(Contributed photos above from Ben Severance)
Less than five months into Megan Tan’s foray into podcasting, she’s captured the hearts of thousands of listeners and the rapt attention of new media critics. The 24-year-old Portland resident has been called “the voice of a generation” by podcast analysis site The Timbre as well as “insightful” and “consistently engaging” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning British newspaper The Guardian.
In case you need more evidence of Tan’s explosion onto the scene, Alex Kapelman, one of the producers of the popular music podcast Pitch, raved that she’s “a budding superstar — she’s brilliant, talented and ambitious.” Dana Gerber-Margie of The Audio Signal newsletter said she binge-listened to the first four episodes of Tan’s podcast and “increasingly felt a stronger attachment to the host.”
So what’s the program that has vaulted Tan into new media stardom? It’s called Millennial, and it’s about living life as part of that generation, whose members are now in their 20s and early 30s.
Tan wrestles with life after graduation from Western Kentucky University and trying to find her place in the world. But now that people from around the globe are raving about her podcast, has she found it?
I interviewed Tan at Hilltop Coffee Tuesday afternoon, and discovered that becoming “Internet famous” is complicated. She didn’t become Jennifer Lawrence — i.e., instantly recognizable everywhere she goes and free from all financial stresses.
Here are five things I learned about the rise to Internet celebrity from talking with Megan:
1. You have an audience, but not much else changes.
“I still come home smelling like grease,” said Tan, who works as a server at the restaurant Local 188. “It feels like nothing has changed.”
Even though her podcast has taken off, she still looks for internships or jobs in her chosen field — audio storytelling — while waiting tables to make ends meet. Nobody approaches her on the street to get her autograph or take selfies with her (yet, anyway), although she does get fan mail from as far away as New Zealand.
2. The attention isn’t always positive attention.
While podcasters and new media critics have lauded Millennial, Tan said she still needs to have a thick skin.
“With more people [listening], you’re going to get more opinions, and haters are going to hate. … They’re like, ‘Why are you talking about this? Nobody cares.'”
And baring your soul in a podcast for anyone to hear can have its disadvantages.
“I’ve gone into job interviews where people say, ‘Oh, I listen to Millennial.’ And I’m [wincing], ‘Ooh, what episode are you on? Have you heard me cry?'”
3. Reaching Internet stardom has a lot to do with your timing.
“I do think there’s a lot of luck in projects like this,” she said. “You have to be working hard, but you have to have some luck, just like with anything.”
In college, Tan interned with the WNYC audio program Radiolab in New York, where she learned a lot about making compelling podcasts and was plugged into a strong network of podcasters at a time when the medium was starting to take off in popularity.
“A lot of it is timing. A lot of people are into serialized podcasts. I had friends who became kind of ‘YouTube Internet famous,’ and I asked them about it, and they said, it’s all about timing.'”
4. You can’t completely embrace being an Internet celebrity, or you lose it.
Tan called all her recent acclaim “very humbling.”
“I don’t consider myself the ‘voice of a generation,'” she said. “I’m just being me. I’m not seeking to represent a whole generation.”
That’s good, because the moment she starts strutting around Portland proclaiming to be the spokesperson for all millennials, she’ll have lost that voice that so endeared her to folks like Kaperman and Gerber-Margie.
“When people try to become something other people want them to be, they lose the essence of what got them there,” Tan said. “[Internet success] can come quickly, and it can go away just as quickly.”
5. Niche audiences are good, but universality is better.
Despite the title of her podcast, Megan Tan’s narrative is one people of any age can relate to.
“When I talked to my mom, who’s retired now and trying to start the next phase of her life, she said, ‘The things you’re talking about on your podcast, I’m going through those exact same things,'” Tan recalled.
Megan’s search for her place in the world is one that could resonate with people who are between careers or just soul searching.
“I think a lot of people go through this period when they’re feeling like this anonymous person, but nobody documents it,” she said. “I wanted to document it.”