As the only Asian kid in her school, Angelika Williams was often the target of racism growing up in Kentucky.
Williams found it difficult to be proud of her Kiribati ancestry as an Asian youth in the small town of Williamsburg, But over time, she realized her heritage was part of her identity.
“In my childhood and teenage years, I thought ‘Gosh, this is awful, I’m really the only person out here all by myself, it doesn’t feel good to be different,’” Williams said in an interview on Where Y’all Really From, a podcast produced at Kentucky’s Louisville Public Media. “As I grow and mature, I get the sense that I am special and this is what makes me me, is this face.”
Where Y’all Really From is the first podcast to be released as part of LPM’s Podcast Incubator program, which launched in March. The show’s creators wanted to provide a platform where Asian American and Pacific Islander Kentuckians could share experiences, discuss the diversity of the community in Kentucky and increase representation in state media for the nearly 77,000 AAPI people living in Kentucky, according to the 2020 Census.
“The main goal was to create the space for AAPI folks in Kentucky,” said Nima Kulkarni, a Kentucky state House representative who hatched the idea for Where Y’all Really From with social entrepreneur Mae Suramek. “That was the focus because there was such a wealth of experience and diversity within the Asian American community and in Kentucky.”
Throughout a dozen episodes released from September to November, the show focused on the stories and experiences of interviewees including Neeli Bendapudi, president of the University of Louisville; Olympic fencers Gerek Meinhardt and Lee Kiefer; Joann Lianekhammy, a senior extension specialist at the University of Kentucky; and Ie Meh, a former refugee born in Thailand who moved to Bowling Green at age 12.
Where Y’all Really From reached 10,000 downloads three weeks after its debut Sept. 21 and has exceeded 17,000 downloads, making it LPM’s fastest-growing podcast. A second season is in the works.
Partnering with the station helped give the podcast a larger audience and a more professional quality, said co-host Dan Wu.
“We’ve been very fortunate that this wasn’t just something that we came up with and did completely indie style,” Wu said. “I think with all their backing behind us, it’s gotten a much wider audience than we would have expected and hoped for.”
‘We need to do something’
The show was born from a chance meeting in March when Kulkarni and Suramek appeared on a Kentucky Educational Television show to discuss violence towards Asian Americans. That month, a shooter had gone on a killing spree at spas in Atlanta. Six of the eight victims were Asian women.
Suramek — a restaurant owner in Berea, former executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center and a Kentucky statehouse candidate this year — had heard of Kulkarni but hadn’t met her. Both were deeply affected by the Atlanta killings. Weeks after their KET appearance, Kulkarni called Suramek “out of the blue” to discuss how to move forward, Suramek said.
“She said, ‘That show was great, but it doesn’t need to end there. We need to do something to keep this conversation going to address issues impacting the AAPI community,’” Suramek said.
Neither had any podcast experience, but Suramek contacted Dan Wu. The former Master Chef competitor owns a ramen-themed catering business in Lexington and is running for the Lexington City Council. He had radio experience and had been podcasting since 2017.
Wu jumped at the chance to be part of the project. Not wanting to take on the responsibility of hosting the podcast alone, he brought Charlene Buckles on board. Wu did not know Buckles, development director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, but he was impressed with her comments during a panel discussion about anti-Asian discrimination that he attended.
The team considered releasing the podcast independently, Kulkarni said, but Buckles connected them with LPM’s Podcast Incubator program. LPM launched the Incubator in March with the goal of closing the opportunity gap in podcasting, said Laura Ellis, LPM’s director of podcasts and special projects.
“We know that there are tons of great stories and brilliant people in our community who have a story to tell or have conversations that we wouldn’t normally have access to,” Ellis said. “So this was our way of connecting with those folks who could benefit from our expertise and helping them to bring their idea to life.”
The initiative aims to promote underrepresented and minority viewpoints, connect podcasters to the station’s resources and create audiences for their podcasts through advertising. Podcasters who join the Incubator own the rights to their shows and learn audio editing, mixing and production.
Buckles submitted an application to the Incubator program, and Where Y’all Really From was picked. The station began promoting the show on its airwaves and began working with the podcast team on the show’s focus.
They chose the show’s name because the creators had all heard the question many times. It’s an “interrogation” that marginalizes Asian Americans because they were born in countries Kentuckians have little connection to, Wu said.
“If you ask me, ‘Where are you from?’, and I say ‘Lexington,’ and you say, ‘No, where are you really from?’, what that tells me is that you have a definition of what a person in Lexington looks or sounds like and I’m not that,” Wu said. “That allows you to sort of identify me the way you want to, and it is absolutely othering.”
Calling the show Where Y’all Really From was a way to reclaim something that many people of AAPI descent face in Kentucky, Kulkarni said. But the decision was difficult. In one episode, Buckles said she had been hesitant about the name due to its “othering” nature and that she harbored “raw” feelings about the phrase.
Hosts Wu and Buckles often start each 30-minute episode by asking their guest how they’ve reacted to the show’s titular question in the past. Wu and Buckles also share their own stories of growing up in the state, and the show ends with a lightning round of icebreaker questions.
Though the conversations can be difficult, the hosts’ tone is more casual. That wasn’t a conscious choice, Wu said.
“It works really well because A, we’re not trained journalists and we’re not trying to be journalists. B, we’re the hosts of the show because this is also our story,” Wu said. “We’re not coming at it from an objective, journalistic point of view. This is also telling our own stories.”
Moving beyond interviews
LPM initially intended for Incubator participants to be ready to produce their shows independently or with other podcast networks after one season. But the success of Where Y’all Really From prompted the station to refine the program, Ellis said. Incubator podcasts will now have the option to continue under LPM and could become station productions permanently.
Kulkarni, Suramek and Wu want to continue making episodes with LPM, and planning for the second season is already underway. Because Wu and Buckles have busy schedules, the four creators will share hosting duties in the new season. And while the podcast will still feature interviews, Suramek said that the team also wants to focus on topics of concern to the Asian American community at large.
“We want to have episodes that focus on actual issues and not people — AAPI folks that come from adoptive families, navigating interracial marriages, how is it to have children that might be mixed-race who may not look like us or might not look like our spouses,” Suramek said. “Navigating first-generation second-generation issues, and having our parents close by and how they view the world versus how we view the world.”
Where Y’all Really From may also collaborate with other Asian American podcasts across the country, Wu said. Producers have talked with the team behind Self Evident, a podcast dedicated to “self-representation” of Asian Americans’ stories, and the podcasts have begun promoting each other.
“I think this is the kind of thing that’s absolutely necessary for the growth of this kind of content,” Wu said. “We’re going to keep crossing over and collaborating with other people doing similar stuff. I think that’ll only help amplify our bandwidth.”
The Incubator program is also growing, with three more podcasts in the works. Its second podcast, Entitled Too, is set to premiere early next year. Hosted by Louisville scholar, activist, and diversity coordinator Nubia Bennett, the show will “highlight the ways we take even a small moment to focus on what brings us pleasure.”