Every week, we catch up with a Canadian podcaster and their podcast to talk about what’s new, their favourite podcast moments, and what’s still to come. This week: Paul Bae.
Paul co-created the popular fictional paranormal podcast The Black Tapes. He created, writes and produces The Big Loop, an anthology podcast series that tells, “Stories of finite beings in an infinite universe.” He lives in Vancouver.
You were writing short fiction before you started writing audio drama podcasts. How did you make the adjustment from writing for a reading audience to writing for a listening audience?
Because I’ve been oral storytelling for a long time — I was a youth pastor, and then I was a high school teacher, then I was a comedian, then I was a TV host — all of that involved oral storytelling. So I got better at oral storytelling than written storytelling! And I found all my written storytelling was written as if I was delivering it orally. So I didn’t really have to adjust, it just adjusted for me.
I can’t say who it is, but I had this major New York literary agent contact me. She really wanted me to write something, and I warned her, “I’m not a novelist anymore, I’m just audio.” I found an old novel idea, and I just gave it to her. I’m so lucky, she was just really honest with me. “Yeah, you’re right, you’re not a novelist!”
I always thought, “If the day ever happens where I find out I’m not a good novelist, it’ll destroy me!” But now I’m at the point where I’m thinking, “Thank God I didn’t waste my time with that thing!”
Is that because you still have an avenue for telling stories, and an audience?
Not just that. It’s knowing that the audience is ready and waiting for your next thing. We [The Black Tapes creators] have an awesome fanbase that will eat up anything we put out now. It’s great to have them, but there’s a standard that you hold yourself up to. But also, I need to be challenged too. So you put it out with a lot of faith, thinking — hoping — they’ll come along for the ride, while at the same time, preventing boredom for yourself.
Are you thinking about your audience when you’re writing each episode of The Big Loop? Are you writing for them, or are you writing mostly for yourself, with the mindset that fans will come along, so long as it’s good?
It’s a bit of both. With oral storytelling, it’s for an audience. So I’m always picturing — not who’s listening, but “How are they going to hear this?” The universal listener. What am I painting in their head with every sentence? When I’m writing short stories or novels on the page, I’m not thinking about the audience at all. They’re not even there. I’m just writing for myself. I find I get bored of that now.
A few of my friends in the 90s always told me, “Your emails read better than your stories, ‘cause you’re writing for me! You’re writing to an audience.”
Is there an episode of The Big Loop that you’re particularly proud of?
Maybe “All God’s Children.” It was such a personal story to me. I got a lot of, “What the hell was that?” and a lot of people saying, “I didn’t really get it, but I loved it.” I love that kind of reaction. If everyone could have taken everything apart, it might have been too on the nose.
There’s a Big Loop Podcast Reddit group, and after the episodes, maybe a week later, I’ll see what they wrote. After “All God’s Children,” it was like “What was that?” “I don’t know what happened!” “Why is there a baby with tentacles?” Weeks later, someone mentioned, “Do you think he was making a Cthulhu reference?” Which I was. That’s when I pump my fist. “Thank God somebody said it!” I see them slowly start to piece it all together as a group, like you would in a lit class in college. That’s what I love.
When I see The Black Tapes’ subreddit, it’s all taking apart the mythology that we created, the plot stuff that we just made up. But no one ever talks about what it did for them. I felt like an entertainer, as opposed to a writer. Which is fine! But there’s a part of me that wants to do more than entertain, and that’s why I did The Big Loop.
If you could redo an episode of The Big Loop, which would you choose?
I would redo Episode Two from Season One, “FML.” One of the actors did it remotely in Ireland. This is when we first started. I didn’t know about recording levels, really. So the actor, who’s amazing, was so dynamic in his voice range, I didn’t realize it would give my audio guy, Steve, problems. We had to remaster it. We got a lot of complaints. I got a lot of one-star reviews on iTunes just because of the sound level! To start your podcast series and have the second episode be filled with complaints about the sound… I didn’t know what I was doing!
Because of that episode, I learned to listen to every episode in every type of speaker: cheap headphones, good headphones, studio monitors, car, Bluetooth headphones... Any audio guy who’s reading this blog will probably go, “You’ve been doing podcasts since 2015 and you didn’t know that?!” But Terry Miles, my partner for The Black Tapes, he did all the audio stuff, so I didn’t have to worry about it.
It’s funny, because Terry kept telling me, “Do a solo project!” When I finally decided, “Okay, I’ll do a solo,” I didn’t even understand how Terry got the podcast from our recording! We had 50 million downloads for The Black Tapes, and I still didn’t know how to get it onto iTunes!
You’ve said before that many audio drama podcasts include voices of colour and queer voices, and that the space isn’t ruled by predominantly white male voices. How do you think the audio drama podcasting community has managed to get that right?
