A Lookback at Loa in 2015

Published December 28, 2015 in Episode 36

Chris Lê: Hi everyone and welcome to Episode 36 on this Monday, 28th of December. So this week, we have our year in review episode. Loa’s been on air for...eight, nine months now?

All: Yeah.

Chris Lê: Since April? We started in April. And since it’s the end of 2015, we thought we’d take a step back and revisit some of our favorite segments of the year. So let’s get right to it.

I’m Chris Lê. I’m from Perth, Australia. And I’m one of the producers of Loa. I’ve been told that I am a naysayer and I like to set standards for what is too boring. With me today, we’ve got Quyên Ngô, from L.A. She’s one of our editors, our voice coach, and our expert clickbait headliner.

Quyên Ngô: Hey guys.

Chris Lê: From Vancouver, we’ve got Trinh Nguyễn. She’s our go-to-woman for everything and anytime you need an app to solve your problems.

Trinh Nguyễn: Hi!

Chris Lê: We’ve got our editor in chief and rubber stamper. That’s Giang Nguyễn, who’s in Tokyo.

Giang Nguyễn: I approve this message.

Chris Lê: Some of the first things people notice about our podcast is that we are from everywhere. We’re a global team. And a lot of people wonder how we actually collaborate. One example is maybe our “pre-1975 music” piece.

Giang Nguyễn: That was so long ago… like pre-1975?

Trinh Nguyễn: I think what Giang means is that episode aired, actually it was Episode 8, which is quite early in our life cycle. But it was probably one of the first pieces that we made or we worked on that was very collaborative, just because [of it] being such a complex and layered story.

We already knew it was going to be a lot of great music that we can play from, but that there was an underlying story about the history, about the political realities that were faced by artists. So this piece basically looks at the genre of music, the artists that were playing really great and new music before the end of the war.

Chris Lê: So the reporter for this piece was actually Nam-An, who, he lives in Toronto. What was that editing process like?

Giang Nguyễn: I mean, for me, you know, when we say we are Loa, we amplify voices from Việt Nam, we have to have a Vietnamese voice in the piece, other than the music that is being sung. So the problem with this piece was that it did not have an authoritative Vietnamese voice.

Trinh Nguyễn: But I think at the end, we were able to space out his comments and be able to bring justice to the Vietnamese artists just by really looking critically at what was being presented, both the soundbite from the academic and then partnering it with music pieces that were available. And so I feel like the final product itself rang true to Vietnamese music, while at the same time, there was a lot of weight and legitimacy from the academic. So I think, at the end, it was a really great job. A really, really great piece. And our listener, Tamm Bùi from Massachusetts thought so, too.   

“I really like that episode because I’m really into music and being a history major I wanted to put the two together and when I heard this episode, it got me really interested in sort of like the historical, the history of Vietnamese music, beyond just the tradition and older genres of music. It was just really different from what we usually hear about vietnamese culture and music.” Tamm Bùi, Massachusetts

Giang Nguyễn: But in general, I think what a lot of people don’t realize that we do that goes into putting our stories to air, is that we do a lot of editing. The editing takes a long time and for me as a journalist, that’s what makes it journalism or that’s what makes our pieces good because it’s being edited, it’s being looked at by multiple sets of eyes. Otherwise, we would just call it a blog, you know, and you can write whatever.

Trinh Nguyễn: That would make it much easier on our lives though (chuckle), a Loa blog.

Chris Lê: So obviously “pre-1975 music” was one of our more complex and layered segments. We’ve received a lot of good feedback from our listeners about there’s a good mix of, I guess, heavy and light topics. And this brings me to one of my first segments that I ever did which is called “Keeping up with the Nguyễns.”

Giang Nguyễn: What was that like for you, producing your first piece? Because obviously, you, like many of our reporters and contributors don’t have a broadcast or journalism background.

Chris Lê: I was exceptionally nervous about doing my first piece. I had just been introduced into podcast world and but I was quite excited at the same time, to be putting a product of mine out so other people can have a listen. And I was really happy to have a listener from Boston, named Jamie Nguyễn provide this comment.

