Behind-the-Scenes of Overhead’s Second Episode

National Geographic’s podcast, Overheard at National Geographic, is currently in its sixth season. Each weekly episode takes listeners behind the conversations overheard at Nat Geo headquarters, Zooms and Slack chats, as editors plan stories with explorers and scientists, photographers and journalists all over the world.

The second episode of Overheard’s sixth season, “Camping on Sea Ice with Whale Hunters,” will be released on Tuesday, May 11, during Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

This episode features National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan, who has ancestry that is both Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American. Yuyan has traveled across the polar regions working with Indigenous cultures and wildlife.

This episode focuses on the Inupiat hunters who camp on the sea ice north of the Arctic Circle every spring in hopes of capturing a bowhead whale to share with their village. But as global warming accelerates ice melt, it threatens the tribe’s 4,000-year-old tradition. In this episode, Kiliii recounts the five years he spent documenting these whale hunters, including one harrowing experience when the sea ice groaned—and then collapsed underneath them.

This episode was produced by Overheard team members including senior editor Eli Chen, audio producer Laura Sim, and sound designer, mixer and composer Hansdale Hsu.

[Left to Right]: Eli ChenLaura Sim and Hansdale Hsu

How did you end up working in podcasts?

I fell in love with podcasts the summer after I graduated from college, when my boyfriend at the time broke up with me and I severely needed a distraction. I decided to try listening to podcasts for the first time and ended up binge-listening to ‘This American Life.’ The stories were so intimate and compelling that I decided that this was the medium I wanted to work in. I’ve been a science journalist for about a decade. I always looked forward to getting out into the field with my microphone to follow scientists. So naturally I came to Nat Geo to work on audio stories that encourage us to become more curious about this bizarre and weird world we live in. 


The radio was always on around my house. Radio Korea (the AM Korean radio station in Los Angeles) was always playing in my mother’s kitchen while she cooked. By the time I started thinking about what to do after college, I’d already tried so many internships, and what connected all of these gigs was that I was always listening to podcasts and public radio on the job. So I thought, why not try making audio stories myself? I also have to give my high school best friend Isabelle a proper nod here – she grew up listening to ‘This American Life’ – and when she first told me about the program, I fell into a rabbit hole that I haven’t cared to jump out of since. 


I studied music at Wesleyan University and Music Technology at NYU.  I worked as an engineer recording and mixing music in New York for several years after graduate school.  I wanted to branch out into sound design and post-production. I was fortunate to get connected with people in the podcast world, initially writing theme songs. That further developed into scoring podcasts and providing sound design and dialogue edit/mix.


Why is Episode 2 with Kilii Yuyan important to you? How is this episode different from other Overheard episodes? 

While Overheard has had episodes about climate change and photographer adventures, I thought it was really compelling how Kiliii Yuyan’s Nanai (native to Siberia) ancestry informs how he shares stories about indigenous communities. Journalists are often taught to be objective and to just be observant of what they’re documenting, but in my own experiences as a reporter, who you are often gets wrapped up in the story you’re telling, and that’s something we tried to get across in this episode. 


As a Korean-American whose ancestry can be traced back all the way to Korea, China, and Mongolia, it’s fascinating to see faces that are so similar to mine in the Arctic, but whose lives cannot be more different. I’m amazed by how many places in the world where Asian people live and all the different conditions in which we’ve strived. 


The part of Kiliii’s own heritage really resonated with me and made me think about where my ancestors might have originated. If I could trace my lineage back, where would it take me?  I also think this episode really highlights how climate change has an inescapable impact on the way indigenous people live in the Northern Alaska.


How did Episode 2 come to be?

I heard about Kiliii Yuyan through one of the magazine’s editors when I was asking around for stories involving nature and indigenous people. And upon looking at Kiliii’s portfolio, which mentioned how he once escaped collapsing sea ice and weathered botulism from fermented whale’s blood, I thought that we absolutely had to have him on Overheard. When we had our first conversation, I was really taken by the stories he shared about the Arctic, his thoughts on telling stories about indigenous communities and also his incredibly kind personality, so I booked him for an interview on the spot. 


This was a story idea that came from our senior editor Eli Chen, who’s been a science reporter for a decade. She had heard about a NGS grantee and photographer named Kiliii Yuyan, who had spent an extensive – and almost unheard of – amount of time with Inupiat whale hunters in Arctic Alaska. She thought it’d make a great story, and turns out, she was right! 


I’ve been with Overheard since the beginning! It’s been a great experience and I’m always learning something new. As the team has grown, we’ve divided up the sound design/mix work, but I was so happy I got to work on this episode.


