Activitists petition NPR over Radiolab's "complete lack of racial sensitivity"

Activitists petition NPR over Radiolab's "complete lack of racial sensitivity"
cover illustration by Brian Stauffer

This week's cover story, "The Yellow Rain Makers," opens with the backlash against the popular show Radiolab, following an episode that, as locally-based author Kao Kalia Yang describes it, "dismissed the Hmong experience" and discounted contrasting accounts.

The episode immediately sparked an outpouring of debate on Radiolab's website. Now, the Asian American activism group 18 Million Rising is trying to channel some of that conversation to spark change.

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Radiolab interviewed Yang, along with her uncle Eng Yang, for a segment that looked at whether or not the chemical weapon known as yellow rain was used against the Hmong -- or even whether it was a chemical weapon at all.

Later, listeners of Radiolab's podcast could hear as the interview ended in tears, with the younger Yang protesting, "There's a sad lack of injustice."

Enter 18MR. The group is circulating a petition with the headline, "Tell NPR This Can't Happen Again." (Radiolab is produced by WNYC, New York City's public radio station, and is broadcast on NPR stations across the country).

"Radiolab's conduct during its September 24th Yellow Rain segment, in addition to violating NPR's code of ethics, demonstrated a complete lack of racial, ethnic and cultural sensitivity," the petition begins.

18MR writes that Radiolab's segment "has discredited NPR," particularly in light of a recent $1.5 million grant aimed at increasing the organization's diversity coverage.

Then they get to the demands: "We are calling for NPR to host a meeting with Keith Woods [NPR's VP of Diversity], Radiolab of WNYC, and concerned members of the Asian Pacific Islander American community to ensure that events like this never happen again."

The petition is co-signed by five other organizations*, and so far, has over 1,800 individual signatures, or three-quarters of the 2,400-signature goal.

When Yang first heard about the petition, "It warmed my heart," she says. "It made me feel like part of a community who believes that you can make change for the better."

NPR already has a code of ethics, but Yang hopes that a meeting could lead to the organization implementing an accountability protocol as well, and particularly one that addresses work with marginalized communities.

"In the future, they have to present the full facts and position themselves very clearly," she says, "and have more diverse people on board to check what they're writing. NPR, WNYC, and Radiolab are all lacking in diversity."

As the public media organization Current reports, one of Radiolab's two hosts, Jad Abumrad, is Lebanese, but the rest of the program's staff is white and of European descent.

Yang is hopeful that NPR will heed the petition's call. "I'm an optimist," she says. "I don't see how this would hurt NPR, so why not?"

* UPDATE: 11 organizations have now co-signed the petition, says Cynthia Brothers, an editor at 18MR.

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