By Kerri Regan
Shasta County Mien Radio Network
Story: Kerri Regan
Photo: James Mazzotta
It’s just before bedtime and three generations gather around the simple wooden box. With the flip of a switch, familiar voices fill the living room, relaying the week’s news, sharing personal stories, chanting cultural tales.
For almost eight years, the Shasta County Mien Radio Network has brought information and entertainment into the homes of Mien-speaking families, bridging a gap between elders who don’t speak English and the broader community in which they live.
“The whole family can be part of it. It’s mostly the elders that listen,” says Wernjiem Pien, one of the show’s “DJs” and a community health advocate for Shasta County Public Health.
During the 8 to 9 pm (often live) show on Wednesday nights, Pien and others tell stories, share news, local bulletin announcements, “whatever information benefits the community,” he says. Modern Mien music fills the airwaves between announcements. That show is repeated at 8 am Thursday.
Thursday night’s show, which runs from 8 to 9 pm, is more entertainment-based. “That night, we have Mien chanting or singing. It’s a voice and no music,” Pien explains. “It can be a personal story, a history story, or something else a community member wants to share. Most stories are in singing, and a lot of elders like to hear that.” That show is repeated at 8 am Friday.
The idea was born when National Public Radio’s Lorraine Dechter broached the idea with Public Health’s Patrick Moriarty and Doreen Bradshaw as a way to more effectively get health and emergency information to a growing Mien population, many of whom speak no English.
“They don’t know what’s going on locally or nationally. When they watch TV they see the picture, but they don’t know what happened,” Pien says.
A McConnell Foundation grant paid for about 100 receivers, and Pien, Meycho Chao-Lee of Shasta County Mental Health and educator Wern Liam Lee took to the airwaves in June 2001. Three months later, Pien translated the news of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The receiver plugs into the wall, and it’s as simple as it gets – it has a speaker, a volume dial and it has a switch that toggles between NPR and the Mien broadcast. Pien estimates that the North State has about 200 Mien families (mostly multigenerational), so with more than 100 boxes in homes, the broadcast has a wide reach. “We ask them to share with those who don’t have it,” he says.
The program also shares health-related public service announcements, as one of the primary purposes was to target hard-to-reach populations that don’t have access to Public Health’s common methods of information delivery. This is particularly critical during emergencies, he says.
“We need to reach into our community,” Pien says.
Last year, they did a program about the dangers of monosodium glutamate, an additive frequently used in Asian cooking. “A lot of people don’t know the side effects,” Pien says. They talk about tobacco use, diabetes, physical activity, flu shot clinics, new traffic safety laws, car seats and much more.
“Elders eat a lot of mixed greens and veggies, but also a lot of pork and fat,” Pien says. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen an increase in diabetes and high blood pressure.”
And although Mien people typically do a lot of physical work, such as gardening, harvesting produce and fishing, most don’t do regular, routine exercise, he says.
The station has become essential in the North State’s Mien community. “When we are off the air for a day, they call us at home and ask what’s going on,” Pien says.
Now, much of Pien’s effort is spent in passing the torch to the next generation by encouraging youth to get involved with the broadcasts. He enlisted local Mien high school students to lead a call-in show called Health Dialogue, which was well received by listeners.
“We want the young people to be part of this,” he says. “We want to keep that culture alive.”