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A Unifying Voice

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dramatic growth over the last decade in the number of Vietnamese-language radio programs based in Orange County has fundamentally changed the Vietnamese emigre community, observers say.

It was radio that brought some 15,000 people into the streets of Westminster for a single rally earlier this year, and the power of the medium--which already reaches across the country--is only likely to increase with use of the Internet and plans for a full-fledged Vietnamese-language radio station in the works.

“The sense of community is definitely strengthened by radio. There’s no lag time. What happens in Little Saigon today will be talked about in Washington, D.C., today,” said Nguyen Ngoc Bich, director of Vietnamese services for Washington-based Radio Free Asia, the U.S. government-funded network that broadcasts in Asia.

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At least a dozen professional radio production companies in Orange County’s Little Saigon, home to the nation’s largest Vietnamese community, lease air time--up to 12 hours a day--on three frequencies.

Three of the programs are simulcast in San Jose and Houston, also home to large Vietnamese communities. Excerpts from programs also are broadcast in cities ranging from Atlanta to Seattle to Washington, D.C.

“Radio has brought the Vietnamese community closer together. It connects us as a people,” said Le Tung, program director for Saigon Hai Ngoai (Overseas) Radio in Westminster.

The proliferation is fueled by an ever-growing appetite for news from local communities as well as Vietnam. Its impact was most forcefully felt during the height of anti-communist protests in Little Saigon earlier this year.

Activists were gearing up for a showdown and issued their clarion call for support via Vietnamese-language radio.

The effect was immediate: Some 15,000 people turned out along Bolsa Avenue for the single largest rally during the two months of protests. The radio broadcasts went national, and within days, Vietnamese American communities throughout the country, from San Jose to Houston to Washington, D.C., had organized supporting rallies.

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“We saw the true power of radio,” Tung said. “The protests would not have happened without us.”

What could have merely been a local incident reached national and even international audiences, Tung said.

“Sitting at home, people could hear the events as they happened live. They were glued to their radios,” Tung said. “That really fueled their emotions. I think without radio, this would have never become as big as it did.”

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The watershed demonstrations served to highlight the emergence of Vietnamese language radio as both a unifying community presence and a mobilizing tool.

It also has revolutionized the way the Vietnamese community gets its news, said Hoang Trong Thuy, anchor and chief engineer for Vietnam California Radio, or VNCR, which airs on KYMS-FM (106.3).

Before radio, Vietnamese-language newspapers served as the pipeline of information from region to region, but the lag time was considerable--several weeks at a time as papers were passed around from friend to friend. News would be old before it could be useful, Thuy said.

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But everything changed in 1993 when Little Saigon Radio became the first to broadcast a daily Vietnamese-language radio program in Southern California. It remains the leader with the most air time of local shows, 12 hours a day on KWIZ-AM (1480).

“It was amazing to have a station just for Vietnamese,” Thuy said. “News was immediate, and the impact was immediate.”

The change was virtually overnight, he said. In homes and businesses throughout Little Saigon, radios were tuned to the program all day long. It made a profound difference for newly arrived immigrants and the elderly--those with limited English skills, he said.

“It’s made the community smaller, closer,” Thuy said. “People felt they were part of the action.”

In short order, other radio programs sprung up. By 1995, VNCR and Saigon Radio Hai Ngoai were on the air. In 1997, Radio Bolsa joined them. The current list of offerings range from news and entertainment programs to political talk shows to social-issues programming.

The initial revenue from businesses wanting to cash in on the marketing potential made it a lucrative venture. In fact, some believe it was the maturation of the local business community that allowed for the launch of radio.

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“Though [the Vietnamese community] has been here nearly 25 years, we’ve been busy with survival--raising our families and working hard,” Thuy said. “Now we’re at a point where we are more established. We can support these efforts.”

Competition among local shows to be the first with “hot news” has led to mistakes. Last year, acclaimed Vietnamese writer Mai Thao, known to be in poor health, was declared dead by Little Saigon Radio announcer Long Pham, who cut into a daily broadcast to announce Thao’s demise.

But Thao was still alive, and his family was furious at the error. Confusion caused by the false report, though short-lived, was yet another demonstration of the reach of radio.

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Like other news media, Vietnamese radio is looking to the Internet for the future. Already an increasing number of listeners tune in by connecting to Web casts at https://www.kicon.com.

Operators of at least one Vietnamese program--who declined to be identified for fear of alerting competitors to their plans--say they are negotiating to buy a Southern California radio station of their own.

Though radio shows are struggling with the rising cost of air time and the greater competition for advertising dollars, the future for radio broadcasting remains bright, Thuy said.

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“I only see the market expanding. The programs on air now will increase their air time, and more shows will start up,” he said. “This community continues to grow, and the appetite is strong.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Vietnamese Radio

Vietnamese-language radio programs have multiplied during the past decade with a growing number leasing air time on three frequencies in Southern California. Here are the programs broadcast during the week. Weekend schedules differ.

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