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Dial up!

How the Hmong diaspora use the world’s most boring technology to make something weird and wonderful

Mia Sato platforms and communities reporter with five years of experience covering the companies that shape technology and the people who use their tools.
Dial Up! How the Hmong diaspora uses the world’s most boring technology to make something weird and wonderful By Mia SatoPhotography byAnnabelle Marcovici & Phyllis B. DooneyIllustration by David Huang

Even on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the radio lines were busy. Other people might send a card or go out for a family breakfast, but on Hmong radio shows, you waited your turn to speak into the ether, to tell strangers across the world about your parents. Some were living, some already dead, and others were still missing years after the war. No matter the specifics, almost every speaker cried, whether in longing, regret, or simply for the foreign feeling of saying out loud what a mother or father meant to them. But what could these strangers listening know about this grief, contained for so long and finally given a place to expand and breathe?

Callers joined in from across the US, France, Canada, and Australia, some using fake names to conceal themselves as they memorialized their parents to their people scattered by war. Even years later, Mee Vang remembers the crying. She tuned in from her St. Paul, Minnesota home. For many Hmong refugees who ended up in the United States, like Mee, the two holidays were yet another piece of American culture to adjust to. But on the radio shows, they became an unexpected opportunity to discover solidarity.

The shows weren’t the traditional kinds you’d find by tuning to an AM or FM band; they were operated independently from media companies by ordinary Hmong citizens, aired live all-day, every day and were free to call into for as long as you’d like. They used free conference call software to do it, a network that is still in place to this day.

“We did not have a social opportunity to appreciate our mom and dad, and then they died,” Mee says. “Then this telephone conference became available.”

These were built by and for Hmong people, pulled together with whatever resources were available. Any hour of the day, a Hmong person somewhere in America could call in and hear a familiar language — and not just listen but respond.

Mee has been listening since those nascent years around 2009 when there were only two main shows. She tuned in again this year, but the Mother’s and Father’s Day programs sounded different. What will you do with your family this weekend? What did your children do for you? Most of the crying had stopped. It was a flash of an immigrant community’s transformation — people grieving less and celebrating more.

Mee Vang sits at the dining room table of her relative’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota, while hosting that morning’s radio program from her tablet.

Hmong conference radio feels more intimate than AM / FM, all the more when you understand the work that goes into sustaining it. Callers are typically greeted with a recorded message welcoming them to the line in Hmong, punctuated by an automated English message saying how many callers are on the line.

Once you’re in, it’s easy to get lost in the aural sensation of hearing a language you don’t often encounter; as someone who doesn’t understand Hmong, it’s enveloping, almost nerve-wracking to listen in via phone, a communication mode we think of as private, two-way, and closed. For non-Hmong speakers, the only hints of each show’s topic come from the occasional English words sprinkled in: “B2 Bomber,” “Iran,” “recreational marijuana,” “California Assembly,” “CNN dot com.” Sometimes, one DJ will deliver what appears to be news for almost an hour uninterrupted. Other times, a few voices stack on top of one another — less of a cacophony, more of a discussion, not in chaos but in organic conversation. There’s occasional background noise, the shuffling of papers, clearing of throats, chuckles. Each hour is different, a testament to the coordination required of owners and DJs.

But most non-Hmong people — even experts who study media and communications — have no idea that this system exists.

Listen to the podcast version of "Dial up!"

When Lori Kido Lopez, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Asian American media, first moved to Wisconsin, she began researching Hmong media consumption and production. She first observed that though towns with larger Hmong populations might have a community newspaper or the rare community radio segment, it was difficult for Hmong people to find robust and consistent media about their community. She was missing what she would later find to be the most popular form of mass media for the Hmong.

“[The Hmong I talked to were] just like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s Hmong radio or the cellphone show.’ Wherever the name they have for it,” Lopez says. “And you’re like, ‘No, there is no name for it. That’s how rare it is.’”

A boring and ubiquitous technology familiar to anyone who’s ever worked from home, the conference call line contradicts its very purpose: someone calls in, ostensibly to engage, but often, what the line allows for is the ability to tune out.

