“The journey to Dong Dam village will take about two and a half hours. Ensure you have sufficient rest in the van,” advised Thapat Maneerat.
He was addressing a group of participants from the Indigenous Voices in Asia Media Showcasing Fair 2015 that was held in Chiangmai, Thailand, recently.
We took Thapat’s advice and got some sleep as we travelled from Chiangmai to Dong Dam, a Karen tribal village in Hot District, southern Chiangmai.
Upon reaching the village, we were taken immediately to its heart where the neighbourhood radio station stands. Part of the only independent community broadcast network in Thailand, the station was set up in 2004 with the aim of empowering the Karen people, enhancing their culture, and educating the 1,500 people living in the area. It is supported financially by people in a nearby township.
“On clear days, the airwaves can cover a radius of 50km, encompassing nine districts. The station was set up in the village because 40% of the Karen tribal community live here,” explains 45-year-old Thapat proudly as he ushers us into the station where he hosts a monthly live show.
The station, which transmits on the FM90.75 frequency, operates in a building about half the size of a classroom that is set in a spacious compound of almost 1,000sq m. On the outside of the building are a transmitter tower and two satellite dishes.
Inside, there are minimal facilities, such as a computer, microphones, a telephone, and an on-air mixing board. The main door is left open to enable villagers to stroll in freely. And yes, you guessed right: soundproofing doesn’t exist here.
Seven villagers volunteer as radio announcers, handling broadcasts from Monday to Saturday, from 8am to 5pm.
While it may be a far cry from most state-of-the-art radio stations, the villagers aren’t complaining. For many, the station’s programme content and wide selection of tribal music make up for whatever equipment is lacking.
Villager Duang Kampar says the network provides insights into happenings across the country and around the neighbourhood.
“Events such as weddings, funerals, and even cases of missing cows are aired. Since many of us do not have televisions, our radio makes a good companion,” says the 36-year-old, who runs a provision store.
To empower and educate the community, programmes covering everything from health and the environment to women and gender equality and climate change are aired daily. In between the enlightening sessions, a wide selection of folk music is spun to keep listeners entertained, explains Kab Keo, another of the announcers.
“The radio station plays an important role in engaging and supporting the community. My programme focuses on gender equality, human rights, health, and cultural heritage,” says the 53-year-old, who has been hosting the 8am to 10am slot since 2004.
Kab adds that the station also provides youth with access to the cultural heritage of the Karen people, largest of the minority groups in Thailand.
“The radio station is our ‘voice’ to educate the younger generation on their culture, traditional songs, and language,” says the grandmother of two.
To further provide invaluable insights to villagers, government officials (from Thailand’s Health, Environment, and DefenceMinistries) and NGO representatives also step in to host educational programmes.
Thapat – who is with the Indigenous People’s Foundation for Education and Environment NGO – travels to the village to host On The Trail Of Climate Change. His programme focuses on environmental concerns such as climate change, sustainable development, and carbon emissions. His pre-recordings are sent to the station on a weekly basis but once a month, he travels to the village for a live show.
“The radio station is an important tool with which we can share information with the local community. There’s always a sense of reward when villagers show an interest in climate change adaption and how to contribute towards sustainable development.”
It was a pleasant surprise to learn that provincial police chief Pitak Tuvasittipong has taken on the role as a radio announcer too. And yes, his programme is about crime and its prevention, safety, and community service.
“I enjoy educating listeners on different crime prevention and safety programmes. This way, police officers have an opportunity to get closer to the community,” says Pitak, 50, who handles two-hour slots twice a week.
While members of the Dong Dam community may live in the outskirts, it’s nice to know that villagers have a voice with which to share the richness of their culture while enhancing their knowledge.