Vang Chun remembers a time when his industry brought families together. Now 78, he wistfully recounted this week the past glory of radio dramas – a genre largely ignored today despite the efforts of some trying to keep it alive. Chun remembers putting together Kolab Pailin (The Rose of Pailin), a theatrical radio piece based on a famous novel that became a hit, when he was a 21-year-old choreographic arts student at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Centering on the love story of Chet, a poor gem miner, and Neary, the only daughter of a wealthy gem salesman, Chun filled in however he could.
He went around town recording sound effects, like a car engine and even gunshots, and he also played an evil merchant in the play.
Stories like “Kolab Pailin” would attract families around their radios after dinner, as one of the main distractions to break up the routine of country life.
“Radio drama is an amazing form of art,” he says. “It needs only sounds, and the audience uses imagination to enjoy it. Authors who write radio plays therefore have to be very skillful in telling settings and story through the speech of actors only,” he said.
An alumnus of L’Ecole National de Théâtre, Chun studied under Hang Tun Hak, the pioneer of Cambodian modern theatre, and he spent most of his life writing and starring in radio drama, most of them telling slice-of-life stories. During the 1960s and ’70s he worked with stars in the field, such as Huoy Meas, who was also a well-known singer, and Youk Kem, the star of the National Radio Station. Chun also seems to have passed his love of radio down: his son – RFA journalist Chun Chanboth – himself a high-profile broadcaster.
During Khmer Rouge rule, most radio drama voice actors and writers were killed, but Chun survived and got the chance to join the revived RUFA after the regime’s fall, where he has been teaching the craft for the past 30 years. Nonetheless, he barely hears fictional audio stories on the radio these days. “Perhaps today people prefer other means of entertainment such as TV or smartphones,” Chun says. “I am sure they will enjoy it like people in the past if they learn to exploit the power of their imagination.”
Only a few radio stations in Cambodia are sill broadcasting radio dramas, and most of the plays are part of campaigns or projects by local NGOs, who buy slots from broadcasters to tell stories about health, human trafficking and so on. The station best known for broadcasting radio plays regularly is Phnom Penh-based Vayo FM. However, their program is currently on hiatus as the previous producers and most members of the drama team have resigned and are working somewhere else.
“We want to recruit a new producer and more voice actors as soon as possible,” says Ouch Vanna, the program manager of Vayo FM.
“But it is easier said than done since it is very hard to find the producers nowadays, not to mention that we will need to spend a lot of money and time on producing radio drama,” she said, adding that most of today’s producers don’t have professional training.
While Veayo has no means to measure audience statistics, Vanna said that according to the station’s survey, radio dramas are still particularly popular in the countryside, especially among those who cannot read.
Um Kosal, a radio host and the star of the Vayo drama team, praised the medium for its relatively low cost and its ability to convey useful information and moral lessons.
“Radio drama is simple but a powerful disseminating tool if it is made by a good playwright and starred by outstanding voice actors,” Kosal says.
Kosal’s wish for it to expand, however, is unlikely to become reality in today’s Cambodia, where smartphones have replaced other more archaic forms of entertainment.
Ry Oudom, a former producer at Vayo who is now working at a real estate company, has not completely given up the craft. Currently, he is making a few radio dramas with five other friends, and plans to post them on their website.
“We believe that keeping up with the up-to-date technology is the only way to preserve radio dramas,” he says. “If fewer people listen to radios and more visit websites, the best idea should be putting radio drama on websites or YouTube, which is very popular in Cambodia and around the world.”
Meanwhile, Vang Chun, the veteran radio drama producer, called on young people to open their minds to the medium despite its French origin.
“For 70 years, we have been giving Cambodian identities to this form of Western art, such as with its music and moral values, and no doubt we shaped a new form of art,” he said. “If it would disappear, our effort and commitment would be in vain.”