Radio Saigon Lures Vietnamese to Houston
Ethnic station is said to have a hand in bringing more Vietnamese from West Coast
CYNTHIA LEONOR GARZA, Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Published 5:30 am, Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Vu Thanh Thuy broadcasts at Radio Saigon Houston. The station has grown in popularity and size over the past 8 years and tries to reach out to the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans. Photo: Steve Ueckert, Chronicle
The phone lines are open.
Today's topic is sensitive, Radio Saigon Houston host Vu Thanh Thuy says into the mic in her balmy voice. To dip. And dip the same utensil or chopsticks again in the communal bowl or plate.
One woman tells Vu, sitting in her Bellaire Boulevard studio, it makes her queasy to watch her aunt re-dipping her spoon into the soup pot. That instigates another caller who says America is too clean, that it respects individuality over family traditions of sharing food.
Over the last decade, Vu and her husband, Duong Phuc , Radio Saigon Houston KREH 900 AM co-owners, have taken a strong foothold in the Houston Vietnamese media market with programming that mixes talk shows with news and music. The station's presence is also credited with helping spur Vietnamese migration from the West Coast to the Houston area.
The station's growth with the Vietnamese-language radio format also illustrates a thriving and expanding Vietnamese community in Houston with an appetite for programs in their native language. Their staff has grown from five to 35 part-time or full-time employees, plus more than 80 contributing hosts.
"This is just the beginning," Vu said. "At first, we thought the language will die down with the older generation, but our success has proven that wrong."
Although California has long been considered the Vietnamese epicenter in the U.S., over the past few years Houston's comparably cheap real estate, cost of living and investment opportunities have lured West Coasters.
Word about Houston's attractive market has spread in part due to the connection made by Radio Saigon Houston's simulcast news program that airs in Orange County, Calif., San Jose, Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Vu said. Californians - and anyone who can access the radio station via the Internet - can get a dose of Houston from the daily programs.
Radio Saigon Houston has helped spread the rags to riches stories of some of Houston's most successful Vietnamese entrepreneurs, said Danny Nguyen, co-founder and president of the Vietnamese American Houston Chamber of Commerce .
"I have a lot of inquiries from people in California. There's a lot more opportunities in terms of investment and development" in Houston, said Nguyen, a commercial real estate developer and investor.
He's heard of people who sold their $800,000 California homes and moved to Houston, bought a bigger, cheaper house and used the leftover money as business capital.
"Radio tends to be more ubiquitous than newspaper and they do have stories about other Vietnamese around the country. Through word of mouth people learn about opportunities. That's how Houston is beginning to become known," said Julian Do , Southern California director for New America Media , the largest national collaboration of ethnic news organizations.
Steve Le, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was a baby, heard the buzz about Houston while living in the Golden State. The 25-year-old moved here from Orange County last year to start a cabinet business.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't meet a California transplant," Le said. He said Vietnamese radio has helped create word-of-mouth build-up in California about Houston's opportunities.
The station's impact on migration would not be unprecedented. Black radio was instrumental in the 1940s and '50s during the massive African-American migration from the South to the Midwest and Northeast.
In the Houston area, Vietnamese make up the largest group of Asians at nearly 62,000, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
Room to grow
By numerous accounts, California's Vietnamese media market is nearly saturated. But in Houston, there's room to grow.
Radio Saigon's competition also has taken note of H-town.
Little Saigon Radio 1520 AM relocated its headquarters from California to Houston last year, said Cuong Quoc Nguyen , director of operations at the station. It dominates the California Vietnamese radio market, but while it has had a decade-long presence in Houston, the local content was limited over the past five years, he said.
While most of Little Saigon Radio's staff remains in California, there are now eight full-time Houston staffers. The media research company Arbitron does not gather ratings for the station or its competitor.
Duong managed Little Saigon Radio from 1997 until 2001, when he and his wife, who also worked there, left to start their station.
Radio Saigon Houston is just one of the media products under parent company Mass Media Inc., owned by Vu and Duong.
Their bilingual newspaper, Saigon Houston Weekly, was launched last October, and Vu said they plan to start a home delivery service in October.
All of their print products plan to add more English content. But for the most part, they are not forgoing Vietnamese radio programming.
Vu said there's a revival of interest in the language and culture among the younger generation, especially when they reach college age. Also, many parents take their children to Vietnamese language classes on the weekends.
"They realize that being bilingual is better and bicultural is better," Vu said.
But there are still plenty of young Vietnamese who prefer English - and the station hopes to serve their needs, too.
Hairstylist Stacy Cao , 44, has lived in Houston for 15 years. She's more comfortable speaking Vietnamese so she tunes in to Radio Saigon Houston's morning news show in the car while taking her kids to school.
"Sometimes you don't have time," Cao said. "Usually in the morning they have news so if you don't watch TV or read the newspaper you can know [what's happening] from them."
It's a constant battle with her three children, who'd rather hear a hip hop station. Though they prefer English format radio stations, Cao thinks they'll come around to Vietnamese. For now, they're learning the language by attending weekend classes at a church.
Radio Saigon Houston's programs feature a range of guests - mechanics, immigration lawyers, real estate agents and school officials.
On the Love and Family show, most of Vu's topics are universal, such as communication between parents and children. But people always address cultural pride.
And that inevitably brings up the way things are done in Vietnam versus in America. Vu has talked about parents being friends with their children - instead of just telling them what to do.
Vu and husband Duong, former award-winning journalists in South Vietnam, are fixtures at community events. They are known internationally for breaking the story of the "boat people" - which they were a part of - who fled Vietnam after the country fell under communist rule.
They distinguished themselves nationally with their role as a conduit of information for Vietnamese evacuees during Hurricane Katrina.
The couple was honored with the Asian American Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 for their work. They have also received several local and national small business and entrepreneur awards, including one from the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce.
Internet-based and ethnic media are the fastest growing media today, said Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California . There's a thirst for niche news, and advertisers are increasingly targeting specific communities.
Vu said her station also fills a gap left by the mainstream media.
''To me, local news is what you always need to know. ... I don't believe American journalists can have access to the depth of ethnic stories since the ethnic communities usually keep to themselves," Vu said. "The ethnic media is like the gatekeeper of the community."