A new English-language podcast in Vietnam wants to bring lively debate to one of the region’s most restrictive media environments.

But to succeed, Saigoneer Podcast will have to tread carefully.

By George Wright
Splice Vietnam

For Mike Tatarski, the American editor-in-chief of digital news site Saigoneer, international news coverage of Vietnam remains stuck in the past.

“One of the things that has annoyed me about Vietnam coverage from overseas is that there’s so much emphasis on the war, which is obviously important, but we wanted to be able to get a new view on Vietnam, a younger view,” Tatarski says of Saigoneer’s approach.

Tatarski, 29, who this month took the helm at the English-language Saigoneer—which, as its name suggests, focuses on happenings in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City—hopes to continue bucking that trend with a new podcast.

The Saigoneer Podcast, which launches on January 19, will feature discussions on the latest Vietnam news, along with interviews with prominent figures on topics affecting Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of country.

With the exception of a short-lived venture that covered arts in Hanoi and has since folded, Tatarski says he doesn’t know of any other podcasts in Vietnam—and certainly none in English.

“It just seemed like there was a void,” he says. “I don’t know if anyone else was trying to do it but I was kind of like, ‘Let’s try to make it happen.’”

Tatarski hopes the 30-minute episodes will expand on Saigoneer’s current model of blending lighthearted content with hard news. But with the latter comes a need to carefully navigate what US non-governmental organization Freedom House has called one of the harshest media environments in Asia.

Recording the Saigoneer Podcast: former Saigoneer editor Dana Filek-Gibson, co-host Khoi Pham and current editor Mike Tatarski. Photo supplied.

Walking the censorship line

He admits to self-censoring the Saigoneer website, because while their content does not need to pass an official censor, the team is “well aware of where the lines are drawn.”

“We use the big state newspapers as a kind of guide, so if they cover something that kind of tells us that it’s safe for us to talk about it,” he says.

Khoi Pham, his Vietnamese co-host and content manager at Saigoneer, is less fazed about having to pull punches. “It doesn’t frustrate me; maybe because I’ve gotten used to it,” he says.

“Doing media in Vietnam, over time we pretty much know which topic is fair game and which is not.”

“There are so many things to talk about in Saigon and Vietnam, apart from hard-hitting political news. We’ve had so much fun talking about shopping from Facebook or the indie music scene in Saigon.”

The podcast format also open the doors to voicing opinions in ways that text stories do not, Pham says. “We always strive to be as informative and thorough in our coverage as possible, so this doesn’t leave much room for weighing in. With the podcast, there’s more room for goofing around, more room to have in-depth discussion of things we talked about on the site.”

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Low tech, high aims

Meanwhile, Tatarski is quietly confident the “low tech” show will be a success. He’s taken inspiration from other podcasts being aired around the region, particularly the arts and lifestyle-focused Bangkok Podcast and Frontier Myanmar’s series on the crisis in Rakhine State.

“We can’t be quite as hard hitting as Frontier given the constraints here, but I’d like it to be a mix between the two—news and some lighter stuff,” he says.

And despite the constraints of reporting in Vietnam, Tatarski says there are plenty of important stories for the Saigoneer Podcast to explore. The first show focuses on the city’s hugely controversial sidewalk cleanup campaign.

They’ll just need to keep their wits about them.

“It gets a little touchy at times,” he says. “We’ll try and avoid touchy parts as best as possible.”

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes, Castbox and Soundcloud.

George Wright is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh. He was an associate editor at The Cambodia Daily before it was shuttered amid government pressure in September and covers a range of topics including politics, human rights and sport. Follow George Wright on Twitter.

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