Don't Touch That Dial...
How can you give illiterate or limited-English parents the information they need on children's health and development? Julieta Santana reports on how local radio fills a critical informational need in immigrant communities.
Maria, a Mexican woman currently living in Washington state, is worried that her three children might have gotten tuberculosis from a friend who tested positive for latent tuberculosis. At first, she's not sure where to turn. Then it comes to her.
A regular listener of Radio Bilingue's Linea Abierta (Open Line), Maria calls in to ask the advice of guest Jose Luis Burgos from CURE TB. Burgos explains that only people with the active virus are contagious—so her children couldn't have contracted the virus from this friend—but he goes on to recommend tuberculosis testing for all listeners.
In the course of a few minutes, her fears are resolved and thousands of listeners receive vital health information.
Radio Bilingue received an award from the National Partnership for Immunization for getting a record number of children vaccinated. In the Bay Area, Northeast Medical Services credits their success in enrolling a record number of children in Healthy Families (a state-funded, low-cost health insurance program) to local Chinese radio stations, Sing Tao 96.1 and KEST 1450 AM. In Orange County, Tu Nha Den Truong (From Home to School), a weekly Vietnamese radio show on parenting and child development is one of the most-listened to programs on VNCR 106.3 FM radio station.
What makes native language radio programs effective in educating immigrant communities about health where mainstream media may fail?
"Few immigrants speak fluent English," says Maria Arana, managing producer of Linea Abierta. "Many don't speak English at all." Radio Bilingue has programs in English and Spanish, as well as Portuguese, Mixtec (a Mexican indigenous language), and Hmong. Sing Tao offers Mandarin programming, Cantonese is spoken on KEST, and VNCR is one of two Vietnamese-language stations in the area.
Sounds like grandpa
"We tailor our information for our listeners, mainly migrant farmworkers," says Arana. "We don't yell at them and speak 5,000 miles per hour. Parents themselves host and advise other parents in the parenting program La Placita [literally Little Plaza, named for the central meeting place in most small Mexican towns]. We know how to talk to undocumented immigrants fearful of seeking out public services."
"Don't have experts who cannot speak the language that people speak everyday," advises Arana. "Sometimes there are doctors who want to use these big technical words, which won't be understood by many listeners. Just have someone who sounds like it was your grandpa explaining. Also include lots of testimonials to let other people know they have similar concerns, and can offer others some advice or solutions."
Tu Nha Den Truong provides "the type of information that I would give to a parent whose child was a patient, in a way that feels culturally relevant to them," adds the program's host, Dr. Quynh Kieu.
Medium of choice
"Many Chinese parents," says Linda Bien, marketing director for Northeast Medical, "do not take or have the time to read. Asian parents are busy driving, running a small business, sewing in a factory, or working in their home. Newspapers or television reports are more inaccessible because they can require complete attention and concentration. However, while driving, in their small business, or in the factory, people can listen to the radio."
Conveying health messages through radio is "very effective, it really sinks in," says Kieu. "Many people rely on the radio show as a regular information source. Sewing factories or manufacturing facilities with a lot of Vietnamese workers are tuned to those stations and people can listen while they work."
Eighty-five percent of Chinese radio listeners in the Bay Area listen to Sing Tao, while Radio Bilingue's listeners run from 400,000 to 460,000.
Focus on health
David Pang, a host on KEST, says he emphasizes health because it's a community need. Each night, he has a volunteer doctor come in to give advice and answer audience questions on topics such as nutrition, immunizations, health insurance enrollment, and check-ups for children.
After reading an article about the increasing number of obese Asian Americans, Pang says, "I brought in a doctor to talk about obesity. People always believe Asians are skinny, but it's not true, this new generation is different. I also had a nutritionist come in to offer some information about food and diet. They were very good. They explained that parents need to encourage good habits, like a counselor."
"We cover health so extensively because it is an important issue for farmworker families," says Arana. "To thrive in this country people need to be healthy. In the Central Valley, asthma is very common, and so it is an issue that is often discussed on Radio Bilingue."
Radio Bilingue's programs cover health information in different ways: Linea Abierta emphasizes health issues in a talk show format; Noticiero Latino includes short reports about health as part of the daily news; La Placita provides information for parents on immunizations, children's health, and common illnesses; La Hora Mixteca covers health topics in Mixtec.
Kieu's program covers child development and parenting issues, including health. Parents use the radio show to "navigate child-rearing and discipline in the US," she says. "I define learning disabilities. It's not what you believe it is. The child may be quite intelligent but they don't fit the traditional mold. [I discuss] signs of potential learning problems and what to expect during [early] school years." Other topics include discipline, bullies, and violence prevention.
Though the half-hour program does not have time for call-ins, Kieu encourages listeners to call her after the show to ask questions or discuss the topics. "Others send in their questions and requests for topics they'd like to hear about and I read them on the air and respond in the following session," she adds. This program is one of several that cover health on two Vietnamese-language radio stations in Orange County.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Children's Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children. It is reprinted here with permission.
This article was reviewed and updated in September 2012.