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VOA-Lao, Dara Baccam and an Era of Lao Broadcasting

Dara Baccam

For the majority in the Lao community, VOA-Lao (Voice of America) has always been part of the household daily news consumption. For the past 50 years, it was the go-to radio broadcast for global and local coverage, which was made accessible to anyone who had access to radio or the internet.

Since 1942, Voice of America (VOA) had its roots in World War II and did its first broadcast in Germany. Including the Lao language, VOA is the official external broadcast institution of the US federal government, translating content in more than a dozen languages. President Gerald Ford signed a 1976 law that required VOA “to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news”.

Today, while radio broadcasting is seeing heavy cuts in operations across the nation due to downsized budgets, VOA-Lao and others are continually at risk of being discontinued by the Broadcasting Board of Governors leadership.

LLOTP sat down with our featured Lao diaspora of the week, Dara Baccam. Dara is the award-winning VOA-Lao chief editor and correspondent, to discuss her journey, the future of broadcasting and how it has evolved over the years as she prepared herself for retirement this year.

VOA-Lao staff, 2012

VOA-Lao staff, 2012

How long has VOA been around?

VOA-Lao became 53 years old in February. When I joined, we were on air for 2 hours a day.

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

I was born to a family of pretty high social status, as my father was a highly respected school principal. We lived in Thakek. My father was from the south; Keng Kok, Savannakhet. My mother, whose maiden name is Pathammavong, was from Vientiane. I’m the youngest of 6 siblings. I became fatherless when I was just an infant, after my father who was elected to the first parliament of the Kingdom of Laos, was shot dead while travelling north to Vientiane to be initiated in 1946. Then we moved to Vientiane and my mother, a woman with little education, raised us single-handedly, and so we lived in poverty. My older sister only finished elementary school because she had to stay home and take care of us. My oldest brother was a major in the army and military attaché to Saigon before he was taken away by Kong Le troops during the coup d’etat in 1960, and my second brother was a general when he was taken to a re-education camp after communists took over in 1975. I became the only child to finish college.

As a young girl, I concentrated on education, which I knew was the only way out. I was one of the three students out of some 120 students from Chao Anou Elementary School who passed the entrance exam to the Lycee de Vientiane, a French high school. After passing the difficult exam at the end of the 4th year in the 60s, I received a diploma that allowed me to go study in France. But I didn’t take the opportunity. Back then, only children of rich families got to study abroad. I applied for a scholarship to go to Australia and the US and got a two-year high school scholarship provided by the US. I was sent to Tacoma, Washington, and studied there from 1965 to 1967. After returning home, I took a test for a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii. I was in Hawaii from 1968 to 1972. I got married to my husband in 1969 and we’ve been together for over 46 years. We were part of a group of five Lao students who went to study in Hawaii that year.

In 1972, I started working for Air America. They closed down in 1974, so I went to work for USAID for a few months before it discontinued. My husband was a teacher at the Vientiane Fa Ngum School and later a Director at Fa Ngum School in Phon Mee in 1974. We fled to Nongkhai in December 1975 and resettled in Des Moines in 1976, where I taught ESL to Lao refugee students until 1978, before working for VOA.

Accepting Certificate of Recognition for VOA-Lao's 50-year service from former BBG governor Victor Ash (left) and VOA Director David Ensor (right), 2012.

Accepting Certificate of Recognition for VOA-Lao’s 50-year service from former BBG governor Victor Ash (left) and VOA Director David Ensor (right), 2012.

What’s it been like working for VOA?
Working for VOA was a dream come true for me. I was living with my mother, my oldest sister, and her family at the time. Every evening, we would turn our transistor radio on to listen to news while sitting down around the pha khao for dinner. One day, we stumbled upon VOA-Lao. It was full of news and so interesting that we would tune in every evening and I said to myself, “that’s what I want to do” and I would do broadcasting after I finished high school.

In 1974, VOA-Lao started recruiting people in Laos through the USIS office. I applied and took the test together with 20 other people but no one was selected as USIS sent its own personnel instead. Unaware of it, I pushed forward and wrote to VOA and inquired about the results, and told them my qualifications and my desire to work for VOA.

