We took the media to see our work in Laos. Here’s how it went

Jonathan Kyle Communications Manager for Mines Advisory Group (MAG) 31st October 2023

Photo credit: MAG/Bart Verweij

Earlier this year, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) were featured in BBC’s Crossing Continents, in an episode focused on the deadly legacy landmines have left in Laos. MAG’s Communications Manager Jonathan Kyle tells us how the story came about.

We initially set out to raise awareness on an important historical event – 50 years since the last US bomb was dropped on Laos. Our focus was on showing how the deadly impact of explosive devices does not end when a conflict does. War’s effects are far-reaching and longstanding and, while it takes mere minutes to plant a landmine or drop an explosive device, it can take years, decades even, to find and safely clear them. 

This is particularly true in Laos, the most bombed country per capita in the world, where 50 years on, people are still killed or injured by explosive devices. For us, it was important to tell that story – that even after a conflict ends and drifts away from international attention, families still have to live with the consequences on a daily basis. 

Finding the right journalist

We reached out to Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, an experienced freelance journalist who knows Laos and the wider Southeast Asia region extremely well and has a clear passion to highlight and document stories that are often overlooked. MAG had worked with her in the past on reports and documentaries about the region and we knew she would be the right person to tell this story, so we were delighted when she accepted.

A documentary format was important to us all. We felt we needed the time and space to tell the story from different angles – something a short news report would not allow. Antonia thought Crossing Continents – a widely respected series on BBC Radio 4 – would be a good match and reached out to them to gauge interest. Having secured an episode for their upcoming new season, we set out to Laos. 

Antonia travelled alone, equipped with a microphone, headset, and an audio recording device. MAG also recruited a locally based photographer to join us on the trip and arranged for one of our colleagues to help us with any translation needs. 

Over several days last April, we travelled extensively with Antonia and met with a variety of people and places – community members who had been injured by explosive devices, a school where MAG teams were providing explosive ordnance risk education classes, or following a MAG Emergency Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team – to name a few. 

Antonia also set up interviews with country experts such as the World Bank Representative to gain a wider perspective on where the country is at economically, 50 years on from the conflict.

The challenges of the audio format

The main challenge was linked to the medium. The sound quality for a podcast is paramount so interviews, often conducted outdoors, cannot be interrupted, or derailed by sounds such as other people talking in the background, music, cars on the road, etc. Finding the right space and ensuring the right conditions were met so an interview is perfectly captured is not always easy in a context you can’t control. 

At the same time, since there is no visual element to a podcast, it was important to capture the atmosphere and the environment of the context we were in and, if you listen to the episode, you will notice specific recordings of different sounds – such as birds, driving in a car, etc. – as well as Antonia’s detailed descriptions of her surroundings. The idea was to take the listener on the journey with us, even from afar and through a non-visual medium. 

Among other challenges were issues you can never fully anticipate when on such trips – for example, accompanying a team searching for explosive devices when it just so happens that on that morning, and quite exceptionally, they do not find anything. That is good news of course, but not ideal for a report on that subject. You have to adapt quickly and provide alternative options to ensure the story can still be told in full. 

Overall, however, the trip was successful, and Antonia was able to capture different angles, resulting in a strong and well-rounded episode that highlighted Laos’s deadly legacy from a variety of perspectives. 

Making the most of the media moment

The episode was broadcast about a month after the trip, both on the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 (several times). 

We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from different groups of stakeholders – our own staff (including in Laos), MAG supporters, donors, social media followers, as well as from friends and family that knew very little about the situation previously. 

Antonia also successfully pitched the story to the Guardian, which published a lengthy article, as well as features in other podcasts such as BBC Radio 4’s Pick of the Week and the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent. BBC in Spanish also published a detailed article on its website. 

Of course, it’s always difficult to pin down the exact impact (communications is rarely a precise science!) but it was clear that we were able to achieve the goal we’d set out initially: raise awareness to mass audiences (both in the UK and abroad) on this situation and put back in the headlines, at least for a time, Laos’s ongoing fight against the consequences of a decades-old conflict. It was a timely reminder also for our UK and European audiences, at a time when war is back in Europe, that conflict and war sow destruction and pain not just as it happens but over many generations. 

The report however also showed that there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful and that our colleagues in Laos – the vast majority of whom are local staff – and communities across the country are pulling together to rid their land of these deadly devices, however long it may take. Each landmine or item of explosive ordnance found and safely detonated saves lives and gives previously unusable land back to communities where they can grow crops and feed their families. Amidst tragedy and death, real progress is being made towards a future where families can live free from fear. 

In terms of format, we would gladly work with Crossing Continents and similar podcasts in the future. As previously mentioned, the stories we feel are important to share often require space, nuance, and time for listeners to have a clear and fully-fledged picture of an often very complex situation. Collaborating with journalists and producers committed to that same vision allows us to give the story the respect and dignity it deserves. 

You can listen to the episode in full here

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