WBEZ blends entertainment and identity with ‘Shoes Off: A Sexy Asians Podcast’

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"Shoes Off' host Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, editor and producer Stephanie Kim, and host Susie An.

For centuries, Asians in America have been ignored, fetishized and bullied. They’ve had their diverse identities flattened, with dozens upon dozens of cultures and nationalities homogenized into less-than-flattering stereotypes that are at best limiting and at worst deeply humiliating. 

Asian Americans have also had their sexuality stigmatized, with women often finding themselves fetishized for being erotically liberal and exotically subservient. Men have the exact opposite problem, which is evident in how rarely Asian men are cast as romantic or charismatic leads in Hollywood productions. 

WBEZ’s Shoes Off: A Sexy Asians Podcast aims to put those centuries-old stereotypes to rest. The Chicago station’s 9-episode podcast launched Feb. 1, celebrating what it calls “badass Asians who are making a mark on pop culture and entertainment.” Each week, hosts Esther Yoon-Ji Kang and Susie An chat with luminaries like comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster, actor John Cho, journalist Lisa Ling, comedian Hari Kondabolu, director Domee Shi and Young The Giant frontman Sameer Gadhia.

Kang says the idea for Shoes Off came after she and An — both longtime reporters for WBEZ — worked with editor Stephanie Kim on an interview the station did with actor Steven Yeun, of The Walking Dead and Minari. The trio were joking around on Slack and realized that the Yeun piece was the most fun and personal experience they’d had at the station. “In some ways,” Kang says, “we wanted to put that on repeat.” The group decided to make their dream a reality and began mocking up the podcast that would become Shoes Off

“Originally, it was a little jokey where it was like, ‘We just want to talk to hot guys,’” An said. “We decided to broaden it out, though, because sexy can have a wide interpretation. We’re looking for smart, talented, funny people who are making waves in their fields.” They crafted a pilot and were, as An says, “pleasantly surprised” to get the green light from the station.

“When Susie, Esther and Stephanie approached me about this idea, immediately I was intrigued,” said Tracy Brown, CCO for WBEZ parent organization Chicago Public Media. “It had a catchy title to start off with, but mostly it spoke to what was happening in the country at this moment concerning Asian Americans.”

The Shoes Off moniker comes from the Asian custom of taking your shoes off once you enter the home, something An says she hopes suggests a “casual, warm feeling” to listeners. The show was originally titled A Sexy Asians Podcast, but after living with the name for a while the show’s creators started to question what those words could mean to their target audience.

“It goes back to the experience of being fetishized and being very hesitant to even refer to people in that way,” An said. “Plus, if you Google ‘sexy Asians,’ it’s not good. We want to reclaim and redefine those terms for ourselves.”

“I want people to come away from listening having discovered how amazing, sexy, cool and thoughtful our guests are, and hopefully that will make a difference in how they view Asians and Asian Americans.”

Stephanie Kim, “Shoes Off” editor and producer

While Shoes Off does focus partly on the physical, with An and Kang asking guests early in each episode to talk about when they first realized they were sexy, the conversations go deeper, into what a sense of identity means to each guest — and to the Asian community in general. For Joel Kim Booster, that meant opening up about his transracial adoption or shedding light on anti-Asian discrimination in the gay community. On Domee Shi’s episode, the Turning Red director talked about how she balanced discovering her own sexuality as a teen with the burden of still trying to honor her parents.

Some of the conversations can get a little heavy — a turn that’s understandable, especially considering the rash of anti-Asian violence the country has seen since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. (Last March, Stop AAPI Hate said there had been more than 11,000 hate incidents targeting Asian Americans since 2020.) There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel each episode, though, with An and Kang wrapping things up with a fun and rapid-fire game of quick questions like “first Asian celebrity crush.” 

“A lot of the news that we’ve covered regarding Asians or Asian Americans over the past few years hasn’t been good news,” said Stephanie Kim, the podcast’s editor and producer. “At first, it did feel a little weird to be working on something like Shoes Off against the backdrop of such serious, horrific things, but we wanted to make something that brings joy to people. I want people to come away from listening having discovered how amazing, sexy, cool and thoughtful our guests are, and hopefully that will make a difference in how they view Asians and Asian Americans.”

Shoes Off guests come from all around the Asian diaspora, something Kang says is absolutely intentional. “We are keenly aware that the three of us are Korean American women,” she said. “In some ways, that’s very limiting, so we knew we needed to be as inclusive as possible. We made sure that our wish list of guests covered the gamut of Asian Americans and Asians in media.”

The show’s creators say they hope Shoes Off reaches a diverse audience of listeners, too. “It’s no secret that public radio is traditionally for an older and whiter audience,” An said, “but with a podcast like this, we’re hoping to reach not only younger listeners, but also a more Asian audience. We want folks who want to hear something different that they might not be used to hearing from public radio, and we hope that means a more diverse listenership. Also, even if people aren’t necessarily part of the Asian American community, we hope that they will feel welcome to listen, learn something, and want to hang out with us.”

That sort of outreach is important to WBEZ, especially considering the station’s commitment to reaching underserved or marginalized communities. It hopes to reach both local and national audiences with the podcast and is focusing its PR and promotional push toward not just other podcasts that focus on the Asian and Asian American experience, but also networks, organizations, media outlets and influencers in the space.

“We need to go beyond creating content that we think will serve people and build relationships with people who may not be regular public media listeners,” Brown said. “It’s not enough to do stories about communities and expect people in those communities to just find us. We have to do the work to ensure we are reaching the people who are centered in a lot of the content we make in stories, podcasts and shows.”

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