In Conversation with MOONFACE’s James Kim

MOONFACE Podcast James Kim

James Kim loves podcasts. So much so, in fact, that he regularly sacrifices sleep in order to make them. Over the last few years, in addition to holding staff production roles at Radiotopia, KPCC, and now Gimlet, Kim has made a number of independent podcasts, working nights and weekends to bring them to fruition. These include The Hiss, a limited-run series of stories based on surreal real-life experiences, and The Competition, which in its most recent season covered the Mr. Los Angeles Leather contest.

Kim’s latest show is MOONFACE, and it’s his most personal project yet. On the six-episode fiction podcast, we follow Paul (Joel Kim Booster), a Korean American in his twenties who’s living at home and struggling to come out to his mother (Esther Moon), who doesn’t speak much English. Set to pristine sound design and a soundtrack that includes music from Big Thief and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, MOONFACE brims with joy and pain in equal measure, as we navigate Paul’s dreams of working in radio and his difficulties maintaining an honest relationship with his mother. There’s much to savor in this series, from excellent dialogue to touching meditations on what it means to lose one’s native language. To my mind, it’s certainly one of the best podcasts of the year.

In the following conversation, I spoke with Kim about how he got his start in radio, how he manages to make podcasts on top of his day job, and why he hopes MOONFACE will inspire creators to tell stories of their own.

First off, can you tell me how you got into radio and podcasting?

I have a bit of a weird background. I went to school for anthropology, but I also had interests in music and filmmaking, so I minored in both. When I graduated, the only thing that came to mind was to make documentary films. So I interned at a place called Current TV but, for a number of reasons, I was just not enjoying it.

When that internship was ending, a woman there suggested I try public radio. She forwarded me this internship at KPCC for a show called Off-Ramp, hosted by John Rabe. It’s no longer on air, but it was this weekend, magazine-style news show. Before then, I had never listened to public radio. Growing up, my parents listened to Korean radio and I would listen to KISS FM; I actually didn’t know what NPR or KPCC were. But I gave it a shot and luckily they took me in.

At Off-Ramp, I was making these four-minute news stories, local pieces, but the great thing about the show was that they let you run free. The first day they just handed me a kit and said go record something and then come back and make a story. That freedom got me excited and I really just fell in love. Suddenly the interview techniques that I’d learned in documentary filmmaking, the music techniques I’d learned from taking sound design courses, and my interest in anthropology, you know, being curious about different people from different backgrounds, it all melded into one. I essentially ran from there and said, OK, I’m going to do another internship.

So next, I did one at a national radio show called Dinner Party Download; I was actually doing two internships at the time. I was in my early 20s and just going kind of crazy. When those internships ended, it was time to find a job. And…I could not. I remember applying everywhere, to places in the Midwest for general reporter assignments, all kinds of things — and nobody would hire me.

When was this, about 20—?

This was in 2013. By January of that year, I had been looking for a job for about three months and I just decided I had to give up. A friend of mine, she was working for this reality TV production company and they were looking for people to look over legal work, documenting signatures and that type of stuff. I thought, well, this job will pay me. I did that for about six months. Funnily enough, I made my way up and became a writer there. But again, I just knew it wasn’t for me.

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The good thing was, while I had this job looking over paperwork, I could listen to whatever I wanted. I started to listen to more podcasts, and that’s when I discovered like shows like Love and Radio and a show from Australia called Paper Radio. This was in 2014, and I told myself I was going to give it one more shot. And if I didn’t make it, like if I didn’t get a job, then I’d quit radio entirely. It was around then that my friend told me about this small radio station in Marfa, a town of two thousand people in the middle of West Texas. To me, that sounded amazing.

So, I took a six-month internship there, and I remember I had this game plan. I said I’m going to make a radio show. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to go and do it, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m done.

What was the station in Marfa like?

The station only had about four people working full time. They needed anybody and everybody to be making content. Soon after I arrived it became apparent really quickly that everyone there believed in spooky, kind of supernatural stuff. So, I thought it would be really cool to make a documentary-style, supernatural storytelling show in audio form, because the scariest thing is when you have to imagine these things for yourself.

