All-too rarely does an Australian audience have access to China coverage as thorough and unconventional as The Little Red Podcast.
Since 2016, The Little Red Podcast has sought to provide fresh, expert insights on China that goes beyond the news. With monthly episodes on subjects ranging from censorship to sea cucumbers, the podcast’s excellence was recognised at the Australian Podcasting Awards earlier this month.
Co-hosted by Dr Graeme Smith, Research Fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the ANU, and Louisa Lim, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne, the show invites a guest academic, artist or businessperson to discuss their views each episode.
The show seeks to fill what Graeme sees as a “poverty of ideas” in China-related coverage. Before The Little Red Podcast came into being, China podcasts were few, and often focused on people rather than concepts.
“If you’re a China nerd, then you might be into that,” Graeme acknowledges. “But if you’re not, then it just kind of leaves you cold.”
The Little Red Podcast delves into subjects that might not typically get much airtime. “We try to cover stuff that we think isn’t being covered,” Graeme explains. “So ideally, we’re ahead of the news.”
But keeping the subject matter relevant is just one aspect of a multi-step production process. For Graeme and Louisa, the challenge lies in making the academic knowledge of their guests suitable to a mass audience.
“Some people really suit the podcast format,” Graeme says. “A lot of people are just very gifted. We’ve had a few guests recently who speak in paragraph, and they are gold.”
“The nice thing about podcasting is that it’s different to journalism, so you’re generally asking quite soft questions – you’re not coming at them in an adversarial way,” Graeme adds. “Generally we try to present them and their views as favourable a light as possible.”
It’s a strategy seems to be working. The Little Red Podcast won big at the Australian Podcast Awards this month, taking home the top award for best News and Current Affairs podcast of 2018. The win came as a big shock to the hosts, who were up against some big names in the business.
“We were so thrilled to make the shortlist, and had no expectation that we were going to win,” Graeme admits. “We literally had not prepared acceptance speeches,” he adds.
The award is a testament to all of the hard work that Graeme and Louisa have put in over the last few years to get the podcast off the ground. Having moved cities twice now chasing funding for the project, Graeme says The Little Red Podcast is now definitively here to stay.
Even so, some challenges remain constant. Graeme and Louisa sometimes find it difficult to find guests willing to speak on sensitive topics, particularly in the current climate.
“We don’t steer away [from controversial issues], but it does sometimes affect us,” Graeme says. “We have had trouble putting together an episode recently because all of our guests are saying, ‘yeah we still want to go to China.’”
“That doesn’t mean we won’t still make the episode, we’re just going to have to work through a large number of people to get there,” Graeme adds. “If anything it makes us more determined to get it done.”
Censorship is a growing concern for China experts, who see President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on freedoms of expression as a sign of worse things on the horizon. The Little Red Podcast is itself banned in China.
“I really love the country, but I’m worried about where it’s headed,” Graeme admits. “At least in my lifetime…I haven’t seen China go down quite this dark a path in terms of the restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and controls on the Internet,” he adds.
Graeme says international relations generalists tend to underplay the magnitude of Xi’s reforms.
“I worry that a lot of people who aren’t China scholars don’t see how different the current regime is to what has come before it, at least in terms of the era of Deng Xiaoping and the idea of openness,” Graeme says.
“The closing of that to me is really alarming, because you don’t know what comes next.”
The Little Red Podcast doesn’t shy away from theses difficult questions.
“It’s not our job to be overly critical,” Graeme says. “It’s our job to critique people on either side of the spectrum – and challenge lazy assumptions about China wherever they may be.”
By CAP Student Correspondent Dot Mason.
Image credit: Australian Podcast Awards.