“My last name is Nguyễn, so coming over to Boston, I ran into a lot more people from different cultural backgrounds and they would always ask me--a lot of my classmates have the same last name -- they would always ask me if I was related to someone with the same last name and I would be like, ‘Oh, no, actually Nguyễn is very common in the Vietnamese culture,’ and I just find that funny when I flew over to Boston for school." Jamie Nguyễn, Boston

Trinh Nguyễn: Actually I spoke to Jamie, because he was actually one of our first listeners who wrote to us from the very beginning. So when I talked to him just a couple of days ago, he mentioned that it was really great to have a media piece explain the history of the last name. And that’s why he keeps tuning in to us every week because we bring up some interesting facts about Vietnamese culture.

Giang Nguyễn: And we love that comment because it’s like your first love. You always remember your first love.

Trinh Nguyễn: Right, we always remember our very first listener who writes to us.

Quyên Ngô: He had emailed us and given us a few story suggestions which we ended up doing. That’s something we always really appreciate when listeners reach out to us and provide feedback and topic suggestions.

Giang Nguyễn: One of the comments that I like from one of our listeners, this is a woman who’s 41 and she lives in Indiana. She’s an academic librarian, her name’s Alison Stankrauff and she says that she loves the bánh mì story, she loves the mayo story.

Loa Episode 7, “Easy Vietnamese-y Mayonnaise”

Giang Nguyễn: Mayo never sounded so sexy right? And then Alison also talks about how she likes the November News review.

Giang Nguyễn: She likes both the very cute, kind of lighter stories, usually the Vietnamism that we have, and also the serious ones. And I think that says a lot about, you know just people that come to Loa, I think, are people that love Việt Nam, and people that are doing Loa, like us, we love Việt Nam and that means that we love all the lighter aspects. You know, we love the food, we love the cute things that Vietnamese people do, but we’re also really concerned about what goes on in Việt Nam and we want to explore the topics, some of the more heavy, political serious issues in Việt Nam. And I think that’s what makes Loa, Loa. And that’s what makes our listeners, our listeners. So here’s part of Alison’s comment:

“What really drew me to the podcast was knowing more about this really fascinating place that I have come to love and i just want to go back and back and back and back to but then also I think it being this sort of government, that it is really importantly for me knowing the true voices that come out of that country and not just the Party line.” Alison Stankrauff, Indiana

Quyên Ngô: I think it’s really awesome that the way we go between those lines ends up resonating with our listeners because I think ultimately like that's what we aim to do with Loa. We want to make sure that we hit on all different types of aspects.

Chris Lê: Alright, so speaking of lighter stories we’ve got Peggy Lam from Vancouver providing her thoughts on our Sriracha story.

“My favorite ones where one at the end, you talked about Sriracha. I thought that was really cool and unique. I never had somebody take or think about Sriracha in that way and do a story on it. It’s kinda like where does it come from and what do people think about it and kind of like the origin of it, and it was really cool. I thought that was amazing.” Peggy Lam, Vancouver:  

Trinh Nguyễn: Actually I really love this piece because Chí-Linh, our reporter, was able to get some really really rich natural sound from the factory. because for every single one of our segments we work really really hard to get the actual sounds from the action or the story and work it into the script. But Giang, I think you actually sent your mom to the factory for this correct?

Giang Nguyễn: Yeah I did! My mom is a big supporter so I sent her to the Sriracha factory and she enjoyed it, you know, she got a tour out of it and she bought t shirts and stuff, so it’s all good.

Quyên Ngô: By any means necessary.

Chris Lê: So obviously getting sounds from the factory was quite easy because we just show up and the sound is quite rich. But for one of our Vietnamisms on coining, that was quite hard I suppose right?

Quyên Ngô: I personally don’t know how we ended up with the sound that was used in the segment. But even listening through all of the sounds that were in our sound folder that was uploaded, it was very like jarring, so some sound is just harder to use for air.     

