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

April 3, 2013

photo: Aaron Hokanson

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

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

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

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

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

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 this petition at





Kalia, thank you for this.
Kalia, thank you for writing this. I usually love Radiolab, but I recently listened to the episode you and your Uncle were interviewed for and I was appalled by how Robert treated you. His interview and complete lack of sensitivity were completely inappropriate and colored my views of him and Radiolab in a definite negative light. I really hope you find outlets for your stories and your Uncles stories without the trespassing of those with more power.
I listened to this interview- My gawd, I listened and it felt like I was audience to a person, no, to two people being raped - I wanted to reach inside the box and do unmentionable things to that man or pull you and your uncle free from being re traumatized all over again.There are no words.I just wonder why he is still working there- His words have no meaning. I find after the fact meaningless. I would never listen to him again. I wish you so much love and joy and your uncle and wish I could take an eraser and wipe clean the words that man used.The tone.The awfulness. It is indelible in my mind. Sadly.
Not sure if my comment went through. I wanted to say how inflamed I was at hearing the Radiolab interview. The level of sadistic intent and mockery from the interviewer was incomprehensible. My heart went out to you AND your uncle. How could this have happened? People care about you- People want answers as to why this man railroaded you and ambushed you both and yet still has a job??? I wish you love and joy ongoing. I have signed the petition and while nothing can erase the memory of that interview, know that people are completely shocked and on YOUR side. Regards,Anjela