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Banned in Bhutan

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As dead tree media consolidate and contract and close here in the United States, newspapers are booming in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.  Currently, there are four, three started in just the last several years, all in the service of promoting a healthy and strong democracy.  Elections came to Bhutan just over a year ago, and media were seen by the outgoing monarch, wisely, as a service to the people to inform and protect them.  Sounds quaint in the messy age in which our long-in-the-tooth democracy dwells and commentators scream hyperbole, addling the issues as much as illuminating them.  In Bhutan, the most controversial thing on the Bhutan Broadcasting Service is the localized version of American Idol.  A debate this summer raged over whether Parliamentary proceedings should be telecast, for the distraction of television cameras was seen as an interruption to the political process.  (And, some cynics wagged, exposure of the less wise elected officials.)  In the end, one house allowed the coverage to continue, and the other did not.

Since TV in the Kingdom is only a decade old, Bhutanese relish local programming, even when it was the less-than-enthralling rumblings of government in action.  (One day I was buying a candy bar and in came the opposition leader, stopping off after a day of debate on TV.  I recognized him instantly, we had a great conversation, and he called his young daughter out of the car to meet the friendly American.)  The Bhutanese also love, when they can, to be connected to the world beyond their borders, just like the rest of us.  So last week, when I wrote about my guilt over the radio station that I have volunteered with in Bhutan for the last few years, I shouldn't have been surprised that, thanks to Facebook, one of those Bhutanese newspaper editors (a friend) saw my post.  And read it.  And, well, published it.  (He did give HuffPo attribution, he said.) 

And suddenly, my guilt and a remark I made about the "crappy Western pop music" that is the station's mainstay was being broadcast across the Kingdom, and angering the people at the fair radio station I love so dearly.  Which of course was not my intention. 

Bhutan's an interesting place for many reasons, not the least of which because it isn't a media-saturated universe.  I was drawn to it because it was once considered the happiest place on earth, in part because of the devout Buddhism that is the lay of the land, but also, undoubtedly, because TV was long kept out.  That was my fascination with the country, and my hope was that once media entered, since it was a clean slate, that the level of discourse might be higher.  That, with the tools of media in their hands, the people would want to engage in lively debates and meaningful discussions with one another. To share aspects of their unique culture in a new way.

Foolish, naiive me.  There's nothing wrong with "crappy Western pop music." I listen to it; I've even played some of it on the air at the station in Bhutan.  (Although I tried to go deep into the catalogue to mix up the generation of pop music being aired.  A bunch of twenty-somethings aren't exactly up on their Talking Heads, and why shouldn't they be?)  But I guess I hoped that given a radio station at a pivotal time in their country's development, perhaps things might have been a bit different, a bit higher-minded, than what we wind up having here.

I just wrote a book about this whole subject, and it won't be published for a year.  And the real reason I started this blog is because even before I started going to Bhutan, I was dialing down my media consumption.  Now, I'm dialing it back up, a social experiment to see how I fare after being unplugged for so long.  Truth is, in Bhutan I watched more TV than I had in my adult life, just because seeing the local fare was so much fun.  Last year at about this time, I was watching the archery finals, for instance, after peeking my head in at the actual tournament blocks from where I sat earlier in the day.  Every TV in town was fixed on the action; it reminded me of the night of Thanksgiving when I was a kid, when everyone was watching The Wizard of Oz.  (Not to mention of the infamous "mad as hell" scene out of the genius movie Network.)  The collective experience of mass media, rendered quaint now by the one-to-one media world in which we now dwell.  That's probably what I loved about TV in the Kingdom; there weren't endless choices, there was community around each broadcast.  And it's what I love about the power of radio, too.  it's just nice when there are other things than Shakira and Pink to unite us.