What do you hope listeners take away from this episode?

I hope that our audience understands why whale hunting is such an important tradition for the Inupiaq community and that because of their strong relationship with bowhead whales, the group is key to conserving these animals. And through Kiliii’s stories, I also want our audience to see how much climate change has impacted life for people who live in the Arctic, given that they have to keep an eye out for collapsing sea ice and defend themselves from starving polar bears.


The majority of our listeners may never have the opportunity to visit the Arctic. It can seem like such a faraway, barren place void of happenings. Even as I was producing this episode, it was at times hard for me to wrap my head around the lives of the people who live there. But the more that I learned, the more I started to admire the qualities of the Inupiat people – traits like resilience, resourcefulness, appreciation for the natural world, and honestly, just having a bigger perspective on this thing we call life. Then I learned just how dramatically the Inupiats’ way of life is changing because of climate change. I know we’ve all heard about glaciers melting at this point, but for these people, this is the land they live on. Plus, these are folks who have been hunting whales for 4,000 years – that means the length of the entire history of the United States is just six percent of that! 


I hope listeners can begin to understand that sometimes conservation is multi-faceted.  This story involves the conservation of a way of life as well as the conservation of a whale species.  They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  I will admit my first reaction was similar to what Kiliii describes as “oh my how can they kill whales?” but upon spending time with the story and listening, it changed my view.


What excites you about your work at Nat Geo?

I’ve dreamed of working at Nat Geo since I was a teenager, so that I could get to tell stories about people who explore far-flung places and make amazing discoveries that change our lives. As senior editor of the podcast, I also heavily influence who we hear those stories from, and I’m always excited about uplifting the voices of people who historically have not been the space to do so. I’ve learned so much from the photographers and explorers of color we’ve featured in the last two seasons, and I believe we’re better people when we hear experiences of those who are very different from us. 


There is no such thing as a story that is too global or too far-reaching. The stories I’ve produced have come from school children in Kashmir, scuba divers in West Africa, and circus performers from Guatemala. But as different as these people may seem, I’ve found they share more in common than what seems to divide them – and that is the universal human yearning to find love in their communities and have a sense of stability in their daily lives. In the near future, I’m especially looking to produce more stories about East Asia, specifically stories from the Korean peninsula. As a Korean, I know a woefully small amount about the country my family comes from and its past, and what better way to do that than at Nat Geo?  


I remember flipping through the stacks of Nat Geo magazines my mom would get and marveling at how vast our planet truly is. I’m just excited to be a part of it and use my skills to tell these stories.


What aspect of your Asian-American identity are you most proud of?

When Kiliii spoke about his parents fleeing the Communist Revolution in China, I was immediately reminded of my father, whose family also left China during that time for Taiwan. He later left Taiwan for Chicago, where he worked hard to become an engineer and later raised me and my sister with my mother. Migrating and adapting to new cultures isn’t an easy process and I’ve always been proud of how my family has persevered over many years to build better lives for ourselves.


I’m proud to be the granddaughter of Korean small business owners in South Central, Los Angeles. For more than 20 years, my grandparents have owned and operated a small mom-and-pop jewelry store. My grandma sells the jewelry, and my grandpa does the repairs. They have never hired an employee, except my mom. Back in ‘92, they were hit hard by the LA Riots. They were just a stand in a swap meet, and my grandpa tells the story of how so much of their merchandise was looted that you could see gold bracelets littering the path from the store to the parking lot, almost like golden breadcrumbs. Truthfully, conditions haven’t gotten much easier since then, with racial and financial inequities contributing to a lot of community anxiety. But since the pandemic, I’ve been back in Los Angeles and I help them out as much as I can. (Catch me at 3916 Rosecrans Ave on Saturdays!) My grandparents and parents are the hardest-working people I know. If they didn’t shoulder the burdens they did, I wouldn’t have the very precious gift of exploring the whole world with Nat Geo. Thanks grandma, grandpa, mom, and dad. I love you. 


I often think about my parents immigrating to Nashville, Tennessee from Taiwan in the 1970s and how much of a culture shock it must have been.  They were able to make a life for themselves, starting a successful Chinese restaurant, having three kids and eventually moving to California.  I’m proud of the way they were able to do something so bold while still maintaining a sense of where they came from.  That probably comes through the most in food and recipes my mom has passed along to me.


Overheard is available now on National Geographic Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, iHeart RadioGoogle PodcastsCastbox and wherever podcasts are found.