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UCI Center for Storytelling Showcases Audio Storytelling

UCI’s Center for Storytelling held a Zoom webinar with audio storytellers Liz Mak, Taylor Hosking and Megan Tan on Feb. 11. The presentation informed UCI students about the audio journalism industry and provided insight into how to get into this type of work and advice for those who are just starting out.

“I’m excited to host this event — we have these wonderful three guests who are experts in their field, and they are going to share everything from how you get started into audio …  to how to start your own journey into this career,” host and literary journalism professor Erika Hayasaki said.

The first person to speak at this event was Mak, an independent radio producer who has worked on multiple projects in categories such as writing, photography, audio and video. Her featured audio story, “Return to Kuku Island,” tells the experience of a Vietnamese refugee going back to the island that she once escaped from with other refugees during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. 

“On Kuku there were no rules, no food reserves, no toilets. The refugees only had the things they brought with them, and those were the things that helped them survive,” Mak said as she read from the transcript of “Return to Kuku Island.”

The second person who spoke at the event was Hosking, a journalist who produces a weekly feminist news talk show called “Undistracted with Brittany Packnett Cunningham,” and has worked with companies such as Buzzfeed, iHeartMedia and Stitcher. Her featured work was her podcast, “Here Be Monsters.” In the episode “The New Black Wall Street,” she visits the Brady Mansion, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and speaks with several local musicians who are “looking to build a new Black Wall Street in Tulsa.”

“Many were told to never discuss what happened there … [Black Tulsans] passed down the stories to the younger generations,” Hosking said in a clip from the podcast.

The last person featured during the event was Tan, a podcast producer, host, reporter, sound designer and writer whose work has been recognized by The New York Times, the Guardian and Time magazine. Her self-produced podcast “Millennial” was presented to the audience. “Millennial” is a podcast that discusses how to deal with the pressures of status, self-worth and money for individuals in their 20s.

“I didn’t want to apply to some place with an empty heart, so I headed home … but coming home wasn’t what I expected,” Tan said in a clip from “Millennial.”

After the three guests were introduced, they were asked about their personal journeys working with audio-based media. 

“I started as a photo-journalist … I remember listening to this episode of ‘Radiolab.’ I thought, ‘How could I be so close to a man that I will never meet and whose face I have never seen?’ … that type of intimacy I never got with photography,” Tan said.

“I was supposed to be writing political articles, but [I] was also hanging out with the podcasting team … trying to learn as much as I could about this field that I have become interested in largely because I … [moved] to a new city so [I had] no friends at first, so [I] listened to a lot of podcasts … With podcasting, you could blur the lines of politics, news head, cultural pieces, movie reviews … felt like a lot of my interests could combine,” Hosking said.

“Around 2011 … I moved to China … I didn’t have a foothold anywhere —  that’s when I did freelance writing. I realized I didn’t want to write about the art. I want to be making the art,” Mak said.

The panelists were asked to give advice or other audio storytelling tips to the audience. Tan shared some advice for those who are just starting in audio.

“I would say follow your engagements … I feel like so many mediums speak to each other — everything builds on itself. I was super into narrative. I just started documenting everything … Going to a job, calling mom, using a phone recorder … From there, I didn’t know [‘Millennial’] was going to become what it became,” Tan said.

“Millennial” was launched in 2014 and began as a passion project; however, with almost 400,000 downloads a month, it quickly became a full-time job. It has three seasons that consist of 47 episodes in total and was eventually picked up by Radiotopia, a podcast network. From there, Tan’s podcast helped shape the way she grew as a content creator.

“As you guys are making audio or the idea of getting it out there, I say really focus on the craft … make it something that you’re proud of … use it as a tool to learn … Right now, ask what is it that [you] wanna get better at. What are the other aspects, and what work can [you] do to strengthen them?” Tan said.

Hosking shared her insights regarding how to figure out which stories are worth talking about in a long-form audio piece. That is, which stories are the ones that notably stand out amongst the crowd.

“When it comes to history-related stories … there has to be someone you can lean on to take you through [the story]. You probably haven’t met these people and haven’t heard their stories … Getting closer to an individual’s narrative can put you in the room with them in an emotional way for an intense story — it feels like it means something … It stitches [the story] back together and gives it rhythm. It helps where there is a story that has lots of elements that makes it feel like it’s getting deeper and deeper,” Hosking said.

Mak was asked how to help a guest speaker talk about their experiences during a podcast that may be difficult to speak about, such as traumatic moments.

“I think the first thing is learning how to talk. Open yourself up, and act stupid half the time. Most audio comes from asking dumba** questions. One of the main rules is to be a good person. When you show genuine interest in a person’s story, it makes people want to help you also. The fact that you’re willing to take time, they feel like you’re a part of their story and are more willing to talk to you … Talk to people like they’re people … take interest in things that may not be a part of the story. All those little things make a big difference,” Mak said.

After Hayasaki’s questions were answered, the audience had time to ask questions of their own. One audience member asked how one gets the courage to produce a podcast based on themselves and remain open.

“You have to figure out what’s fuel for you, why do you want to tell this story … we are the protagonists of our story … the more we open about that, it’s really beautiful,” Tan said in response to the question.

Hayasaki closed the panel discussion with a promise for future events hosted by the UCI Center for Storytelling.

“Looking towards the future, [UCI’s Center for Storytelling] hopes to bring more panels on pitching essays and stories to editors, the art of live storytelling, photography and communicating science to the public … we’ll try to host some more [webinars] like this. Everyone, thank you so much and have a great weekend,” Hayasaki said.

As of publication, there are no events planned for UCI’s Center for Storytelling. 

Kealani Quijano is a Campus News Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at kaquijan@uci.edu.