Participation is what keeps Hmong conference line radio alive. A caller dials the conference call number, usually shared through word of mouth or on Facebook groups. The lines have hourly programming and themes: call in the afternoon, and you might find someone singing traditional Hmong folk songs. In the evening, maybe it’s business advice from Hmong entrepreneurs. Whatever the topic, the shows are all in Hmong, a key factor that’s both unique to the medium and essential for its survival. An oral culture for much of their history, the Hmong did not have a written language until the 1950s, and only 40 percent of foreign-born Hmong Americans were English-proficient as of 2015. The shows are not as popular with younger, American-born Hmong.

Most lines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the “owner” of the line is responsible for recruiting hosts for all hours of operation, typically called “DJs.” In Lopez’s research, she found the shows are largely listened to, owned, and DJed by women.

“They look up to you just like a movie star,” says Miss Lee, an owner based in South Carolina where approximately 0.05 percent of the population is Hmong. The total Hmong population in the US was just under 300,000 in 2015, and most are concentrated in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. For Hmong living in places other than these historic enclaves, it’s not uncommon to go day-to-day never encountering another Hmong person.

“We spoke a lot of English,” Miss Lee says of her life in South Carolina. “And when I go speak Hmong, I’m still so behind on my Hmong language.”

For Miss Lee, her less-than-perfect Hmong has become something of a calling card. When she travels, Hmong people can usually recognize her by her voice. Her Hmong is part of the entertainment value. And, she says, hosting shows allows her to practice.

In her five years of hosting telephone conference radio shows, Miss Lee has amassed a loyal fan base, mostly “older ladies,” as she affectionately calls them. They’ve followed her from one show to another and were her first listeners when she set up her own line earlier this year. (“Miss Lee” is her hosting name, which The Verge is using at her request.)

Her show, Xtc Muag Zeem Muaj, or The Vision, is designed to be “like a university” where listeners can come and share what they know and leave with knowledge from others. Miss Lee thought especially of her older ladies, many of whom never had the chance to go to school or whose lives were disrupted by the Secret War.

Miss Lee talks on a conference line radio show while at work. Miss Lee emigrated with her parents from Laos when she was five years old.

In many ways, that name alone is a microcosm of America’s cognizance of the Hmong community. Even in their home countries, Hmong are an ethnic minority and have been victims of persecution, being forced to flee their homes for hundreds of years. The majority of Hmong refugees came to America in the 1980s from Laos where they were trained by the US military to fight the North Vietnamese Army and aid in containing the spread of communism across Southeast Asia. The Secret War killed an estimated quarter of Hmong boys and men and displaced hundreds of thousands more in the years following the conflict. Yet most Americans don’t know about this alliance or its human cost to the Hmong people. Most Americans don’t even know the word “Hmong.”

It’s this history of erasure that makes Hmong conference radio all the more remarkable. Written histories of the Hmong people do not extend very far, and mainstream coverage and media on Hmong communities only scratch the surface or have historically even blamed Hmong for social ills, appealing to anti-immigrant rhetoric and the dog whistle of a changing America. The radio shows aren’t just subversive for the sake of it; they serve to fill a resource gap in information sharing, community building, and space for a group of people who often describe themselves as being without a country of their own.

“There’s so little focus on Hmong people… because they’re such a small community,” Lopez says. “That means that they’ve had to be innovative, and they’ve had to get around all of the inequities that their community has suffered, and find a way to do what the rest of us do anyway.”

Miss Lee isn’t getting rich running a radio line. Everyone at The Vision is a volunteer, and many Hmong DJs and owners think of it as a form of community service, a way to give back to their people, make friends, and, in Miss Lee’s case, simply help older, often housebound Hmong get through the day.

“I have a lot of friends that I met through the air, and I didn’t want to lose them. I want us to keep in touch,” Miss Lee says. “Especially the ones that are like 70, 80 [years old]. Sometime, they’re going to go away from the earth.”

Miss Lee owns a cooking sauce company, allowing a more flexible work schedule to coordinate and run The Vision. She manages the entire operation herself, and it’s up to her to find DJs to fill time slots. Her line has active programming from 6AM to midnight central time, and in three months, she’s recruited 22 hosts, mostly acquaintances and friends she’s met through the shows over the years. Miss Lee and her DJs have a separate number — the “meeting room” — where they discuss the programs or any issues that arise. DJs act as hosts and moderators, and much of their time on air might be spent keeping the peace and facilitating good discussions.

On most systems, there are built-in mechanics that allow for crowd control to mitigate the chaos of having dozens or hundreds of participants on a conference line. If callers want to participate in a discussion, they press a button to let the host know they want to speak. The DJ can then move through the queue of participants by unmuting the next caller.

