The story that could have been: Radio Lab’s “Yellow Rain”

I didn’t want to listen to the Radiolab “Yellow Rain” podcast.

People were upset about. I saw this story from Hyphen magazine being tweeted a lot. I didn’t read the story. I knew that if I read the story and listened to the podcast, I was going to get upset too.

I was right.

I listened with an open mind. I usually like public radio shows, and wanted to walk away thinking, People are being defensive. The show starts out innocently and interestingly enough. Basically, it’s about the controversy around Yellow Rain, a supposed chemical weapon that was dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War and caused death and destruction among the Hmong people. President Reagan claimed the Yellow Rain was developed by the Soviet Union.

A Harvard scientist has claimed that the yellow droppings were nothing but bee poop.

Then how do you explain all the death? Coincidence. People were dying from dysentery and other diseases at the same time these bees pooped.

Nothing but bee poop! Can you believe it?

And then the scientist laughed.

Right after all the description about what the Hmong people went through, they presented this theory about the bee poop, and the scientist laughed.

Dear Radio Lab, do you know what tone is? It’s if I’m telling a heartbreaking story, I don’t suddenly start joking and laughing about fucking bee poop.

The truly upsetting part of the show was when the hosts basically ambush their guests, Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist, Kao Kalia Yang. They had gone in thinking they would have a chance to tell their story, but instead they got grilled about whether or not the Yellow Rain was truly a chemical weapon. Yang gives an impassioned response and says that the interview was over. There’s silence, and then the host saying, “But it wasn’t. They kept talking.”

Those annoying people just kept yakking!

I can easily imagine another story. You start with the idea, “Yellow Rain is only bee poop,” but then there’s this other, more important story: the Hmong people. One of the hosts, Robert Krulwich, went on about how “the woman” didn’t care that President Reagan accused the Soviet Union of using chemical weapons.

If I had to choose between caring about the death of my people or a pissing contest between two governments, I’ll pick the death of my people.

The story could have been, “Yes, Yellow Rain may not have been poison. The Cold War might have been started over bee poop, but does any of that matter? What about the Hmong?” That would have been an interesting, well-rounded story.


  1. and…Robert Krulwich along with everybody from radiolab edit it after airing, twice, removing the laughter, removing a sentence here and there…..unbelieveable!!!

    my heart goes to Mr.Eng Yand and his niece; Kao Kalia Yang!

    • Yes, even after editing, it was still insensitive, and should have been presented with more context, ie, including the story of Hmong and their reaction to the bee poop theory, and differing viewpoints on that theory. The hosts just acted like this one scientist’s claim was the end all be all, and totally discredited the Hmong’s experiences. Sloppy and insensitive.