Giang Nguyễn: But that piece was actually well received and Lauren Bullock, she’s a listener from Washington DC, had a comment on it. She’s a multi racial Vietnamese who’s also a poet. She’s a columnist for Black Nerds Problems website. She basically said, “Rubbing, what is this?” And I just love how, you know, like sometimes you just do things in your culture and you have no idea why you’re doing it, but you still do it.

“I remember, like, listening to the coining episode for instance, and my grandmother used to do it to me all the time when I was little, and I had no idea what it was. Like what are we rubbing, what is this? So when I heard that episode it was like unlocking the past, and just this kind of cultural stuff that had been shrouded in mystery, just really having a connection.” Lauren Bullock, Washington DC:

Quyên Ngô: It was interesting talking to Lauren because she was talking about how, as a multi-racial Vietnamese, when she first discovered Loa, the first thing she did was she called her mom, who is Vietnamese as well. And they started listening to the episodes and they would talk about the episodes together. Another thing that Lauren had talked to us about is how the political elements of our program are just as fundamental to the podcast as the cultural elements. Since Lauren is a poet and an activist herself, she approaches art in that way as well.

“So definitely as a poet and as a performance poet, a lot of my work has to do with spotlighting oppression and injustice, and getting the conversation started. And I think there is a lot of ways in which certain people tend to get highlighted and Vietnamese struggles are aren’t as highlighted. And so for me it’s definitely been an opportunity to learn about the issues that are happening.” Lauren Bullock, Washington DC:

Trinh Nguyễn: And I think that more importantly we want to spotlight the people that are involved in movements, especially those inside Việt Nam. And for us, for the staff, for our reporters, sometimes that can be particularly hard if an activist that we want to interview, want to spotlight, are sitting in jail. Or maybe they’ve just been released from jail and they’re experiencing some very, some really real trauma. And I think that was exemplified by a piece that Giang had done which I love and is one of my favorites, which was “Hell Behind Bars.” And Giang did a really great interview with Paulus. And actually Giang, I know when we were working on this piece, you were telling the team how difficult it was for you to interview him. Can you talk to us about that?

Giang Nguyễn: Yeah that interview with Paulus Lê Sơn, he had just been released from prison and he went through some really horrible things while he was in prison. Like you said, I really felt that he was still having a lot of trauma from those years in prison. And the conversation was so difficult to listen to. We were talking for more than a hour and as you know, our end pieces usually end up being no more than 12, 15 minutes. So a lot of it was listening to him process the grief he had over the passing of his mother and I think we spent a good twenty minutes crying on the phone. And you know, how do you incorporate that into a story? How do you put twenty minutes of grief into a story for our listeners. So that was really hard to not only listen to, but to translate.

Trinh Nguyễn: I think that story made a huge impact on our listeners if not only our staff. Lea Nomada who is a French American, and an ESL teacher who lived in Việt Nam for two years actually sent us a message right away with a heartfelt letter saying please send to Paulus and Nguyễn Văn  Oai who was the other voice that appeared in that piece.

“It was the interview with Paulus Lê Văn Sơn and Nguyễn Văn Oai, how they recounted, as human rights activists, their experiences in prison and their treatment. I think what was very moving to me is their strength, even though they endured so much suffering and abuse and torture just for demanding freedom and human rights and more self-determination in Việt Nam. Just listening to them speak, even though it was in Vietnamese, it was very powerful and I wanted to write to them, to thank them for their amazing work.” Lea Nomada, San Francisco

Giang Nguyễn: Another thing why I really am happy that we able to do that piece is because for me, this is why Loa exists. Because we hear these stories in Vietnamese all the time. Like these prisoners of conscience, they’re always being tortured, harassed and beaten, and this is not covered in the mainstream media. And so for me this is why it’s so important that we do the translation, do the voiceovers and put that out for a broader audience.

Quyên Ngô: And I think listeners can find that kind of poignancy through all the different types of segments that we do. Poignancy is sort of like a thread between the political and the cultural in our program. You know so we have segments like Vietnamism, which talks about the quirky, cool and unique aspects of Vietnamese culture.           

