FEATURE: Vietnamese turn to Podcast to Break Mainstream Narrative

FEATURE: Vietnamese turn to Podcast to Break Mainstream Narrative

What you need to know

Meet the citizen journalists reshaping how the world and Vietnamese themselves see Vietnam.

When a group of Vietnamese heritage youth were looking for a way to improve the international coverage of Vietnam, podcasting seemed like a natural fit.

The form of course capitalizes on the intimate power of the human voice, and it was exactly that, the voices of the Vietnamese people themselves, that these budding podcasters felt deserved more prominence.

“Within my circle of friends – most of them are Vietnamese - we grew up in our own little world unaffected by what is happening in our motherland,” says Chris Le, a 29-year-old of Vietnamese heritage living in Perth, Australia. “For me, one of my personal drives is getting those stories out from within Vietnam – getting those voices heard so that those like me living in the diaspora are more driven to help those back in Vietnam.”

So in 2015, Le, along with a handful of like-minded volunteers with family ties to Vietnam but living all over the world, started producing a bi-weekly English language podcast covering a broad range of current events in Vietnam, from religious festivals, to challenges in the education system, to government crackdowns on dissidents. Reflecting their goal of amplifying the voices within Vietnam, they called the program Loa, which means “loudspeaker” in Vietnamese.

In many ways, the project is a response to what the group sees as shortcomings in the coverage Vietnam receives from mainstream media. “Vietnam has not been high on the agenda, other than as the ‘rising dragon’ story, so you find a lot of business news and stories about how Vietnam is an emerging country with a lot of dynamism,” explains Giang Nguyen, the group’s editor-in-chief and program director, who has more than 10 years of reporting and production experience at news organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“But underneath all of that you have these severe human rights abuses, these levels of corruption that are quite jarring to the picture that the [Vietnam] government would like you to know, and these underneath-the-surface stories are not being explored.”

Rooted in activism

The volunteers behind Loa all express a commitment to presenting a broad picture of life within Vietnam, but the project does have an avowedly political dimension as well: Loa is backed by Viet Tan (The Vietnam Reform Party), which is an outlawed opposition group in Vietnam advocating for democratic reform and nonviolent political change.

While not everyone producing Loa is a Viet Tan member, it was in fact while working on another Viet Tan project that Loa’s founders first got organized. Nguyen and many of the other founding editors hosted and produced a current events talk show that aired on Viet Tan’s own Vietnamese language radio broadcast, Chan Troi Moi (Radio New Horizon). The show was geared towards a young, Vietnamese-speaking audience but demand from another demographic set them on a different course.

Quyen Ngo, another Loa founding editor with experience in radio, says that while she was helping to produce the show, she received a steady stream of inquiries from friends in the U.S. asking her to explain the latest hot button issue in Vietnam. Making things a bit more complicated though, many young people in the Vietnamese diaspora have stronger English skills than Vietnamese, and she was just not sure where to send them. “There was no website or magazine focused on producing English language content that caters to that need,” she says.

Nguyen and other founding members recognized they were well positioned to bridge this gap and expand beyond the current English language coverage. “We understand the language, we are able to source the news in Vietnamese, we understand the restrictions and the nuances in terms of culture, in terms of language that maybe Western journalists do not,” Nguyen says.

With a network of contacts and willing volunteers already established while working on the show at Chan Troi Moi, they began the migration from Vietnamese broadcasting to English podcasting.

Familiar format

The team of about a dozen volunteers made up of four core editors and a looser group of reporters and contributors is now two years into the project, and just recently released their 64th episode.

Loa employs a format that would be familiar to listeners of National Public Radio or really any source of long form audio journalism: anchors introduce package stories; on-the-scene reporters provide narration; and natural sound, music, and interviews (many of them dubbed) weave together to make the whole program go down easy.

A familiar format yes, but Ngo says that Loa is aiming to provide deeper coverage than can be found elsewhere. She points to a handful of stories she is particularly proud that Loa caught: “Việt Nam's Cyber War,” is an episode that examines Vietnam’s struggle to counter China’s digital onslaught; “The Day the Music Died,” covers rock 'n' roll in Vietnam before the South’s fall in 1975; and “Dissecting Bánh Mì” breaks down the history and flavors of Vietnam’s famous baguette sandwich.

