Prairie Pop: Radiolies? “Truth” in Sound and Storytelling

Jad Abumrad, left, and Robert Krulwich host the NPR radio show, Radio Lab. Credit:

At the end of September, the podcast Radiolab went in search of “truth.” It was a daunting task, to be sure, but not wholly outside the scope of the program, which bills itself as “a show about curiosity…where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy and human experience.” In essence, it’s a science show with amazing storytelling, produced with a very creative interweaving of sound, music and voices.

But during the episode “The Fact of the Matter,” hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich unwittingly exposed the central truth at the heart of their show: The people who control the sound control the message. In a nutshell, the hosts first downplayed, then challenged, then ultimately disregarded a Hmong refugee’s story, exerting a ruthless editorial strategy to tell a story that wound up having less to do with scientific inquiry and more to do with American politics and a vaguely romanticized notion about “the search for truth” as enacted by the white creative class.

Here is the background: The segment of the show was about so-called “yellow rain,” a potential chemical agent used against the Hmong people following the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The Hmong had aided the United States in the war, and afterwards were subject to brutal treatment leading to genocide by the Laotian and Vietnamese authorities. Many people, including the interviewee Eng Yang, claim that a yellow dust or powder rained down on the villages, causing problems ranging from vomiting to blindness to death. When word of this spread to the United States, then-president Ronald Reagan used it to justify renewed development of chemical weapons, something that hadn’t been done in the U.S. in over 20 years.

Clearly, Robert Krulwich sets the story up as a “gotcha” moment where Reagan can be exposed; this has an obvious correlation to George H.W. Bush’s rationale for war based on never-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction. You see, if it turns out that “yellow rain” wasn’t actually a chemical weapon, then Reagan was an even bigger asshole than we had previously thought! Well, guess how it turns out? A bunch of scientists “confirm” that what was falling from the sky was actually bee feces. Not chemical weapons, just plain old everyday bee shit.

Krulwich takes this information back to Eng Yang, who is being translated by his niece, the writer Kao Kalia Yang. Krulwich badgers him with questions about whether or not he actually saw planes or helicopters overhead when the yellow rain was falling. Eng Yang, unsurprisingly, basically says that they were running for their lives first, and worrying about the details later. But as Krulwich persists, Eng and his niece become increasingly upset, fearing–correctly–that Krulwich is hellbent on proving a guy wrong on a specific detail, with no regard for the fact that this guy’s culture and family were systematically murdered.

In the context of the show, after the interview is played, Krulwich, Abumrad and a producer have a roundtable discussion trying to make sense of it. Abumrad is sympathetic to the Hmong side of the story; Krulwich is not. “She attempted to monopolize the story,” he said, “And that we cannot allow.” In that single line, he not only disallowed it, he made it clear that the role of a producer in a radio setting is to be a gatekeeper for what voices can and cannot be allowed. Many people picked up on this, though it was just one criticism among many that eventually resulted in a lot of apologies that themselves caused more problems. But Krulwich addressed the criticism of “power” directly: “I am especially sorry in the conversation following to have said Ms. Yang was seeking to ‘monopolize’ the story. Obviously, we at Radiolab had all the power in this situation, and to suggest otherwise was wrong.”

The power that Radiolab had in this situation is reflected in the way that the show structures the audio material itself. This is not metaphorical–the people with the power literally get to “talk over” the ones who don’t. In most cases, this is done in a lighthearted and comical way, giving a guest a friendly ribbing, or giving the audience a winking aside. But for

, his voice was so densely buried in layers of sound it was practically inaudible, in addition to being in a foreign language. It was relayed by his translator, who was occasionally being summarized by a narrator, giving Eng Yang’s actual story, a story he was specifically asked to tell, a distance of three degrees from the listener.

Ultimately, in saying that Eng Yang and Kao Kalia Yang’s stories were not allowed, Krulwich was arguing that his “objective” assemblage of “the facts” was more “truthful” than Eng Yang’s lived, sensory experiences in Laos during those terrible days. In fact, it was Krulwich’s obligation to investigate those sensory experiences with the same rigor that he devoted to bee shit.

I was immediately reminded of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when residents claimed that they heard a series of “booms” as the water breached the levees, with many speculating that the government had them destroyed on purpose to flood poorer areas of the city. This is potentially easy to dismiss as “conspiracy,” but less so when you consider two factors. The first is that has actually happened in the past, in the Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the second is that the people in this story have faced a history of discrimination and being lied to by the federal government. In this case what they heard isn’t “wrong,” it was the booms of history that made such a scenario very real, and very possible.

In both cases, it is worth remembering that in the art of storytelling, it is not just whose stories get told, but how. And listening requires more than just turning on a tape recorder, but also opening yourself up to the possibility that multiple “truths” are out there.

Craig Eley is a graduate student at The University of Iowa, currently residing in Washington, D.C.

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