On Radiolab, Privileged Voices Prevail

Lisa-Qiao MacDonald and Tanya Tran

Radiolab: dedicated to curiosity, storytelling and getting to the “fact of the matter.” What does it look like, though, when the search for “truth” — supposedly objective and just — ends up privileging certain voices and narratives over others?

It looks like Western people speaking over marginalized communities. It looks like disrespect. It looks like the suppression of untold histories. It looks like Radiolab’s segment called “Yellow Rain.”

Justin Eckstein offers the following summary in an article titled “Yellow Rain and the Sound of the Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab”:

“Released on September 24, 2012 as part of the episode titled, ‘The Fact of the Matter,’ the 20-minute segment ‘Yellow Rain’ recounted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Hmong by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao after the United States left Vietnam and the subsequent debates surrounding the chemical weapon called ‘yellow rain.’ The episode pitted the witnessing of Eng Yang, a survivor and documenter of the genocide — whom producer Pat Walters describes as the ‘Hmong guy’ at one point — and his niece, award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang — referred to only as ‘Kalia’ by hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad — against the research of university scientists and the relentless questioning of Krulwich.”

What this university research and relentless questioning led to was the proclaimed “truth” that the Hmong did not experience chemical warfare — that what the Hmong claim to be yellow rain was nothing more than bee poop. Krulwich went so far as to claim that Eng Yang’s experience was “hearsay,” and the interview ends with Kao Kalia Yang on the brink of tears:

“My uncle says for the last 20 years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. … He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can, but I am not interested and my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done.”

There are many things Radiolab could have done to make this segment better. Abumrad and Krulwich could have properly introduced their guests — Eng Yang was an official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience for the Thai government — instead of (beyond pure disrespect by referring to Yang as “Hmong guy”) framing them in a way that lent no credibility to their truths. Krulwich and Abumrad could have listened and made room for the possibility of an alternative narrative. Radiolab could have practiced responsible journalism in its actions leading up to the interview, the handling of the interview itself and through its subsequent responses following public outcry and Kao Kalia Yang’s written response, “The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of Hmong Experience.” (For a more complete understanding of what went down, please read this essay!)

Even when Radiolab had the chance to right some of its wrongs through written responses and post-production edits, there was still much left to be desired. In the words of writer Matthew Salesses in an article titled “Radiolab Update: Privilege in the Podcast, Hope in the Comments,” the show kept “focusing its response, like the podcast, on the supposed fact of bee poop, when what is making people so angry is that the bee poop is the focus of the show, is the focus forced upon the interviewees, when the real focus here should be on the story the Hmong tell of the suffering they underwent, of the GENOCIDE and their experience, whether the Yellow Rain turned out to be the exact chemical killing them or not.” “Objectivity,” “logic” and “truth” — these are concepts that act as excuses for Radiolab to inflict violence and cast doubt upon a community’s collective and already painful memory.

Radiolab is wildly popular. The show’s hosts, as many people on this campus already know, are Oberlin alumni and will be giving a convocation next week on Sept. 19, almost exactly two years after “Yellow Rain” aired. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are two educated, liberal men, who are popular amongst educated, liberal people. But we must reflect on the difference between intent and impact. There is more to the story — again, read Kao Kalia Yang’s response, referenced above.

This is not a boycott; these words are not coming from people who want to “complain for the sake of complaining.” (So often is this the response when a group speaks out on something about which they are passionate.) We want the Oberlin community to be informed, and we hope all can see why this is relevant to not only the Asian and Pacific Islander Diaspora community, but also the community at large. Let this incident inform how you may approach and interpret what a person says, no matter from whom it comes, what their proclaimed politic is or from what school they graduated.