“I have a hard time imagining where those stories would fit in international news outlets,” she says.

Other examples of shows that would also most likely not fit into your regularly scheduled programming include “Sister Two and Brother Six,” a cultural explainer on why many Vietnamese families assign nicknames based on birth order, and “A Pilgrimage to Huế,” which is a deep dive into the religious beliefs that underpin one of the largest spiritual festivals in Vietnam, just to name a few

Then there are the stories that domestic media within Vietnam would likely shy away from due to their politically sensitive nature. “Vietnam's Zombie Movement,” another example that Ngo points to, features interviews with some of the young activists who rallied around a rap song that provocatively - and profanely - criticized state corruption. In fact, anti-government protests and state repression are recurring topics on the podcast.

Reporting with a perspective

While Nguyen affirms Loa’s commitment to accuracy, their focus on dissidents and state restrictions is no accident. “We definitely have a stance, and that stance is for the people, and for democracy,” she says. “People have to understand that Vietnam is a one party country with very rigorous censorship of the media, and of freedom of expression. If there wasn’t this restriction, I wouldn’t be living abroad, I wouldn’t be a journalist - I would probably have done something more fun, like run a Bed & Breakfast in Nha Trang.”

The 2016 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, which ranks countries around the world in terms of press freedom, squares with Nguyen’s assessment, ranking Vietnam in 175th place out of 180 countries. The report also found that mainstream media organizations within the country are heavily influenced by the state and that a number of vaguely defined media restrictions “allow the authorities to gag every kind of dissident.”

Loa’s reporters within Vietnam face dangers as well. One such reporter who works under the pseudonym Jenny Ly explains that Viet Tan has been deemed a terrorist organization by Vietnam’s government, a label that has been disputed by the U.N. and by U.S. officials.

Individuals associated with Viet Tan have been arrested on numerous occasions, and given the risks, Ly tries to keep a low profile. “I also protect the people that I work with and the people I interview,” she says. “I will give them the option to change their name and remove identifying features that could connect to them.”

The harsh media environment makes their on-the-ground reporters and their network of contacts all the more important.

Diverse audience

Loa’s editors say beyond the politics, the reaction from listeners has been gratifying.

“People message in and say ‘Hey, I’ve been listening to your podcast and it’s made me reconnect to my Vietnamese roots, and you did this particular story which I was able to ask my mom or grandma about, and it enabled us to talk properly for the first time in a while,’” says Chris Le, who went on to become Loa’s senior producer, now responsible for editing the show.

Other listener demographics that have written in include expats living within Vietnam looking for more information about the country, and, somewhat surprisingly to the editors, Vietnamese people themselves.

Looking at the analytics, Loa’s editors say that the show has been downloaded in more than 50 countries. The U.S. and Vietnam take the lead in download numbers, but Vietnamese cities are consistently ranked as the top five listener locations, suggesting that there is a strong interest within Vietnam, even among those that do not speak English as their first language.

Citizen journalism

Of course, citizen journalism comes with its challenges. The senior Loa editors dedicate a great deal of time to training volunteers how to write, gather information and voice radio stories. Meanwhile, while the project does receive a small amount of funding from Viet Tan, their work largely relies on the efforts of unpaid volunteers. Then there is the fact that these volunteers may be united by a common cause, but they are scattered across the entire globe: the senior editors themselves live in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan.

Wrangling the whole project together is a daunting task, but Ly, the reporter working within Vietnam, says that she believes it is important for the Vietnamese diaspora to play a role in shaping the narrative of modern Vietnam.

And with the ascendancy of podcasting and other new media technologies, she sees opportunities beyond Vietnam as well. “Loa is still a work in progress but at the same time I think it can be seen as perhaps a model that people can look to create another platform for their causes or what they are fighting for,” she says. “There’s so many countries in the world where they are under a regime that censors information, so to have a platform such as Loa can be really impactful.”

“Oftentimes, it is the people who are facing these regimes who are the most affected. Oftentimes, it is their voices that are not heard.”

Editor: Edward White