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Setting Up Radio Shangra-La


Lisa Napoli, formerly with Public Radio's MARKETPLACE program, got the opportunity of a lifetime when she was invited to start a radio station in Bhutan. There she got a front row seat as this mystical Himalayan nation transitions from timeless monarchy to 21-st Century democracy.

Lisa Napoli, formerly with Public Radio's MARKETPLACE program, got the opportunity of a lifetime when she was invited to start a radio station in Bhutan. There, she got a front row seat as this mystical Himalayan nation transitions from timeless monarchy to 21-st Century democracy.


Journalist Lisa Napoli

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Lots of people especially approaching midlife dream of a Shangri-la. A place entirely different from anything they've ever known. But if you telly found one, would it be anything like the dream? My guest, Lisa Napoli, can answer that question. While working as a journalist with public radio's marketplace is show, Lisa was invited to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan to start a radio station. Not only was the experience a life changer, it also gave her a front row seat to the learning curve nations undergo as they transition from one man rule to democracy. I'd like to introduce my guest, Lisa Napoli, author of the book radio Shangri-la Lisa good morning.

NAPOLI: Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, the subtitle of your book is what I learned in Bhutan, the happiest kingdom on earth. You say that without irony.

NAPOLI: Oh, no. I say it with much irony.


NAPOLI: Absolutely, absolutely. And the Shangri-la part is ironic too. People call Bhutan the happiest place on earth because of the kings, the previous king's rule that gross national happiness was far more important than gross national product, which makes a lot of sense to a business reporter but it's definitely filled with irony, absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because it is not the happiest place on earth.

NAPOLI: Where is the happiest place on earth?


NAPOLI: It's where you are and where you feel best. Wherever you go, there you are, to quote another book title. It's just a loaded phrase. Happiness is, you know, the whole idea, but the happiest place on earth? No, there's no place.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, okay. How did you get the invasion to go to Bhutan.

NAPOLI: Accidentally. I was looking for a way out of my life. But I didn't know I'd end up with Shangri-la. And it was basically as simple as meeting a cute guy at a party who wanted to talk about public radio, because as you know well, as Cokie Roberts knows well, people love talking about public radio, and I wanted to talk to him and his tea importing business. And basically when he got to Asia, he wrote to me and asked would you be interested in starting a radio station here in Bhutan? And I said of course I would. Any way out would be great. So it was by accident.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how do you go about setting up a radio station in Bhutan in for instance, what did you know about this nation before you got there?

NAPOLI: Very little. I looked up after I met this handsome man at a party, all I knew basically was this gross national happiness philosophy. But I didn't know exactly where it was in Asia, it turns out to be next to India and below Tibet. I didn't know that it had 650,000 people. I did know that it didn't have television until ten years before, and that I thought was a very fascinating sort of petri dish, to have a new media landscape coming up in a place that just hadn't had one until not really far ago.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the thing is, not only was it getting this new media infusion. But the actual governance of the kingdom was changing from a kingdom to a constitutional democracy. Right?

NAPOLI: That's right. It turns out that the reason they were laying the foundation for these media outlets to start for the first time was because they felt that in service of a new democracy, new democratic rule they needed media to keep government in check. So right after I accepted the invitation to go, just before I got there, the king abdicated the throne, so his young son could rule over a transition time where the first democratic elections would take place. It took monks and astrologers to determine the exact date, but they did, and a year or so after I first went to the kingdom, the elections took place, and there was a peaceful transition to this parliament. And 80 percent of the people in that new democracy showed up to vote because even though they said they didn't want the vote, they trusted and respected their king, and they said they've gotta show up. They've gotta go. So they did.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Lisa Napoli, author of the book, radio Shangri-la. Now, Bhutan is the fictional Shangri-la. That's where that idea came from, the fictional Shangri-la where -- right, exactly. Now, how much did the people in Bhutan know about the modern world?