Nobody knows exactly how many Hmong radio lines there are — it’s a complex and unregulated system with no directories or central oversight — but there are clues that can be used to trace their unlikely proliferation. The shows began cropping up in the mid- to late-2000s when fledgling smartphones were just beginning to seep into everyday life and carriers began offering unlimited talk plans. Unlike streaming radio, a caller doesn’t need a smartphone or internet to access the lines. Anyone who knows the phone number can call in to talk and participate or simply listen, without running up an expensive phone bill. Miss Lee is just starting out, and her programs typically max out around 40 listeners; in Lopez’s research, she routinely encountered lines with 500 to 1,000 callers on at once.

For Miss Lee, the time it takes from her day is worth it, especially given the relatively low financial barrier to entry: Hmong radio typically doesn’t cost the line owners any money. In her research, Lopez found that almost all Hmong media takes a similar structure, with just one or two people in charge of the whole operation, with low overhead. It’s a common sense medium for both hosts and listeners in the Hmong community, which suffers poverty rates that are nearly double that of all Americans. And for hosts like Miss Lee, the shows are the most convenient way to give back to her community. She says her “university” doesn’t just keep people company; it also can also change minds.

“A lot of the Hmong women and men, they don’t have any education,” Miss Lee says. “But the more they come and listen on the air, the more they can open up their minds. They can see things differently.”

Aaron Seelye can’t remember if he found the Hmong people or if they found him. But even as seemingly unusual as it sounded to run a pirate radio station through a conference call line, it wasn’t any stranger than some of the things Seelye had set up before. Once, he’d started a dating app-type service that would usher two people into a third-party conference line.

The Hmong “conference thing” was a new one, though, and the requests to start new lines began trickling in around four years ago.

“[When I first learned about the lines], this was such a novel and inventive thing. It was just like, ‘Oh my god,’” he laughs. “‘That is genius.’”

Seelye runs, a small business in the Seattle area that helps farms collect and aggregate data through an app. He’s worked in telecommunications for nearly 20 years, more recently through his company Eltopia Communications. He estimates the number of Hmong radio lines he’s set up is in the dozens, and he can usually guess that the request is for a show based on the client’s name. (There are 18 Hmong clans, from which they take their last names.)

Seelye has the unique vantage point of seeing the lifespans of the lines he establishes. Though the financial barrier might be low, maintaining an active line is an entirely different issue.

“For every 10 people that call me and get set up with a line, maybe one is doing it six months later,” he says.

Some hosts also notice that lines are disappearing. One of the first two wildly popular lines is no longer in service, and it’s not uncommon to dial a number to listen to a show, only to find it inactive. Miss Lee estimates that, a few years ago, there were over 200 lines. Now, she thinks that number has shrunk to 100 or fewer. For one, owners retire or no longer have time to dedicate to their line. And, Miss Lee says, without DJs to host each hour, radio lines will fail.

“Everybody in America, we work a lot,” she says. “If you call in and there’s no DJ, nobody [talks]. Then you just hang up.”

For his part, Seelye doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’ll continue setting up lines for whoever wants one. While he periodically checks in with owners or troubleshoots technical issues, it’s no skin off his nose. It’s mostly just a hands-off, curious favor he does. He doesn’t know much about the community to which he’s lending a hand. Only that, at one point, they started to call, and he answered.

For all of the idiosyncrasies of Hmong conference radio, it still isn’t immune to the problems arising in its mainstream counterparts, particularly misinformation. Health shows would occasionally tell listeners to buy a certain drug to be cured of their disease; financial shows sometimes told listeners not to use American banks.

“Everyone had a story about this horrible thing that they heard that their relatives believed, but it was obviously a lie,” Lopez says.

Because the shows are unregulated, this misinformation can go unchecked, and Lopez found Hmong people who don’t listen often mistrust Hmong radio and even show disdain for the programs and its participants. She found a sizable Hmong population that considers the shows to be a waste of time or low-value.

But Lopez believes the mistrust stems not just from the bad advice or misleading information, but also from who is often at the helm of the medium. Many of the shows are female-led enterprises, an unusual phenomenon in media generally but also among other forms of Hmong media. Some of the critique by non-listeners indeed echoes common stereotypes of female-produced media: during her research, the lines were described to Lopez as unprofessional, gossipy, and not to be taken seriously.

