Through the Long Winter: A Look Back at Radiolab’s Yellow Rain Controversy

It is March. In Minnesota, it is still snowing. I can hear the metal scrape of a neighbor’s shovel across their driveway. A woman in a red jacket walks briskly in between two houses pushing a stroller. The birds outside are singing louder than the ticking clock on the wall. I imagine the budding of the trees in a matter of weeks, the emergence of green in a matter of months, and the warmth of the hot summer sun on my face.

I am finding it difficult to write a closing piece to the travesty of what transpired with Radiolab and their story on Yellow Rain. Many things have happened since I wrote “The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of the Hmong Experience” in late October for Hyphen.

I begin with the most immediate.

As the readers of my first piece know, I suffered a miscarriage in the midst of the Radiolab debacle at nineteen weeks. My baby’s due date had been projected at December 26, 2012. December was an incredibly hard month for me. It was cold, of course, in Minnesota. The sky was heavy with gray.

Early December, I attended an American Refugee Committee fundraiser where a book night with me was being auctioned. At a table full of strangers in dark, glittery clothes, I heard, “When is the baby due?” “December 26th. We are so excited. It is our first.”

A young couple about the same age as my husband and I sat opposite us. In the dark, I had not seen her pregnant belly, pushed tight against the table. I saw myself as I would have been. I was thankful for the dim lighting, the loud music, the chaos of people coming together around me.

In mid-December I met with a writer for Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine who, four years after the publication of my first book, had just discovered it and wanted to write a review. In the open space of the huge Hmong Village cafeteria, we sat at a table talking about my work and the story I come from. The journalist was charming, her dark gaze on my face, her questions opening up fireworks of thought in my head.

An acquaintance who had seen me in the summer passed by our table, recognized me, walked back to the table, and said, “Kalia, where’s the baby? Did you leave it at home?”

I shook my head.

I said, “I, I lost the baby in the summer.”

My vision blurred and I looked down as the acquaintance reached out a hand to my shoulder, steadied me where I was seated, gave me time to recover, said, “I didn’t know.”

My thirty-second birthday came on December 17th. On December 18th, I couldn’t get up. I felt so tired. Usually, I recall the words of my beloved Uncle Shong, “Me naib, of course the body is tired. It works in the world. Call on your heart, if you want to get up,” – and I find the energy to rise into the day – but on December 18th, all I felt was the weight of my beating heart.

My husband insisted that I take a pregnancy test. My period wasn’t scheduled to come until the next week. We had a store of Dollar Store pregnancy tests underneath the sink. I took the test because I was sad.

The test was positive.

Today I am sixteen weeks pregnant. I count each day. I look forward to the next. I can’t wait until we get to the 40th week, or at least 36. I am scared to speak or think definitively about the baby coming, but I am only a woman who has had an excellent mother and I yearn to give the gift that she has given and continues to give me to a child of my own. Radiolab is not my primary concern, but the work that it leaves me with is an important part of my life – the fight for a more just, powerfully inclusive world.

Shortly after Radiolab aired their piece on Yellow Rain, in early October, 2012, I received an email from my publisher, Coffee House Press, about a young journalist who, if I would be so open, would like to speak with me about what happened with Radiolab. Her name was Olivia LaVecchia and she was a writer for City Pages, a local newspaper that runs 110,000 print copies each week for a weekly readership of 329,800.

I agreed. I have learned that we cannot let the bad things that happen to us close us from the world we yearn to belong to and the lives that we share in. Whichever way I looked at it, the world of Radiolab and WNYC, of City Pages and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), of New York and Minneapolis – this is the world that I live in, work in, will die in. It is the separation of worlds that allow for the growth of ignorance and the practice of negligence and abuse.

I met with Olivia at a coffee shop around the corner from my house. The cold from outside had permeated our jackets. We both huddled in our thick sweaters, hands over warm tea and coffee, to talk. We spoke candidly and openly about what happened to the Hmong in the jungles of Laos and what happened with Radiolab. I spoke about how the disparity in power and the abuse of minority populations was happening to more than just me or the Hmong. We agreed that there was work to be done. Olivia wanted to do her own investigation and story – not merely on what transpired with Radiolab, but with the impact of the history of the Hmong—through the lens of one living and working in a community rich with Hmong people.

I shared my sources with Olivia and she went after her own, including an interview with Dr. C.J. Mirocha, the first scientist to find toxins in the samples of Yellow Rain brought back by the Hmong people, and other people with first-hand experience of the Hmong in the camps of Thailand following the Yellow Rain exposure.

After a month of work, Olivia wrote “Behind Laos’ Yellow Rain and Tears: A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota’s Hmong.” Before the story was published, Olivia went to Radiolab and WNYC for a response to the story. Through a spokesperson, the station and the show refused to comment on the story.

