In an interview with Hong Kong-based podcast Roadside Rumours’ co-founders Kawaljot Kaur and Sanika Kulkarni, we talked about their journey founding the podcast, how they are initiating conversations about diversity and representation in Hong Kong, and what’s next for the dynamic duo.
Kawal and Sanika started Roadside Rumours from their dormitory at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2019. Successfully releasing two seasons of their podcast already, the pair are working hard to give a safe space to underrepresented individuals in Hong Kong to share their stories. Covering stories from living as an ethnic minority in the city to working as a domestic helper, to relationships and sexual wellbeing, Kawal and Sanika are sparking conversations and normalising these often taboo topics.
How it all started
The girls met during their first year of university at HKU in a comparative literature class, where they learned how to discuss difficult topics and engage in an open learning environment. They also attended a number of events together, meeting many influential individuals, and performed in the Vagina Monologues together. Through these experiences, they were inspired to start a podcast so more people could hear these important and interesting conversations.
Bring us back to your first episode: Diversity in HKU
At the time, there was conflict in the university between an international student misrepresenting the values of ethnic minority students, and a representative of those people at HKU. Kawal and Sanika decided to bring these two people together and just have an open conversation about everything that was going to help people get on the same page. “It’s not that difficult to find a common ground because we were all students at the end of the day,” they shared. With no professional recording equipment available at the time, Kawal and Sanika improvised with their iPhones and a friends’ camera to create one of their most famous episodes.
“People enjoyed the first episode because that’s a side of HKU you don’t normally see. It really showed on social media, newspapers, and the media.” After overwhelming success the pair continued to produce the rest of the season, and an additional season the following year.
What were some challenges faced in the early days of your podcast?
The first priority for Roadside Rumours was to speak to these interesting people and make sure their stories were told. Secondary to that, but a primary challenge, was their setup but with the help of a friend they were able to record their sessions this way. From filming in their dorm rooms with guests sitting opposite each other on beds to having to turn off air conditioning to minimise white noise, the pair have had their fair share of adventures.
“I think throughout our journey we’ve had a lot of moments when we do question the kind of things that we’re putting out because it is difficult when we do want to raise awareness about these things but people’s opinions can be so polarized.” The pair shared that it was also difficult to speak about these topics with older generations, especially in their own communities. Kawal and Sanika recognised that it was necessary to talk about these topics publicly, and an open-ended podcast was an appropriate medium for this that played to the pair’s strengths and experiences.
Tips for those looking to start their own podcast
“Just go for it because that’s the advice we were given from our podcast mom.” Kawal and Sanika speak fondly about their “podcast mom,” the creator of Hong Kong-based #impact, Regina Larko. After speaking to Regina at a podcast festival the pair were inspired to start their own. “It’s really not that hard with technology today,” the pair shared that anyone can start a podcast with their phone and internet access. They also advised doing more research and finding a distribution website to put your podcast on different platforms.
Starting and running a podcast requires a lot of discipline, especially when balanced with full time studies. Kawal and Sanika described the number of behind the scenes work that goes unseen by podcast listeners, including arranging recording venues, handling the technical side of recording and editing, soundproofing and avoiding white noise, etc. The importance of being present in everything shows in the two-season long podcast. Aside from the technical aspect there is also marketing and promotion of the podcast, and the pair stress how being present in every aspect of Roadside Rumours leads to a rewarding final product.
The most satisfying part of their podcast
“The most satisfying part of doing a podcast is talking to the guests and being so impressed with the people that spoke. We’ve had a domestic helper and a transgender woman on the podcast and every time we talk with these people and listen to their stories, it was really satisfying. Being able to just get to learn so much from every guest and then helping the audience also learn from all these stories is so important,” Kawal and Sanika share.
What’s next for Roadside Rumours?
Kawal and Sanika will be continuing Roadside Rumours even after graduation from university. It is a meaningful project close to their hearts, and now holds a lasting impact in the community. The pair might also look into live and online podcast sessions to combat Covid restrictions and reach a wider audience.
Roadside Rumours will also be working on an upcoming documentary raising awareness about mental health and minorities in Hong Kong. As two people of colour in Hong Kong, Kawal and Sanika have had many experiences and discussions about this, and will be bringing these issues to the public. A couple of months ago, multiple publications in the city released articles about how Southeast Asians were spreading Covid-19 in the city due to their eating habits. Based on unfounded evidence and explicitly targeting minorities in Hong Kong, there was much controversy surrounding these publications. Motivated by this prejudice and its negative impacts on the community, a single podcast would not be enough for Kawal and Sanika to speak their voices on the matter.
Kawal and Sanika share that unfortunately, this is just one example of the prejudice that many minorities face. This will affect people’s mental health and have repercussions on many vulnerable people. Despite many ethnic minorities being born and raised in Hong Kong, there are still many instances of prejudice throughout a person’s lifetime living in the city. Their documentary will feature people from different generations and stages of their lives speaking to these experiences and its impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.
In 2019 Kawal and Sanika also went to a remote part of India, Ahmednagar, where they volunteered for a summer with women and children that have been abandoned. “In India, there is a huge issue with women that face mental illnesses that just get abandoned on the streets. And it’s not women from a particular social strata, it can happen to anyone.” Mauli, the organisation they volunteered with was run by two doctors and is a home for over 200 women and children. All of these children were born out of rape. In India doctors will refuse to take these people in and there is no help for them until police arrive, but they are not as equipped as medical professionals to help these women and children. “This is a story that’s really close to our hearts and this is something that we want to raise awareness about because it’s not something that people talk about and, often these kinds of things are just seen as too much or ugly, and people just look away people don’t want to see,” they share.
Kawal and Sanika have already found some individuals to speak in their documentary, and are reaching out to local nonprofit organisations and filmmakers to help them give a voice to these stories. They will also be working closely with Hong Kong’s first Indian social worker, Jeffrey Andrews, and a retired journalist.