Saturday, February 21, 2009
Khoun Community Radio in Laos
The second community media center that I visited in Laos was in a little town in one of the poorest, most heavily bombed provinces by US forces during the Viet Nam War. Khoun Community Radio is the first experiment of its kind in Laos - a place where all the programming is authored and produced by local people. Much like the community media centers where I have worked, there are classes for the volunteer program producers and outreach to get more programmers.
Unlike our media center in Palo Alto, California, the programmers are mostly from the Hmong, Khmu, Lasu, and Laolum tribes that make up the town and nearby villages. Each tribe speaks a different language and has its own religious practices and musical roots. So the programming day is divided by tribe and language. There are more programmers in the dry season when the rice-dominated agricultural season is in hiatus.
The station started operating in October, 2007 with funding from the UN Development office and the creative energies of Xaisongkham, the only paid staffperson. Xai, a handsome twenty-something came on board in 2006 to develop policies, curriculums, and community relations. Unlike in Palo Alto, one of his first jobs was to get the area cleared of unexploded cluster bombs that are just under the ground before the three-room building could be constructed. They are up to 7.5 hours per day of programming - including lots of live call-in shows mixing music and talk, and pre-recorded/edited shows that cover community happenings. Call-ins are frequently for song dedications, but are sometimes about matters like a lost buffalo. There is no internet in Khoun City, so the radio is a much more important social networking tool. You can see the low-power transmitter at the top of a nearby mountain. It's powered by a solar panel.
Just like our U.S. public access media centers, Khoun Community Radio grapples with the need for ongoing funding and offers short public service announcements to local businesses. Unlike our centers, some fees get paid in rice. Unlike our centers which were established by Congress to provide a forum for free speech (though the law falls short of some free speech guarantees), in Laos, the formerly Communist Pathet Lao government keeps a wary eye on the program content. Programmers know not to criticize the government and are told not to speak badly of any other tribe or religion. An official from the Ministry of Information sits on the Board of Directors.
Xai will soon be leaving Khoun Community Radio for a grad school program in Australia for which he was awarded a scholarship. His replacement will be Soukkhy, a young woman who moved into Khoun City's only guesthouse on the day of my visit. Soukkhy confided how nervous she is about trying to fill Xai's shoes. She has no I-T background and was working at a privately owned mining company. After six happy years there, she just felt she wanted to do something new and something for community development. Xai will train her, and with her quick wit and intelligence, she will be an excellent successor, but that day she was facing a very unknown future without any friends nearby, and she expressed her doubts to me. I told her of numerous station directors I've known in the U.S. who came to it without a tech background and who built thriving community media centers.
With college educated activists like herself and Xai starting to run programs like this one, the older Ministry of Information and Culture officials and the government as a whole are destined for some profound changes as well in the coming years.