience coming from those backgrounds, but also her field of research and her dissertation which was focused on racialized political identity among Asian American students. We saw that as a chance to bring those things together, learning more about this person personally, but also seeing how that informed and was informed by research about how people decide what they call themselves. 

For us when we think about the academic world, number one we always turn to it for interesting research and provocative questions. I’m updating an episode right now about all of the anti-Asian hate incidents that have been going around and speaking with a researcher from University of Michigan. Again, it’s a mix. She’s talking about the research she’s done on media reporting on anti-Asian hate incidents, but also bringing in the context of what she does as a resident of Indiana where this issue is not treated the same way or talked about in the same way as it might be in New York, for example.

So that is a couple of ways how collaboration can be found with the show and the academic communities. On a separate level, we’re always looking for sources. This is one of those things where it would be much easier to be more in touch and more collaborative if we had more funding to have a regular desk where people could be in touch regularly. We can see white papers, we can see what’s going on. But there are only so many hours in a day. So, for us, it tends to come across when we’re pursuing a certain question and we want to gain the perspective of someone who’s looking at data or who’s doing research that could help us shape the story.

Laura Perry:

I meant to say this earlier right after your case study ended, but another piece of the episodes is your list of resources, is your list of related articles, and that is, as you talked about, it’s a teaching tool. It allows people to start from this story and work outward into the larger context, but that’s a form of collaboration that linking, that sharing of here are people that we have worked from, that we have collaborated with in thinking through this story. I really appreciate how each episode, then, it’s not just that time that you’re listening to it that you’re gifting to your listeners. It’s also all of the articles that you can go and read afterwards.

James Boo:

Yeah, there’s a mix. Usually we’re linking to more in depth written pieces, other audio pieces that inspired us or that we found along the way, video or documentary that covers parts of this. For example, with the episode that I presented, we are focused entirely on Vietnamese American former refugees. But the truth is the Cambodian American communities have been afflicted much more severely by this targeting for a lot of political reasons. But there was a lot of really great coverage about that. So, we made a conscious choice to try to add something that we felt could be built on a little more in the kind of corpus of information, but then also send people directly to really great documentary material from NBC Asian America that was about Cambodian Americans being targeted and then taking on their own work as well to stop this from happening and deal with the consequences.

The other thing I would say in terms of this, when we think about the academic spaces, Asian American needs … I don’t know if that’s the best way to put, but one of the persistent perennial problems when it comes to the problem of being marginalized, the problem of being underrepresented… is education. Asian American studies as a field is not something that is ever taken for granted and it’s something that’s often absent, any form of historical education that includes Asian Americans. Of course, we’re not alone when we talk about communities that are not covered in high school education or in college. One thing that has been really motivating is that whenever we do one of these classroom visits, whether it’s to a high school or to a university, the students are incredibly on top of it. They want to learn this stuff. It’s just that our system is designed to never present it to them. So, unfortunately, it’s a burden that falls to the educators unfairly, but that also is where a lot of the action and pressure on the administration of education has to happen.

Laura Perry:

You’re speaking to the right audience in terms of that. So, we’re coming up to the top of our hour. I did have a question about the future of the show. Maybe I’ll lead it into talking a bit about seasons one and two and how your approach shifted in between season one and season two, and also where future seasons might go. What’s next for the show? What’s coming up?

James Boo:

The second season of the show we just wrapped. It was produced and released starting in the summer and just wrapping up a couple weeks ago. Just to be totally straightforward, it was just us trying to get through the pandemic and everything that’s happened along the way. A lot of what we do unfortunately is dictated by resources. Nobody is paid for this by in large. We are able to get some emergency grant funding, and most of that funding went to people who are working as freelance contributors to help report and produce things, then reinvested back in the show.

The biggest difference between the first and second seasons of the program are the second season was just much more directly topical. We devoted three entire episodes to unpacking everything that’s going on with racism and hate incidents and violent incidents towards Asian Americans and particularly how communities are responding, which was the coverage we felt was largely missing and still is. Then a lot of our episodes were just more directly responding to exactly the thing of the day. The interesting thing is that, because we’re not a news desk or a weekly show, none of these things happen in real time, so often our stories are coming out months after. It put the creative pressure on us to think, what is it that people are actually missing that never got addressed, and how can we put it into the podcast feed in a way where it will be just as relevant a year from now or two years from now? Which is easier than I think people might think, because the reality is everyone goes to their own journey and they’re ready to engage with how to think about race, how to think about community work and etc. in their own time. We continue to see people find the show and get something out of it. 

Looking ahead, to be totally honest, we are taking a break. We’re in this fellowship program with PRX and Google and it’s giving us a good space of support to really revisit what we’re doing. Part of what I’m presenting to you today is actually the result of getting the chance to ask ourselves, what do we think is really going on? What is our show good for, who is it helping, and what is therefore a great use of our time? That is a space that people could use in all walks of professional life, and sometimes they are not given the permission to do that, let alone support. So that’s been a huge benefit of the program for us.

We’re hoping to do something of a special run of more conversational episodes in May during Asia Pacific Heritage Month and then have a new season towards the second half of the year. But the ongoing question for us is always going to be, how we’re going to get the money, where is the money coming from. We don’t have obvious answers to that right now. We have ideas and we have conversations that we’re engaged in. We always make a little more progress every month that goes by, but I always would be remiss if I didn’t say this is a very uphill process and the money exists, but it’s not being distributed in the way that we would have hoped. So that hopefully is some relatable content for people in this room and a point of shared interest.

Laura Perry:

Well, I’m still making my way through the second season and I’m really loving it. I started in the middle and have been working backwards and forwards. You’re right, the episodes remain timely. I think because of all of the context and all of the tremendous care for these people whose stories that you’re sharing that is clear in the editing and the behind the scenes work that you do, that I feel like you don’t have to worry about the fact that you’re not coming out weekly. These are tremendously powerful stories and they remain resonant weeks and months later. So, if anyone is just now coming to this show and is worried, will I think episode one is amazing, you will. You should listen to all two seasons and subscribe. You can also go to selfevidentshow.com or selfevidentshow.com/participate where you will find more ways to join in. Also, you should really check out each episode’s individual page because there are incredible resources there. 

James, I just really want to thank you for just bringing such incredible resources to us today and for all the work that you’re doing. It was really wonderful to get to talk to you face to face after exchanging emails. Thank you so much.

James Boo:

Thanks so much for the invitation. I’m just really grateful to be here and that folks would spend an hour on yet another video call to hear about things. I really appreciate it and I’m grateful for everyone who joined.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.