Community radio makes waves in Lao PDR

Mouddala Keonheun arrives at the Lakonepheng Community Radio Station in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Mouddala is a teacher at the local school, and every day after class, she heads to the station with textbooks to broadcast her basic education programme. It reaches more than 45,000 people, most of them struggling to access even the most rudimentary education.

An educator and activist at heart, Mouddala volunteers at the radio station to influence her community’s attitude toward education. “I try to make people understand the importance of education and keeping their children in school. At the moment, a lot of our young people leave school early,” says Mouddala.

In recent years, Mouddala has lost many bright, young students to the lure of unskilled labour cash jobs in Thailand. This national problem, driven by lack of adequate schooling and access to information and local jobs, contributes heavily to intergenerational poverty in Laos.

Highlights

  • 63% of the country’s population live in remote communities, often inaccessible due to monsoon rains.
  • Radio programming contributed to more than 50% increase in children's vaccinations.
  • The number of women using health facilities during their pregnancy has increased by nearly 70%.

A challenging terrain for communication

Laos is facing many uphill challenges to sustainable and equitable development. These challenges are compounded by 63 percent of the country’s population living in incredibly remote communities, often mountainous, many inaccessible for large parts of the year due to monsoon rains. Basic health services, public services and infrastructure have yet to reach many communities.

The Community Participation and Communication Support Programme, implemented by the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism and UNDP with support from Oxfam, has been working to tackle some of these challenges by bringing information and messages into the poorest and most disadvantaged homes through grassroots community radio stations. The programme focuses on giving voice to Laos’ most marginalized groups - women and ethnic minorities - by spreading community-driven media across the country.

The success of the community radio project is remarkable given the country’s restricted media landscape. The lack of protection, limited journalism training and uncertainty about media laws make it difficult for the press and the public to accurately portray issues affecting the Lao people.

Developing communities through access to information

Each station is run by volunteers who create content based on local issues and news. The volunteers operate seven community radio stations across four provinces and broadcast in eight ethnic languages.

Volunteer Thongmy Keothongdam broadcasts local news and public service announcements in his indigenous Khteng language, helping bridge the gap between the Government operating in Lao language and his community’s need.

Community radio volunteers gain new skills in broadcasting, programme production, community support and equipment maintenance, which builds confidence and enables them to produce programmes tailored to their communities’ needs and interests.  

“I have seen the changes our community radio programmes bring to the communities, and for women in particular. Working in community radio has given me the confidence to believe I can empower people to change their lives for the better,” says volunteer Khamla.

Being the primary source of information for many citizens, radio plays a key role in community development. In the province of Xieng Khouang, vaccination rates have risen by more than 50 percent and the number of women using health facilities during their pregnancy has increased by nearly 70 percent. That station’s volunteers were awarded a labour medal and acknowledged for their contribution to natural disaster preparedness and recovery.

Sustainability

Despite their positive impact on rural development, many community stations face ongoing sustainability issues, including funding, volunteer turnover, station management, quality of broadcasts and district level support. A number are also isolated, as mobile phones are expensive and often not serviceable and internet access is still a dream for most in rural Laos.

Still, the Government recognizes that community radio has an important role to play to in country’s development. “It is important for the people to have a voice,” emphasizes Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Savankhone Razmountry. “We must ensure the stations are sustained as a tool for information sharing for development and also for preserving the rich culture of the region.”

For Mouddala, the daily pilgrimage to her local station is worth the trip. Smiling as she adjusts her microphone, Mouddala explains her philosophy on tackling her community’s biggest challenge head-on: “Staying in school and learning is better for the children’s future. But so many can’t stay. That’s why Community Radio is so important, to teach those who want to learn, and give people without an education a way to be heard.”

With community leaders like Mouddala producing strong and effective radio programming, the unique voices of Laos’ marginalized and poorest communities are beginning to be heard.

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