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Interview by David Carruth

When North Korea announced that Kim Jong-il had died this past December, international news outlets scrambled to find an authoritative English-speaking journalist located in Korea to provide commentary on the unfolding events. The person on the receiving end of many of these calls was Jason Strother, an American radio journalist who has been filing from South Korea for PRI’s The World and other programs for the past five years. 10 recently chatted with Jason to learn about his experiences as a radio stringer here.

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1. What first brought you to Korea?

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I wanted to study in Asia while I was a broadcasting major back in New Jersey, and I’d asked my advisor to recommend a school in East Asia. He recommended Yonsei University. I didn’t know much about Korea at the time but I did a little research and Yonsei looked like a good option. It was pretty random that I ended up here, but the semester I spent here was probably the best time of my life.

2. The word “journalist” conjures up images of TV anchors and newspaper reporters. What exactly does a freelance
journalist do?

As a freelance journalist, stories aren’t going to come to you. You have to go looking for them. And you don’t have a salary, so if you don’t work, you can’t pay your gas bill. So I feel that I’m constantly searching for new stories and pitching new ideas to clients. Just for my own survival, I can’t sit back and let things come to me.

3. Much of your work is for radio. Can you describe what goes into writing a radio report?

Basically, I find a story idea, maybe something I’ve come across in a local newspaper or heard from friends. I send a pitch to my editor and if they say yes I make calls and set up interviews. Then I pack up my recording gear and I head out to do the interview. This brings me to a lot of different places: offices, out on the street, mountains, anywhere news is happening. Then I go home, select the sound bites I want to use in the piece, and write a script. I let my subjects tell the story; my voice just transitions between my sound bites. Then I send it to my editor and after the editing process is done I cut the sound bites, record my voice and send it to the client.

4. I understand that you have a visual impairment. Can you describe that for us?

I’m legally blind. I can only see the E on the eye chart. I have to use a magnifier to read standard print. I wouldn’t be able to recognize a friend’s face from more than four meters away. With that said, I do not have a problem getting from point A to point B. I don’t bump into things and unless you saw me reading you would never know that I have a visual impairment.

5. How does your visual impairment affect your work and life in Korea?

Because I’m legally blind I can’t read standard print. I can’t pick up a newspaper or a magazine to read it. I do all of my reading on the computer with my font turned up to 45. I use a text-to-speech converter on my computer to listen to articles. It’s challenging. I’m very comfortable in Korea now and I know how to get around. It’s sometimes hard to find the places I’m looking for but I manage to get by. I think that radio is a perfect medium for me just because I understand sound better and I know how to tell a story better orally than if I were writing.

6. Do you find that Korea is an accommodating place for the visually impaired?

On the surface, you would think it is accommodating. Look on the sidewalks and you see the yellow raised pavement which is for the blind to drag their canes across. A lot of elevators speak the floor number and some have Braille. However, these infrastructural adaptations, while they seem nice, don’t necessarily imply that the blind have many opportunities either professionally or socially here.

7. What is one of your most memorable reports?

In November 2010, two days after Yeonpyeong-do was attacked by North Korea, my intern and I took the ferry to the island. I spent 48 hours on the island and it was like being in one of those post-apocalyptic movies. Empty streets, dogs running around, helicopters off in the distance. Very surreal. Right as we were leaving on the third day, the air-raid sirens started going off. We were evacuated to a bomb shelter for close to half an hour underground not knowing what was happening. Fortunately, there was no second attack. It was the closest to being a war correspondent I had ever been.

8. How is the Korean press different from the West?

If you pick up a newspaper, you know what articles and angle you’re going to get. The big issue is how much these papers rely on a particular Chaebol for advertising revenue, which has a major impact on business and technology. I don’t think it’s possible to get a very fair assessment because the owners of these papers are worried about losing money from their sponsors. However, there is also good journalism and there are very good journalists here.

9. In recent years, print journalism has been adversely affected by the growth of the internet. What has the influence been on radio journalism?

I tend to think that radio has had a sort of renaissance in the last few years because of online podcasts and streaming radio. Before, you would only listen to radio when you were driving but now it’s readily available anytime. Whether on your computer or your smartphone, you can access so many sources of audio that never existed in the past. I think news radio’s profile has been greatly enhanced by broadband and smart technologies. But of course like print journalism there have been some cutbacks at radio stations.

10. With the death of Kim Jong-il, there has been much speculation about what will change on the peninsula. What can we expect to see in North Korea?

I don’t think that North Korea is going to change very much even now with the ascension of Kim Jong-eun. There are many old guards who still have significant influence in how the country conducts its policies. I think it would take the dying out of these old generals for there to be any significant change. The bottom line is that North Korea’s elite don’t want to lose their status and they will do whatever they can to keep their privilege at the expense of the other 22 million North Koreans.

10 Tip To follow Jason’s radio reports, visit his website at jasonstrother.com.

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