Giang Nguyễn: Yeah and even Vietnamism I think is very important to Loa because it appeals to your Vietnamese pride right? It appeals to your Vietnamese love and if you don’t have that then obviously you’re not going to care for the other stories. And then the total opposite of Vietnamism, I think, is Solitary Envoi, which is a segment that talks about the voices that are being imprisoned or works of arts that come out of prison or come out of repression. This category was an idea that Quyên conceived and even the name was her idea, which I love this segment, but when she first proposed it, I was like “What? Who’s going to listen to this?”

Trinh Nguyễn: Who’s going to listen to our translation of a poem?

Giang Nguyễn: Right, like, how many interesting things can you do about something that somebody said behind bars. But you can! Oh my god, this segment, I love it.    

Quyên Ngô: Actually just a quick note on the name Solitary Envoi. So “solitary” is “solitary confinement,” because the segment highlights the voices of those who are being isolated, and a lot of them are in solitary confinement at some point. And “envoi” is both a short stanza at the end of a poem, but an “envoy” is also a messenger. So that’s what we aim for in this segment. We act as messenger for voices from behind bars and we talk about written works. And a lot of times they’re pieces of art, they’re poems, they’re songs, written or inspired by prisoner of conscience or by prisoners of conscience.

Chris Lê: So Solitary Envoi was a surprising segment that became quite popular. But one segment that we always knew was gonna successful, was our Vietnamisms.

Chris Lê: And we received a lot of feedback for our “lullabies” story, which is very popular amongst  the listeners.

Quyên Ngô: One of our listeners, Danny Lê, he also goes by dandiggity, he’s a poet entrepreneur, and he says, a dreamer, from San Jose, California. He was talking about this particular Vietnamism:

“It triggered something in me as I was growing up in Oklahoma with my parents. I always remembered before going to bed as a child with my siblings our mother always signing to us lullabies in Vietnamese. Though we couldn’t understand exactly what she was singing, it kept us safe. it made us feel comfortable, like the world was okay." Danny Le @dandiggity, San Jose, California

That episode --- you know it broke down the musicality of lullabies. It made me realize why it sounded the way it does, which you know, you could probably pull away that it sounded sad but there’s a weird strength in that, especially the singing and how it’s produced.”

Quyên Ngô: I felt the same way listening to this  this piece.It was so interesting to hear about a lullaby, outside of Vietnamese lullabies are often times very soothing--

Trinh Nguyễn: ...sweet....

Quyên Ngô: Yeah, soothing and sweet songs, but these lullabies, Vietnamese lullabies are kinda depressing. And so it was just awesome to hear about that.

Giang Nguyễn: Actually I never grew up with lullabies. My mom never sang me any lullabies. I have always wanted to do a story on lullabies, but I never had an outlet, until Loa came along. I actually heard this story on PRI, while driving in the car, and they were talking about lullabies of the world. Every country has lullabies, and I thought, wow we should do something on Vietnamese lullabies. But you know, who am I gonna pitch this story to? CNN? No (chuckles). Anyway, I always carried it around, and now I had this outlet.

Chris Lê: And touching on that, Giang, I guess you thought of that Idea for the lullabies story just by listening to the radio on your drive. A few listeners have inquired how we get our story ideas.

Trinh Nguyễn: Well luckily, we have a really large staff to churn out ideas. So there’s actually a really great spreadsheet with tons of story ideas. So for Vietnamism, we have like over 50, 60 topics that we haven’t even touched yet.

And then, for me, I sometimes, the story comes from my actual day work, my real life work. I was actually on location, in Singapore, with the StoryMaker training. I pitched it to Giang. Giang was the one who actually did the reporting on it. But I got to meet all these Vietnamese people, these citizen journalists and they were able to give Giang all these soundbites. But one, in particular, really stood out and that was Tăng Duyên Hồng, who at the time of the story, she had gone by the name Hạ Vũ and luck would have it that, six months later, when Giang and I went to Burma she gave us this really great update about what she’d been doing with StoryMaker.