On November 14, 2012, the day that Olivia’s story broke, Dean Cappello, the CCO of WNYC, wrote me an email. Dean hadn’t responded earlier to the email I wrote him on October 8 listing my concerns about Radiolab and their treatment of Uncle Eng, myself, and the Hmong experience. His email to me was no coincidence. Dean Cappello said that he and Jad Abumrad wanted to fly out to Minnesota to talk with me, privately, “to learn” from me.

I responded honestly. I said a conversation with me alone wouldn’t be enough if Dean Cappello and Jad Abumrad wanted to learn. I told him that they should also meet with Uncle Eng, who was the target of the show, Dr. Paul Hillmer, my friend and the historian who sent Radiolab producer Pat Walters, my way, other Hmong people who’ve lived through the experience of Yellow Rain, and allies who were interested in ensuring accountable journalism for minority populations like the Hmong. I asked for an open forum. Dean refused. They wanted a private meeting.

From November 14, 2012 to February 25th, 2013 Dean Cappello and I sent over ten emails back and forth. I agreed that if Dean Cappello and Jad Abumrad were uncomfortable with an open forum, we could have a small table conversation with key players. I offered dates and possible places. He didn’t agree to any of the dates.

I met with MPR’s president Jon McTaggert and Mickey Moore, MPR’s managing director of Inclusion and Community Impact, along with Wilder Foundation President, MayKao Hang and Kristine Martin, vice president of Wilder Center for Communities. We discussed what happened with Radiolab, my communications with Dean Cappello, and the impact of media trespass on minority populations. We talked about the relationships that hadn’t been formed yet, brainstormed about ways in which mutual respect and understanding can be cultivated. Both Jon McTaggert and MayKao Hang agreed for representatives of their organizations to serve as facilitators in a meeting with Dean Cappello, Jad Abumrad, and Uncle Eng and me.

I sent more dates to Dean Cappello. He asked for alternatives. I sent alternative dates. He said he would respond within the week’s end. Two weeks passed. He did not respond.

On February 25th, I sent Dean Cappello, the following email, my last:

Dear Dean,

It’s been two weeks and I’ve not heard from you. I’ve been patient and hopeful, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this meeting is not a priority on your end. When you suggested a trip to Minnesota and said you and Jad wanted to make this a learning experience, I believed you. As time has passed and the lack of a date and a timely response has not arrived, I am prepared to say that some closure on our end is necessary and this delay is doing more harm than good.

It is unfortunate that we will not meet, but it is consistent with the manner in which Uncle, myself, and advocates and friends of the Hmong community have been treated by WNYC and Radiolab throughout this experience. I can only hope that the transgressions that happened to us will not happen to others under your watch in the future. On my end, I will work with those at MPR who are interested in fostering responsible and meaningful radio to ensure that communities like the Hmong can be included in ways that will bring us together and not tear us apart.


As of today, there has been no response.

People with power never need to respond. They hardly ever do; sincerely, that is.

Those of us, who work on the ground, both feet planted on the earth, beneath the tall buildings and the currents of airwaves we cannot see, we work on despite the silence, sometimes because it is the only way to live with it.

Radiolab continues their radio show. Many of their listeners continue to listen. A small percentage of them have stopped – they write and tell me because now they know: the truth belongs to those who lived it.

My Uncle Eng once asked me if I understood the work of a writer. I told him that a writer writes stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. He shook his head. He told me, “A story is like the stop sign on the road of life. Its purpose is to make you stop, look both sides, check the trajectory of the horizon before you continue. Until you understand this, you are not yet a writer.”

Radiolab has become a part of the story of our lives. It has made us stop. We’ve looked both sides. Up and down, too. We’ve checked the trajectory of the horizon. We must continue.

I begin to feel the small movements of my baby inside of me, prodding me on, one day at a time. In the dark of night, I wake from terrible nightmares where I lose my baby – like I lost Baby Jules. I make impossible medical decisions to try to keep them alive. I cry so hard that I jerk myself awake. In the roar of the sirens across the gray stretches of morning, I feel my beating heart in the fragile fingers that try to hold my baby safe inside of me.

Uncle Eng, I hope that what happened with Radiolab will make me a better person, a more understanding writer, a stronger fighter for the story of our lives, and those that are yet to be.

May spring bring the rains that will wash away the debris of a long winter, and moisten the frozen ground, so all things, big and small, can grow, and unfurl in the sun.

Kao Kalia Yang is a Hmong American writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the author of the award-winning _The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and the forthcoming Still, Fluttering Heart: The Second Album.

If you’d like to tell NPR this can’t happen again, you can sign 18 Million Rising’s petition._

This article originally posted at Hyphen; photo by Aaron Hokanson.

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