I was excited to do the sound design for this show and to score it, too. And because everyone around really believed in this stuff, we had all these interview subjects. I made two episodes and the general manager there was like, “Oh, man, this is really cool.” There were three other interns at the time. One guy brought his whole recording kit and then the other two wanted to be reporters. I said, OK, let’s just band together and make this. The show was called There’s Something Out There and it was great because everything we did for it, we did from scratch. At the time, it stood out as this highly produced show and people were like, “Whoa, what is this?”

I sent it over Lea Thau, who hosted Strangers over at Radiotopia, and right as my internship in Marfa was ending, she said, “Why don’t you come work for me?” Everything was a bit of roller coaster ride after that.

And from there you came back to L.A.?

Yeah, so that was the summer of 2014. I came back to L.A. and immediately started working as a production assistant on Strangers. And then on top of that I was filling in at Marketplace as a producer. I had a friend who recommended me there, and then I had another friend at KPCC who said they needed someone for their show AirTalk. All of a sudden, I had three jobs that I was juggling. It was kind of insane. The secret to it was that early on I had made all of these relationships with people when they were interns or just production assistants. By the time I came back, everyone had accelerated in their careers and were able to help me out.

Wow. And during that time, you were also making your own podcasts?

Yeah, in between that time I’d started making a few independent podcasts, because I guess I just don’t stop working. I’ve been doing that on top of my job for maybe the past four or five years now.

So MOONFACE is not your first independent project. How do you find the time to produce these projects on top of your job?

It’s all about being efficient at work, making sure that I meet my deadlines and that I leave on time. It’s also about reserving sleep for the weekends, and on the weeknights just being comfortable working until two in the morning. So, I just don’t sleep. It’s a bad model, but I love this medium too much, I love creating too much. But now after making MOONFACE, I think I’ll give myself a bit of a break.

You definitely deserve it. But yes, let’s talk about MOONFACE. When did the idea for it first come to you? When did you start working on it?

It’s been baking for quite some time. My idea for MOONFACE came right around the time Homecoming was first announced, around November of 2016. Earlier that year, I had an idea of stepping into the fiction space. There’s this thing called NPR Story Lab, which had just started then, and there was this guy Jed Kim — I really have to give him credit — and he wanted to make a fiction show and submit it.

I told him, dude, NPR isn’t going to take a fiction show. The only way NPR would take a fiction show is if it’s somehow rooted in a real-life experience or if it’s newsy. We worked through ideas and I was like, you know, why don’t we make a fiction show that’s rooted in a real life. If a show like The Moth can exist, then a fiction show that’s rooted in reality can exist too. So that’s essentially where it started. I thought, OK, I don’t know how to write and I’ve never written a screenplay in my entire life, so I’m just going do this based on something I know.

I really loved the idea of making a show that was just centered around audio, and what better way to do that than to center a show around language. So, I took it from my own experience of not being able to speak to my parents, because my mom doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Korean. I played around with that idea and thought, you know, maybe it’s that this character needs to tell this person something, but they can’t because they don’t speak the same language. And I took inspiration from me being queer, too. Like, OK, maybe I’ll take that and make it the center point: that this person is hiding this very important piece of themselves from someone that they’ve known their entire life. Because they don’t speak the same language; because they don’t have the words for it.

MOONFACE Podcast

(Art for MOONFACE by Chava Sanchez)

I want to ask you more about that. On the podcast, Paul’s mother only speaks Korean. Something I thought about was that, if MOONFACE were a film, the scenes in which she’s speaking likely would have been subtitled. But in the podcast there’s no subtitle stand-in. Was that a conscious decision?

Absolutely, 100 percent. I wanted the listener to have the same experience as the main character. And so, whenever Korean was being used in any scene, I’m assuming there’s going to be a lot of who don’t understand what’s being said, but they’re also experiencing the same thing as Paul in those moments. You know, he can kind of understand it but he’s a little confused, and it’s kind of difficult to maneuver his life with his mom because of it. I wanted it to be really immersive in that regard, and to highlight how difficult it really is for him to build a relationship with his mom when he can’t even speak the language.

They’re very powerful scenes. Was that something you experienced in your own life?