“I use it a lot for many, many works. It’s one of my works for RFA, for the woman’s magazine. I’m totally using StoryMaker for that. The second thing is also for my own organization in Việt Nam. I’m also using StoryMaker to make many episodes, many writings, and even many videos for our advertising and public things. Yes, it’s really changed my how can I say like my work a lot because it’s easier for me to separate my message through the one that I want to talk with. Sometimes writing is too much and then that one is really, really helps.” Tăng Duyên Hồng, Hà Nội

Chris Lê: And another time we really saw a story come to life is when both Giang and Trinh were in Burma not too long ago. What were your perspectives from on the ground?

Giang Nguyễn: It always helps when you’re on the ground, because you get so....you have a lot of rich content, rich sound, because you’re literally with the mic in people’s faces and on the streets. So you get a lot of good sound that way.

Giang Nguyễn: For me, that trip was personally very enriching. I learned a lot from these Burmese activists and I hope that we were able to convey some of those lessons in our story, “Lessons from Myanmar.” And some of our listeners reacted to that. Here’s a 19-year-old from Germany and he sent us this comment, in German.

“The best episode for me was the latest one. It was the one you were in Burma. I was interested how the democracy progress in Burma worked so well. And it’s an important step for us Vietnamese if we want to achieve democracy in Việt Nam.” 19-Year-Old Vietnamese German

Giang Nguyễn: ….which I think is great, because I’m also from Germany. The lessons from Burma, really to me, was that whether you’re inside Việt Nam, or whether you’ve been exiled, you are abroad, you can do so much to contribute to the democracy movement in your country. It’s great that somebody in Germany, can feel that way.

Quyên Ngô: For me listening to it, what really stuck out to me was the comment that one of the Burmese activist said, about how crucial the relationship between those in Burma, leading the resistance, the relationships they had, the linkages they had to cultivate with the diaspora, with people all around the world. And that’s something that I see happens with Loa as well. You know, one of our listeners Trần Minh Nhật, reached out to us and talked to us about what it’s like being a listener and an activist from inside Việt Nam. And actually Trần Minh Nhật is a former political prisoners of conscience as well.

Giang Nguyễn: And he was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest. So this is somebody who is living the fight.

“We live in Việt Nam in a dictatorship, they don’t dare to think, they don’t dare to open their minds, to see, and to say. But I think deep in their hearts they still feel like the outside people. Because I myself feel that many, many people can understand and know really exactly what happening in Việt Nam, and they can feel, they can share the inside Vietnamese feeling.
Loa can give our Vietnamese voice to the world. It’s really important. Because as you know that we don’t any connection between outside and inside. It’s not good for democracy progress. And I think that the lesson we can learn from other countries is we should have more connection between inside and outside to promote human rights, promote democracy.” Trần Minh Nhật, Lâm Đồng, Việt Nam

Chris Lê: I had the privilege of talking to Trần Minh Nhật in this case, and to be honest, I was really inspired by his words, and I guess in a way, it validates the work we’re doing for Loa, just helping get the message about Việt Nam from inside Việt Nam to across world.

Trinh Nguyễn: And definitely there’s a lot more where that came from. We have so many more stories that we need to be telling, we should be telling. Our staff is already working on the next six weeks of stories. So we really wanna put it back to you, our listeners. If you feel like there is a story that needs to be told if you feel like there’s something missing, voices that you feel like the world should be listening to, please make sure to reach out to us.

Chris Lê: Alright! That brings us to the end of our Year in Review 2015. A big thanks to Quyên, Trinh and Giang  for joining me on this look-back today. Of course, our staff is much bigger than this and I want to take this opportunity to give them a big shout out--- all our reporters, sound editors, transcribers, voice-overs, social media mavens, all from Australia, to Paris, London, Denmark, Germany, all of Europe, to Canada, to the USA, Tokyo, and Việt Nam: Thank you!

And thanks to you our listeners! Here’s to 2016! Wishing all of you a happy new year!

All: Happy new year! Cheers!