Local Radio In Asia For And With The People

Swedish Peder Gustafsson has a passion. He loves radio and is very good at it. So good, that he took care of the development of all programmes in the Swedish Radio. But tow years ago, he once again he left the position in Sweden, to work in a local radio station in Asia. This time in Laos.
    He was born into a family of restaurant keepers in Katrineholm. Everybody expected Peder Gustafsson to follow in the family footsteps so it is not a surprise that the Swede now some 40 years later has asked me to meet him at the trendy restaurant JOMA in the Lao capital Vientiane’s centre. 
    So far, so good. 
    However, instead of meeting me wearing an apron, the man with the smiling eyes is dressed a black T-shirt with the SR-Sveriges Radio printed on the chest. 
    “I was sure that I would never have my own restaurant, but still I was inspired by my father. In his restaurant he always listened to the radio music. Television had long since arrived, but my father never gave it a chance. So I took over that attitude.” 
    But it was a visit to Peder’s aunt in Bangkok when he was eight that convinced him that radio was his calling.
“We often went to Thailand for holidays. During the Christmas 1972, when the Americans bombed Hanoi, I was in Pattaya with my mother and my aunt. The air was full of the sound of B 52 aeroplanes. And I asked my mother where they were heading.” 
    The explanation came softly, but also as sensitive and concrete as a mother can do. 
“She told me that there was an U.S. air base a few kilometres from where I was always playing and had a wonderful time. And that the B 52 I saw in the air, was on their way to Hanoi in Vietnam to bomb the city, full of playing children like myself.” 
    The next day the 8-year old Peder saw on Thai TV how the children his own age were running around in panic with wounded skin and limbs – and not least horror in their face. 
“From that moment my ambition to work with the radio news was created. From that second I knew what I would do. I would tell other people about what happened in the world,” Peder remembers.
    So, when he was 20, he began to study journalism. 
    Then he got his first job as a journalist on Radio Sörmland. 
    “It was radio for people made together with the people. I was a part of local society. My first interview was with a young 17 year old guy who was in a wheelchair. He could not get into the post office by himself. The story led to a proper solution, and within a very short time they changed it so it became possible. It was not just my contribution alone, but I was a part of it.”
    Peter Gustafsson work and lived with Radio Sörmland for 6 years until he got headhunted by Radio Stockholm and later by Sweden’s nationwide radio broadcasts. 
    “At the same time I had a good friend and colleague who had a project running in Vietnam. It was about the radio type I deeply loved. Like my first job in Sörmland,” Peder explains.
    Each of the Vietnamese provinces had a radio station. All programmes were recorded in advance, two days a week. Even the weather forecast was recorded several days in advance. Peder’s colleague had the idea that we should educate these radio people part-time. He had to learn others to do the same as he himself. 
    “I said yes, joined the project. And it grew, I went back and forth. This is why I took leave of absence for two years. So I was more or less officially team leader in Vietnam. My biggest challenge as journalistic team leader was to get people to abandon the other jobs so the journalists could begin to work full time, and produce live radio”. 
    After two years Peder Gustaffson went back to the Swedish Radio, now it was in the town Uppsala, where he started as chief editor. 
    “I was in the job in 18 months, and I found out that I had lost something. I was full of emptiness inside me. But it took some time before I was aware that what I had lost was Asia.”
    That’s why he went to Indonesia for more than a year to do radio until he got an offer he could not refuse back in Sweden as a head of the department who took care of the development of all programmes in the Swedish Radio.
    And while everything went well in the new jobs at home in Sweden, SIDA began in 2006 to talk about a local radio project in Laos. SIDA had a 34-year history of working with aid programmes in Laos. 
“Since 2002, SIDA funded various forms of broadcasting in Laos. We were in competition with four other international organisations to get the funding. And we got it. In 2006, the project “Support to Continued Radio in Lao PDR” on track with a budget over three years at just 13 million SEK”, he proudly tells.
    So, Peder went to Laos with his Swedish wife.
    “Once again I arrived in a country which was very different from anything I had experienced before. Lao people are relaxed; the work is not the most important thing in the world. Of course we must work to eat, but people have glorious lives.”
    Laos was also the most poor of the country, Peter Gustafsson had seen from a professional angle.
    “For instance, we had a very good printer, but there was no money to buy colour. So the printer was collecting dust in a corner of an office. There was no money for maintenance. Did something break down there was no money available for repairing the stuff.”
    The Swedish radio guy fought, with his employees to create revenue, so the radio was partially self financed. And the radio station now sells more and more commercials. So now, they have colour for the printer, new batteries for the tape recorder, and much more.
    “I accepted the job, and was initially only to be here for a year. But my contract has been extended, so I can at least be here altogether three years. The work is exciting,” Peder says with enthusiasm. 
In the country there are two national radio stations, and 13 to 14 local stations. 
    Especially radio is so incredibly important in Laos, because the country has so many people who can neither read nor write. 
    “Many Laotians see and hear more Thai TV and radio than programs from Laos. It appeals more to them. Thais are more advanced, and their programmes are talented done and very entertaining. But it is still Thai culture and it is sad if Thailand and its culture take over.” 
    A problem which, however, overshadows almost everything else, strangely enough comes from Sweden.
    “Last year the Swedish government decided to pull out of Laos. It closed its embassy, and SIDA is moving its activities. We have money until March 2009. But the project must run at least two years more if our work shall be sustained. If we stop when the Swedish engagement is finished, I and many others fear that it all falls apart,” says Peder Gustafsson, who wants to be here a year or more if possible.
    “I advise Laos, but it is they who have to find new sponsors, which can take over the project. But until now, potential sponsors have shown very little interest. It would be sad if this project that so many people have worked so much with, shall fall apart,” he says.

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