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Radio Vietnam in America’s Heartland Serves Growing Community

A sign welcomes visitors to Oklahoma City's Asian District. Kristi Eaton

OKLAHOMA CITY - MaiLy Do can still vividly remember the moment she knew she needed to start a Vietnamese-language radio station in Oklahoma City—despite having no broadcast experience.

The day was Sept. 11, 2001, and her husband had just told her to turn on the TV. She watched as the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, a plume of smoke billowing into the sky. “At first I thought it was an accident,” she said. “Definitely had to be an accident. “

But then the second tower was struck, and Do, who also goes by Marlene, knew it was no accident. Do, who fled Vietnam with her family on April 30, 1975, could stay informed by watching the local news. But with a limited understanding of English, her parents and other elderly Vietnamese people couldn’t, leaving them even more scared and confused. Do had watched a similar scenario play out within Oklahoma City’s tight-knit Vietnamese community following the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, located just a few miles away from the city’s Asian District.

It was then that Do decided to start a public radio station in the state’s largest city. Broadcasting out of the Asian District, Dai Phat Thanh Viet Nam has grown from providing one hour of programming a day as an affiliate to a Washington D.C.-based station to becoming a 24-7 station broadcasting across the country, including in Atlanta, Georgia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, and into more than 40 countries through the Internet.

“I felt at the time - Sept. 11 - we need to be a part of this society. This is my home,” Do said.

Do was just 14 years old when she and her family became one of thousands of boat people who fled the communist regime. They fled with one bag each, enough to carry one change of clothes. At one point, the barge they were traveling on sunk halfway into the sea.

Do can still recall the moment she froze, a basket full of ramen noodles, condensed milk and other supplies, in her arms. A passing ship picked her up as well as the women in her family, and she was reunited with her father and brothers in the Philippines before heading on to the U.S. The family arrived at a refugee camp before relocating to North Carolina and later, to Arkansas. Eventually, Do found herself in Oklahoma, where she graduated from college, got married and started working at her husband’s law firm.

“I just want the mainstream to know we are here. We exist."

She now spends 90 percent of her time working at the radio station, which broadcasts a mix of news, political, entertainment and religious shows, she said. She and the more than 20 staff members who provide the station’s content all work on a volunteer basis.

Just 2 percent of Oklahoma’s 3.8 million residents identify as Asian, according to Census data. But the goal of the radio station, Do said, is to show others that Vietnamese-Americans and other Asian Americans matter and need a voice. In that regard, Do has helped politicians in Oklahoma take notice of the Vietnamese-American residents in the Oklahoma City metro area, and she now regularly hosts candidates before elections.

“I just want the mainstream to know we are here. We exist,” she said.

Đài Phát Thanh Việt Nam, also known as Vietnamese Public Radio-Oklahoma, broadcasts from Oklahoma City's Asian District. Kristi Eaton

The station also plays an important role in disseminating critical information to a segment of the population with limited English skills. During a recent severe weather event, one elderly resident sat in his closet listening to Do’s broadcast, only coming out when he called Do to inquire about his safety.

A National Weather Service assessment report following tornadoes and flash flooding in central Oklahoma in May 2013 that left 47 people dead said that emergency managers and meteorologists acknowledge there are insufficient forecasts and warning resources for people who don’t speak English in Oklahoma. Though the report focused primarily on the Spanish-speaking population in the state, it said the Weather Service should improve partnerships with non-English speaking partners including media outlets, churches and civic organizations.

“Outreach to organizations that work with these populations can help design risk communication strategies to meet the needs of these populations,” the report stated.

Do, who relies on donations as well as her own personal money to fund the station, tears up as she recalled working 14-hour days for free in order to help get information out to the Vietnamese community.

“You have probably never experienced what I experienced,” she said. “And when you get to that point, you understand the process of life, the process of survival, and you appreciate those hands that have pulled you up during that time. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”