Whenever I talk about this, I have to credit the godfathers of it — Joseph [Fink] and Jeffrey [Cranor] from Welcome to Night Vale. For podcasting, the first audio drama hit was Night Vale. And because there’s so much queer representation in Night Vale, everyone took their cues from that. I think it would have been different if there was a cis male-heavy podcast that started it all. We’d have a bunch of people from different backgrounds working their way in from the far edges. But because of Night Vale, because of the standard they placed in the ground, everyone was able to start in the centre.
I used to be an actor. Whenever I went for auditions, I always felt othered. Talking to my white friends, they found it weird that I had never thought, “I’m going to go in and I’m going to be a star.” They always had that hope in the back of their heads, because they see representations of themselves on screen all the time. They see scripts for themselves all the time, and I never saw an Asian guy in the lead. So whenever I walked into an audition room I felt like, “I’m going to play a small role, I’m working in from the edge.” But when Terry and I dove into audio drama, I didn’t have that feeling at all! It didn’t occur to me that I was Asian and trying to work my way into a white field. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in entertainment. The walls were already torn down, and this huge playground was welcoming to everybody.
Then again, that’s from my perspective. Plus, I’m also a guy with power. So I might be choosing to overlook these things without really realizing it!
So far in this blog series I’ve mostly talked to people who live in Toronto. What’s the podcasting scene like in Vancouver?
Oh, it’s awesome! We’re having the inaugural Vancouver Podcast Festival in November. And most of the major public libraries now have podcasting facilities, equipment, computers, mics, everything.
There’s so much potential, especially for young people, in podcasting. It’s funny, because I’ve offered school boards and teachers, “I will come into your classroom and teach them how to podcast! For free!” No one’s taken me up on it! It’s so weird. If I was a teacher, I would have jumped on that. Instead of oral presentations, have these kids learn how to produce podcasts! There are so many skills involved that they’ll need for the future.
But you need at least working computers, which a lot of schools don’t have. That’s probably what’s going on here.
What do you think the value of learning how to make podcasts would be for the average teen in high school?
Aside from the obvious things — the collaborative stuff, the research angle — it’s a way to shape your narrative. I think a lot of young people have trouble with their own narratives, their own stories. They don’t have a sense of a through-line. Part of my goal as an English teacher was to give kids a possible through-line at the end. “You’re here, I need to get you here.” And try to make it as positive as possible and give them the skills to get to that distant place I’m showing them — a happier version of them. The average teenager is not a happy person. It’s an awful existence, if you think back to high school. Everything’s arbitrary and you have no control. This is one chance to get control of your story, and it’s a chance to shape it thoroughly, and even question parts of your own narrative. And to do that with other people, and then to put that out there, and have guidance…
I remember some of my students, I helped them put up YouTube channels, little ones. And then they’d get little fan followings of twenty people, fifty people. I’ll never forget how happy they were! “Hey Mr. Bae, they like that story that I made!” Podcasting didn’t exist at the time, but imagine with podcasting, where you have more control over these things…
When I think about teenagers, I think about the most underrepresented groups. Out here, a lot of First Nations kids don’t have much of a voice, compared to the average B.C. kid. This is the perfect chance for them to put their mark on the old landscape of our province. That’s the potential there.
If the states have shown anything, it’s that a voice is power, even if it’s 140 characters at a time. If we can teach our kids to wield that responsibly, there’s a lot of power to be had, and empowerment.
If someone reading this wants to get into audio drama podcasts, where do you propose they start?
The BBC Audio Drama Awards come out every year, and you can just listen to every single one of those things! Pick any one of those, and it’ll move you. I just listened to the audio drama “Billions,” about a near future where people can replace people who lost their lives. It was so sad.
For people who like sci-fi adventures, there’s a new one called Joseph by this group called Ear Epic. They only have five episodes out, but man are they advanced! It puts you right in the middle of the action.
Of course, The Bright Sessions — I think a lot of teenagers would relate to that one, just because it’s about identity, and struggling with who you are.
Whenever I want a quick fix, I want to be moved right away — within an hour, I want my mood to change — I listen to The Truth by Radiotopia. It’s like The Big Loop, but with slightly shorter episodes. The acting, the production, the writing, it’s all fantastic, it’s just the highest quality storytelling you could achieve.
What’s next for you?
People are bugging me that they’d love to hear something from me that’s serialized, ‘cause The Big Loop is an anthology, and my last serialized thing was The Black Tapes. And The Black Tapes — our following is huge. So [my upcoming project is] something in the horror genre that’ll make Black Tapes fans happy, but it’s got the character work of The Big Loop. So something for everybody!
-Elena Hudgins Lyle