“I don’t see myself doing anything else but this,” Chandavone Sinamueangpy, a young volunteer cheerfully shares when she is asked about her plans besides being a radio host in Lakhonepheng District, Saravane Province, 5 to 10 years from now. With a bachelor’s degree in business administration, it does not seem like the obvious career path that she could have chosen, especially since she is a volunteer and doesn’t get paid for it.
And yet, in 2020, Chandavone marked her 5th year of volunteering at the local community radio station.
The 26-year-old lives with her husband at her older sister’s home, away from her own hometown in Khohksenohn District, which is too far for her to commute daily to the station.
Initially, Chandavone just wanted to try out being a radio host out of pure curiosity after graduation. Never did it occur to her that her trial would turn into a long-term job, with her name becoming a household name. Strangers she had never met, became her regular listeners. This came with this recognition and expectations that she would provide answers to questions and therefore be a trusted source of information. That sense of being needed sparked her passion.
With a team of about 10 people, the volunteers run the station and Chandavone is one of the longest- serving volunteers. Being able to lend her voice daily to support the dissemination of news, serving as a source of information to help better the lives of her loyal listeners, has been more than enough.
Chandavone’s curiosity hasn’t diminished after 5 years and she has seized every opportunity to learn new topics, so she can keep her listeners better informed. Which is why in July 2020, she participated in a radio training held by UNDP and IOM to learn more about safe migration and ways to protect oneself from human trafficking. Through interactive group activities and case studies, she acquired knowledge on regular migration channels and procedures, which could help listeners who are considering migration.
The only challenge for her throughout her radio career has been the delay of information. By the time it reaches her team, the news is no longer ‘new’, to the point where the news becomes irrelevant. Notably one such occasion was during the first few cases of COVID-19 in Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Rumours of cases, misinformation and disinformation were her main concerns. Official news would come out much later and there is nothing she can do for her listeners.
Personally, in some instances she also wanted to know more about the new cases, where they had been and if anyone else could potentially be exposed to the virus as a result. Yet, she has had to stay calm and professional, to broadcast only the verified news, and information to her listeners.
Thankfully, authorities were able to keep rumours at bay and finally an outlet was made available by the National Ministry of Health, and other supporting counterparts, to provide official health-related updates via social media.
Being located near a border checkpoint has added to the tension of Chandavone’s community radio station when the country went into lockdown in April. Sharing border with Thailand and Viet Nam, Saravane has been a mobility hotspot as villagers migrate to seek better livelihoods in neighbouring countries.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, many migrants have returned to Lao PDR. Those on the move are afraid of stigma and discrimination, and those at home are worried about being exposed to the virus. Being a trusted source of information, Chandavone has felt the pressure as she seeks to keep everyone calm and informed. Although authorities provided her with the numbers of incoming and outgoing people at the nearby immigration checkpoints, some listeners would raise concerns as to the origins of the individuals and more beyond what she could provide the answers for. Leaving her audience hanging was the last thing she wanted to do.
With all the effort and dedication she puts in her work, as a volunteer, Chandavone is only provided with a petrol allowance each month. She knows that this is not enough to sustain a living, so she raises some livestock and sometimes works at the provincial radio office to get some income on watch duty, when the officials needed extra support. But given the declining inflow of funding support for the community radio station, occasionally, volunteers would go on months on end before receiving their expected allowance.
Chandavone emphasizes that everyone deserves the right to accurate information. Especially given the pandemic, correct information is crucial and could even save lives. She hopes that her station and similar ones around the country, are acknowledged for the benefits they provide and the role they play in the lives of people within the community. The loyalty of the listeners, the trust, and the sense of belonging of all those involved- is all she needs to stay where she is.
Ms. Aksonethip Somvorachit, Communications Analyst, UNDP Lao PDR
Ms. Karen Ho, Junior Communications Officer, IOM Lao PDR
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.