Radiolab took on allkpop vs. Ailee and Korean paparazzi culture but I’m not sure how to feel

One of the most listened to, renowned, and dynamic podcasts around right now just made an episode about K-pop.

In my real job, (and part of the reason Beyond Hallyu has been a little neglected lately) I am a radio journalist and, in my spare time, I am also a massive radio and podcast geek with my iTunes constantly updating with dozens of feeds. So you can understand why I might be a little excited by this.

Radiolab – an American public radio show produced by New York radio station WNYC – covers a broad range of topics from science and technology and more recently, social science as well as media and social phenomena. A few weeks ago, they looked at how reporting on candidate’s personal and sexual lives during US election campaigns changed suddenly in the late 1980s and the impact that has had on politics and public life. In the last episode, the hosts mentioned the next show would cover similar ground from a different angle.

The topic? The advent of paparazzi in Korea, Dispatch and the Ailee-allkpop scandal. Naturally.

You can hear the full thing here:

It was strange to hear familiar names like AJ (a.k.a Noona) from Soompi and Lesley from Seoulbeats making appearances.

The episode digs into the creation of Dispatch and the start of western style paparazzi with the big Jonghyun and Shin Se-kyung dating revelation of 2010 looking at how it was driven by the aspirations of a small group of journalists. It’s an interesting look into a media organisation which – for all its faults and questionable ethics – is much more intriguing and ground-breaking than many of its bigger, most established counterparts.

It also confirmed my sneaking suspicions that some of these entertainment journalists that investigate celebrities’ love lives would rather be investigating government and corporate wrongdoing but are too worried about the potential consequences. Korea’s legal and political climate of  shutting down unwanted accusations through criminal libel allegations and enforcing overzealous security laws supposedly aimed at protecting the country from North Korea are not conducive to good investigative journalism.

So as a result people’s private lives get invaded and abuses of power inevitably don’t come to light. A sad state of affairs, really.

Speaking of sad states of affairs, the reporter then moves on to the time allkpop tried to destroy Ailee’s career for what? Clicks? Revenge? The lulz? None of us really know even now.

Listening to an outsider’s perspective on Korean media culture up to this point was entertaining but seeing this particular series of events from an outside lens was, frankly, bizarre.

It’s still weird that this chain of events ever actually took place. It’s weird that the biggest K-pop English-language news website published naked pictures of the Vice President’s ex-girlfriend. It’s weird that this podcast never mentioned that he was Ailee’s ex-boyfriend. It’s weird that they never mentioned that he admitted to trying to sell Dispatch the photos (even if he says he did not leak them to allkpop). It’s weird that we, little old Beyond Hallyu, were mentioned in passing as “a competitor who launched a boycott” against allkpop. It’s weird that anyone could ever conceive of us as in any way competing with them (even if it’s just for the sake of a narrative).

But the most unbelievable moment was when a considerable chunk of the story about the backlash against allkpop was told by the editor of Soompi – as if she had no stake in sharing the story of the site’s supposed downfall.

I mean, as someone who is never going to be invited to an allkpop Christmas party (and is not exactly looking for an invite, thank you very much), AJ Park’s “I mean I don’t really follow them nowadays but they never seem to have recovered” was glorious. It was shade of levels rarely heard on serious talk radio.

But it was misleading for the producers to never mention the fact they are long time arch rivals.

And the most frustrating part is it’s not true. As much as I hate to say it, allkpop have mostly recovered. They still get plenty of traffic and I’m sure some K-pop fans turning against Koreaboo recently has probably helped that.

K-pop fans have short memories and a lot of Koreans turned against allkpop for their supposed pro-Japanese, Korea-hating ways, not their unethical journalism.

As much as I wanted to love this and as well constructed and told as the story was, the narrative that came out of the end was just wrong. Sports Seoul and Dispatch may have been the start of western-style paparazzi in Korea but they were hardly the start of gossip or scandals. Long before Ailee was on the radar, Ivy and Baek Ji-young both had their careers nearly destroyed by sex tapes – which, in one case, may never have existed and, in the other, was taped by a later convicted criminal.

The podcast wanted to tell the story of a country that was suddenly exposed to being able to peek into darker aspects of stars’ private lives and chose not to. Choosing instead to stand by women who have been exposed unwillingly. That this was a brand new phenomenon which the public stopped in its tracks.

I don’t know which country this is but it’s not Korea. Although many people did do that in Ailee’s case, it’s simply wrong to argue that this was somehow the first time stars’ dirty laundry had been aired in public and that the Korean public had chosen on mass to ignore it and stand in solidarity with the victim.

The crux of the show came down to a discussion about whether Korean entertainment journalism will end up like the West (and therefore bad) or different (and therefore good). But what if the reality is more complicated? What if it’s neither? The Ailee scandal highlighted much of the best and the worst of the Korean public discourse and the international fandom. A lot of people stood up for Ailee but a significant number also blamed her and more have since whenever she ever dares to bring up what happened again. A lot of the criticism aimed at allkpop was xenophobic and many K-pop fans didn’t even have the willpower to stick out a boycott beyond 3 days.

And don’t be fooled. A whole lot of people clicked on those pictures. And if it happened tomorrow, they’d do it again.

So it’s complicated. Will Korea’s entertainment journalism ever be the same as the US? No but things in Korea rarely are although they may seem it at first glance. But that doesn’t make it better or that Koreans are somehow immune to the draw of voyeurism. I understand the producers’ ultimate aims were to hold up a mirror for its US audience but it lost a lot of the nuance of the Korean situation in the process.

I really wanted to enjoy this because Radiolab is a great show, and at first I did, but although it was well constructed the ending rang hollow with me.

But that shade though. That was a thing of beauty.

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  • Theresa

    “many K-pop fans didn’t even have the willpower to stick out a boycott beyond 3 days.”
    Sadly, true.
    There should be a K-pop newbie introduction course on which sites to visit, which to avoid.

  • Dj Muenchen

    Thank you!!! I am relatively new to the Kpop scene, thus the Ailee scandal was something I had not come across. That story in and of itself was fascinating. I could not put my finger as to why Radiolab’s piece left me cold, thinking they were almost working backwards to fit the demands of the narrative. Your article proved my assumptions were correct. As a Radiolab/Podcast junkie, it makes you wonder how often this occurs with the general public being none the wiser.

  • Ashley Janit

    “It’s weird that this podcast never mentioned that he was Ailee’s ex-boyfriend. It’s weird that they never mentioned that he admitted to trying to sell Dispatch the photos (even if he says he did not leak them to allkpop).”

    Did you even listen to the podcast? This was ALL INCLUDED information. Such a useless article about nothing.

    • Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

      You can’t take out the previous sentence which gives the whole context to the two sentences you quoted and then say they’re wrong. The point wasn’t that it was her ex-boyfriend that tried to sell the pictures, the point was that that ex-boyfriend was allkpop’s VP which is not even alluded to in the episode. Kind of a key detail.

  • Taintedmemory

    thank you for this article
    i was so excited about radiolab because i am a huge fan of “this american life” but, yea it was pretty disappointing, i think it also has to do with the fact that being a fan of korean culture music everything it changes your perceptive a bit at least for me, so when any radio show covers korea i have high expectations, maybe i am the fool to think that people would really research before presenting this type of information.
    thanks again, i’m glad someone else saw the problems.