There are a few flashback sequences that are spread out throughout the entire series, and I mainly put those there to demonstrate the distance Paul feels from the language. The very first flashback, you hear him speaking Korean and he has no trouble speaking it. Then towards the end, he can’t even say the most simple phrase. That really did come from my own experience. My parents immigrated here in the 80s, and they sacrificed so much for me to be successful and to assimilate here. A part of that was for me to be fully fluent in English. They made that a priority. So, while I was going to school and learning English, I wasn’t taking Korean courses and I made a conscious effort to get rid of my accent. And through that process with me practicing English more and more and not focusing on Korean, I just kind of lost it.

You know, I just wanted to fit in. I just wanted to not be looked at differently, because at school I got teased so much because of it. So I made a conscious effort and my parents did too, but now there’s a regret on both ends. I don’t think they anticipated that I would be losing my language completely. It’s definitely been a struggle. To this day, my mom is learning English and I’ve been learning Korean on and off. I’m still helping my mom, too. I’ll record books for her, so she can listen to them and learn the language better. But still it’s one of those things where I can’t really have those deep conversations with my mom, and I know that she wants to have them.

I know what you mean. My mother is Japanese, and we moved from Japan to the U.S. when I was quite young. I’ve kept my Japanese a bit and my mom’s improved her English over the years, but in neither language can we understand each other as much as would like. It’s not easy.

No, it definitely isn’t.

Well, I now want to ask you about how MOONFACE came together. What’s the process behind making a fiction podcast like this?

I’ll start by saying I made a couple of mistakes. I really wish I’d taken a writing course and I really wish I’d storyboarded everything before I started writing drafts. That’s one of the main reasons why it took so long. But in terms of process, the very first thing is just getting that script complete. I knew I wanted to get actors of a certain caliber. This is a very quiet show; there’s not a lot of sound design and there aren’t a lot of big events that happen, so it relied on the performances. I wanted to make sure that I got really good people for these parts, and I also knew that in order to get those people, I really only had one shot. So, I went in on the script. I probably had about 40 drafts of the first episode, maybe even more than that. My whole goal was that by the time I handed the script off to the actors, it should be completely done and finalized.

But when I started reaching out to people, I actually had a handful of friends I knew who were actors, people who I had went to school with who went onto become successful and get good credits. The big ask, of course, was Joel Kim Booster, who’s been having quite a rise and who I knew was just very busy. My secret there was that when I cold emailed him I was just very honest and personal. I knew his background and I was hoping that he would relate to the show. And then, very quickly, and I was honestly shocked, Joel said yes, I will do this. He was very excited to be a part of the project based off the concept alone, which is really incredibly nice of him. Another important thing was that I wanted pretty much the entire show to be recorded with all the actors in the same room. I wanted it to be honest and real, and to have them react to each other and even improvise a bit.

Frankly, it’s inspiring that you could coordinate all of this for an independent project. Was there anything you learned while making MOONFACE that you think could help those making their own podcasts?

I would say that people shouldn’t be afraid of being ambitious. I mean, people often stop themselves whenever there’s a hurdle they don’t think they can cross or jump over. This show required 30 different actors, a sound designer, and a composer who could all commit to it. Every step along the way, I just told myself, this is not an impossible feat. That’s what really helped for me. And, also, give yourself a deadline. You’ll be surprised by how much fear and anxiety can play a part in helping you accomplish something [laughs].

And, I’ve got one last thing to say. When I first started working on this project, it was around the time I was working on that reality entertainment show. I was doing a lot of stories about diversity in Hollywood at the time, and I honestly got fed up with interviewing people who were saying, “Why are there not more people of color, women, queer and non-binary people in this space making something?” Because it felt like nothing was changing.

Well, looking at the podcasting space, I just thought, this is the place to do it. You have so many people constantly being rejected from getting to tell their stories in film and television. But with podcasting, here’s this medium where you can make any show you want. You can set it on Mars or in an office, and everything will cost roughly the same. You can make whatever you dream up. But I just wasn’t seeing those kinds of stories being told. Which is what made me really passionate about making this show. Honestly, I just wanted to see more Asian-American stories out there, and especially ones that didn’t just focus on the Asian-American aspect, but stories that treated us as fully realized human beings. That’s what kept me going on this. There were nights where I wanted to give up, but I just really wanted to see stories like this told. And I’m hoping that this show inspires people to think, you know, maybe I could make a story like this, too.

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Jack Conway is the editor of Podcast Review