“The trope of women talking on the phone being something that’s harmful to society is very old,” Lopez says. She’s heard the same type of disparagement over and over.

But frequent participants on the lines say they aren’t just a place to gossip: call in, and you’ll find an effort to tease out what it means to be Hmong and how the Hmong culture should or shouldn’t evolve. It’s a palimpsest of people, places, and changing attitudes, all colliding in real time.

Pa Der Vang (no relation to Mee Vang), an associate professor of social work at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, began co-hosting a program in 2009 focusing on education at the invitation of another professor. Hmong women in higher education or professional spaces can be a heated topic within the community, and Pa Der’s presence on air amplified it.

She often found herself caught in the middle of a volley of views old and new, traditional and progressive. One caller might mock and demean her, showing outright disdain for women pursuing an education. You’re a know-it-all, they’d tell her. You women these days don’t respect men anymore. Then the next caller might ask her to mentor their daughters.

In traditional Hmong culture, Pa Der says, a woman must be connected to a man to be properly sent to her afterlife, and more traditional Hmong place outsized value on a woman finding a husband. Cultural and social anxiety often materialize on air, and everyone has something to say.

“Some of it is related to the culture and that piece around animism,” Pa Der says. “But a lot of it is just patriarchy. It’s people my age who just don’t want to see a woman in a position of power.”

Her stint as a host didn’t last long. After eight months, Pa Der decided hosting was taking too much of an emotional toll on her, and she finally quit after her co-host expressed views against gay marriage. A decade later, Pa Der has mixed feelings about whether the show helped her personally create a community with other Hmong people.

“It felt almost like a weird Twilight Zone, like a microcosm,” she says. “You always felt like you were in this black room and heard each other’s voices, but you would never ever find out who they were.”

But as a mental health professional, Pa Der acknowledges the important gap the radio shows can fill, both on a personal and public level. For one, Pa Der says some service providers use the shows to disseminate public service announcements around safe sex, immunizations, responsible alcohol use, and other public health issues. And then there’s the simple benefit of exposure to one’s own community where it otherwise may not exist.

“I work with a lot of Hmong refugees who are dealing with depression, and part of that stems from isolation, or the depression manifests itself as isolation,” Pa Der says. “But if you have this ready-made platform where you can just pick up the phone and call and talk to somebody without too much effort? Fabulous. I love it.”

Even for Hmong who live in communities with other Hmong people, the conference lines can expand their world; Pa Der sees them as a tool for a more globalized Hmong diaspora. Earlier this year during a trip to Laos, Pa Der was eating lunch at an open market in Xieng Khouang Province. A Hmong Lao woman sat near her. The woman was on a conference radio line talking to Hmong in the US, one of those voices in the dark room.

Mee Vang still listens to Hmong radio, a decade after she first dialed a number given to her by a sister in St. Louis. It’s on in the morning as she gets ready for the day and at night before she goes to bed. It’s on in the kitchen as she cooks, a favorite activity and one of the topics of the shows she would host. It’s safe to say that if she’s home, it’s on.

“Just like the radio,” she says.

Mee ended a nearly decade-long hosting career earlier this year, largely because she no longer had the time. For years, she taught listeners how to cook Hmong food over the phone, carefully explaining recipes and answering questions. But those shows, like almost all Hmong conference call shows, were ephemeral, anchored to this world only by those who heard them live on air. Now, Mee wants something more permanent, something to save for her children, grandchildren, and friends. She’s pivoting to video using her new YouTube channel where she films herself cooking. (Hmong YouTube news is also a popular form of media.)

But for years, hosting the shows was a job Mee took seriously. Every Thursday before her evening news show, she would take an hour or two to gather and translate important news from the Twin Cities, Wisconsin, California, Laos, and Thailand. She kept it in front of her while she spoke, a script any radio host would immediately recognize.

At 9PM sharp, she would play her theme music over the phone, a Hmong folk song by Txooj Muas Thoj. Years ago, she heard him play the Hmong guitar on a conference line and sent him $70 in exchange for tapes of music. She plays her song over the phone for me, the same way she did for thousands of listeners over her years on air.

She would lower the volume slightly as she began to speak, introducing herself and her program — a product of an ingenuity essentially unknown to most of the world and to many of those who haven’t needed to search and create just to hear their own language. “Welcome to Niam Sam,” she would say in Hmong. “Thank you for joining me today.”