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a headshot of Boen Wang

Boen Wang

New Voices '22

Tell us about yourself:

I grew up in Bryn Mawr, PA and went to college at Penn State, where I spent two misguided years as an engineering major. I was also writing for the student newspaper and doing a minor in English, so in my junior year I decided to just go for it and switched my major to English. During summers I also did (unpaid) freelance stuff, like writing video game reviews where I was paid in digital copies of the video games I reviewed. (This should be obvious, but please don’t be like me and never work for free).

I graduated in 2017 and spent my post-grad years in the wilderness of un(der)employment. Some jobs I held: ESL teacher in China, standardized test grader (the handwritten essay portions can’t be automated, which is where I came in), literacy tutor, and the world’s worst waiter (I lasted for three days and quit after I got no tip on a $100 order (although to be fair, I dropped their food and served it to them anyway)).

In 2019, I entered the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program in creative writing. I went in with the intention of doing longform, magazine-style journalism, but in the spring of 2020 I took a podcast class taught by a wonderful professor named Erin Anderson. She assigned a bunch of weird, experimental stuff that made me much more excited about storytelling in audio form than just plain text. So I switched to audio and never looked back.

A piece of yours or project (in any medium) that you'd like to share.

The piece I made that’s gotten the most recognition is called “Infinities.” It’s about a mental health crisis I experienced while at work. I made it as a class assignment for a nonfiction writing workshop in the spring of 2020 (the same semester I took Professor Anderson’s class). I submitted it to the Third Coast festival that year on a lark, and it ended up winning the “Best New Artist” award. Since then, it’s also been broadcast on KCRW’s Bodies and WNYC’s Radiolab, where I recently interned. (Also! My wonderful partner Grace Gilbert created the episode art. I met them at Pitt and they’re a super talented poet and visual artist.)

I’m also proud of a piece of longform journalism I wrote (also as a class assignment) called “The Twenty-First Chromosome.” It’s about a doctor at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh who believes Down syndrome is a gift from God. I know I was just talking about how I find audio more exciting than writing, but having spent the past two years dipping my toes into the audio world, I’ve realized that I actually do really love plain ol’ writing and would like to do it more.

What draws you to storytelling?

I dunno. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up and spent a lot of time at the library, borrowing books/DVDs and reading/watching them by myself. I guess I grew up more in the company of stories than people. It sounds sad when I put it that way, but what’re you gonna do. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What excites you the most about being a New Voices Scholar?

I’ve been paired with an awesome mentor, Jed Kim, who I’ve had really great conversations with about my career, interests, and the audio industry as a whole. As someone who’s still starting out, I really appreciate the opportunity to be mentored by someone who’s been in The IndustryTM for a while, and who can give me all sorts of insights/tips/juicy gossip.

What’s playing on your radio/audio streaming service right now?

Like everyone else, I’ve been listening to You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase. With chat-based shows it’s all about the banter between co-hosts, which both shows excel at. And I’ve also been listening to the Asian-American political podcast Time To Say Goodbye, which similarly has a wonderful hang-out-and-chat vibe with the hosts.

In terms of narrative shows, a recent standout has been 9/12, about the lingering aftereffects of 9/11 and the way it’s shaped our politics/culture/lives. Each episode takes a different theme (“9/11 and Fear,” “9/11 & Humor”) and tells discrete, essayistic stories about people caught in the event’s wake: the staff at The Onion attempting to make jokes about 9/11 a few days after it happened, an amateur filmmaker who created the first 9/11 truther documentary, and so on. It’s also produced by Courtney Harrell, a fellow Pitt MFA grad.

What’s the most underrated tool (technical or not) that you use in your creative process?

Going on walks. If I’ve been staring at a blank screen for too long, going on a walk tends to give me perspective on whatever it is I’m working on. And I also get to chat with my partner, who always gives really great feedback/advice.

What is something you want to see more of in the industry?

More weirdos making weird stuff. Someone in the audio industry once told me they feel a bit like an assembly line worker, rubber stamping a piece of content and sending it down the line, making stories that all kinda feel and sound the same. I keep reading about the glut of money flooding the industry, with Spotify and Amazon and other tech giants snapping up high-profile shows and production companies, but I’m confident that there will always be weirdos with no money but lots of ideas making strange, kooky stuff.

A friend and I went to the Asian American International Film Festival last month and saw a movie called Therapy Dogs. Two Canadian high schoolers accumulated a bunch of footage during their senior year—setting off fireworks on the roof of their school, breaking into abandoned buildings, asking strippers out to prom—and edited it into this unclassifiable, hilarious, and unexpectedly moving film. Walking out of the theater, my friend remarked that you can moan all you want about the Marvelization of Hollywood and “the death of cinema,” but there’ll always be underground, weirdo art like Therapy Dogs. The trick is to seek out the weirdos (who often aren’t cis/het/white/men) and give them the resources and platform they need to keep making weird shit.

Who/What are your radio/audio inspirations and why?

Sharon Mashihi and Scott Carrier. I shamelessly stole the structure of Mashihi’s “Man Choubam” when making “Infinities.” And I did my best impression of Carrier’s sharp yet understated voice when writing the script.

Anything else you'd like to add?


Follow Boen's work at his website, Twitter and LinkedIn.