For a few months I didn’t hear back, but one day in 1975, someone from USIS came to tell me to go in for an interview. I was pregnant with my first child at that time and was expecting at any moment. The next morning, as I was about to leave for USIS, my water broke, so I decided to go to my doctor’s clinic and was in labor for over 10 hours. I missed my first chance to work for VOA and a chance to leave Laos with all expenses paid. Two years after resettling in Iowa and after getting tired of teaching ESL, I wrote another letter to VOA. I did well enough that I got a job offer and accepted it in 1978. I’ve worked there ever since.

What was the VOA-Lao programming like in its early years?

When I was just a few months on the job, my boss sent me out to cover the Smithsonian festival and interview Lao participants. I was so scared because it was my first time, but I did it well enough that he continued to send me out to cover events across the US. This is what started our weekly Lao Diaspora program, which I regularly hosted in later years, some years doing over more than 40 interviews. I also started the Sunday Lao Music From Overseas program, to replace the morlam that was cut when funding was reduced.

10 years later in 1985, I became editor. I was in Laos producing English lessons for the Lao National Radio – a joint cooperation project between them and VOA-Lao. I became the acting chief when I came back. Since my predecessor left before I came back, nothing was transitioned over to me. So everything in this career, I had to learn on my own and had to teach my staff how to put out good content.

What is the cancellation announcement from the BBG mean for VOA-Lao? What are the reasons?

We would be on air for 2 hours a day, then reduced to 1 hour a day, then only 30 minutes by the 1990s. Broadcast time and staff were being cut. We wrote to Congress to stop the funding cuts. The proposed cut for FY16 affects 8 language services, with two to be eliminated and the rest reduced in staff and broadcast time. Budget cuts is the main reason.

Where do you see the future of Lao broadcasting?

It’s hard to say. I want to be optimistic and to say that VOA-Lao will continue to be on air for many years to come. But we have been lucky, so we have to be realistic and prepared. VOA is focusing on TV more and more now than on radio. VOA-Lao has not done any TV broadcasting.

Radio has always been the main source of news for many Lao communities, especially those in rural areas with limited access.

What are you most proud of during your time at VOA-Lao?

I am most proud of the fact that VOA-Lao has become a trusted source of news for Lao people, especially government officials who listen to VOA regularly, including the country’s president, Mr. Choumaly Sayasone – who told me that himself when I interpreted for him at the US-ASEAN Summit in New York in 2010. At that summit, I got to shake hands with President Obama, so that’s the most significant moment of my life.

The trust that Lao officials have in VOA-Lao is so deep that they allowed us to jointly produce English lessons with the Lao National Radio. Over 100 lessons were produced. LNR has indicated that it would like this cooperation to continue this year and next, so if VOA-Lao is eliminated, we will lose that opportunity to help Laos develop its manpower so that it can better compete in the ASEAN Economic Community, which will be launched at the end of this year.

I think the past three years or so has been my best time at VOA-Lao. As Service Chief, I can do what I want to improve our broadcasts, our website and Facebook page. Articles we post are not just plain texts but complete with videos and photo galleries when available, which I believe make the stories more interesting to read. Our reports also have English links to make it easy for those who cannot read Lao, and for those who want to learn English by comparing the translations.

What advice do you have for the next generation of emerging broadcasters?

I don’t think I am qualified to give advice. In the old days, I went out and looked for news. Whenever I went on vacation to other states, I’d take a tape recorder and interview people of interesting backgrounds. Nowadays with budget cuts, we have to do it by phone.

I’d like to say this: if you work in the media, keep up with the news, domestic and international, and be aware of what’s going on. How can you report or translate your news if you don’t know what is going on?

You’re in retirement now. What’s next for you?

I love to travel and see new things. I will travel the world to visit countries that I haven’t been to. I don’t think I can stay home, go to bed and wake up with nothing to do.

Learn more about VOA-Lao at http://lao.voanews.com.

-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, editor@littlelaos.org 

UPDATE: The Senate had rejected the administration’s proposal to cut VOA-Lao, therefore it will still be on air next fiscal year 2016.

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