NAPOLI: Well, of course that's changing rapidly. And it depends on which part of the country you look at. I was stationed in Timpu, the capital city, just of course just by dint of that was more busy and populated and more sophisticated. And people because had been watching television and thereby Hollywood movies for about ten years they were much more sophisticated about what was going on in the outside world. But when you travel, even still today, ten years after television's introduction, to more rural places in Bhutan, which is of course most of the country because it's such a remote place and it's been sequestered for so long, people just aren't familiar with it. Some people have never seen a plane.


NAPOLI: It's hard to imagine because there's one airport in the western part of the country. And in the eastern part of the country there's just no air traffic above. So there are some people who've never left their villages which of course isn't surprising, there are probably some people who've never left their hometown here.


NAPOLI: But there, it's a whole different order of business. Because if you've never left your village, you've been a subsistence farmer your whole life, there's one road maybe two or three hours out of your village, you're not exposed to a whole lot.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet the kind of things that have filtered in from the western world can be quite strange. For instance, when you got there, your hosts constantly apologized for the size, the small size of the apartment they were giving you. What did they finally tell you about why they were apologizing to you?

NAPOLI: Well, they had been watching desperate housewives and they just assumed that my kitchen would be as fabulous as the average kitchen on desperate housewives and that my house would be the same too. Which of course is funny and sad. Because people -- what people don't see, especially in Bhutan is that there is poverty in this country, that there's modesty in this country, that the middle class exists. But Bhutan, because it attracts a richer tourist, and because it has -- people like me who go who are well intentioned who are more affluent than the average person in the United States , their perception is that everybody is like that, everybody's got access to money. A lot of people go to Bhutan on vacation, Maureen, and they decide they love it so much that they build a kitchen on the side of a monastery. I've met so many people on the road promoting this book who've told me oh, my wife and I loved it so much, we went back and we raised money or we asked our friends to give a couple thousand dollars each, and we are doing something fabulously benevolent for the kingdom or we put a kid through school. So everybody in Bhutan who does come into contact with outsiders assumes that everybody has.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tremendous wealth.

NAPOLI: Yeah, thousands of dollars of disposable cash.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you got a really good first row seat to a place, a country that was transitioning from a one man form of government to democratic rule. And of course we've been seeing democratic movements emerge in the Arab world all this -- from the beginning of the year.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Does this give you any perspective about how much these populations will have to learn about democracy and democratic institutions?

NAPOLI: Yes. It seems so easy to say, let's just form a government. And it seems so natural, of course, too that people want control. Especially in the age of Facebook, and the Internet. Why wouldn't you want to govern yourselves? But it is -- it is more difficult. It's been interesting to watch Bhutan which elected a slate of people, and more women -- every woman who ran, I think in every case a woman who ran got elected, the elders got elected. So people in that country which is a very small, very homogeneous place transitioned very peacefully. But it's hard to keep out the corruption. It's hard to know whom to trust. And in Bhutan's case, as opposed to what we've seen in the middle east. People were happy with their ruler, people were happy with the man in charge and what he had done to sort of shepherd them into the 20th century. So in more complicated places, the learning curve and transition is of course much more difficult.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you say that the subtitle of your book, radio Shangri-la, what I learn indeed Bhutan, the happiest kingdom on earth as a sort of comic, ironic edge to it, but you do describe a simple life for the people in Bhutan in certain areas of the country with a substantial amount of happiness. I'm wondering do you think in some sort of strange way, the introduction of democracy and commerce and the 21st century world might decrease that national happiness quotient?

NAPOLI: Absolutely. If you look at all the growing studies about happiness economics and positive psychologist, most of what they say are -- if you're happy with who you are and where you are then you're doing great. If you have a roof over your head, and the basics, you don't necessarily crave or covet more until you start to see television and movies. And when you start to see the outside world, it's natural that you want what the outside world has. And that decreases your happiness because you're jealous of your outfit or of your home, your car. And that want, that wanting is something that just didn't exist in Bhutan before, partially it's I very religious country, Buddhist, devoutly Buddhist country, and people were not focused on their own material needs, more on the needs of the community, of the people at remember la. And all of that starts to dissipate the more money you have, the more money you want. The more things you want. And I think that that changes everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That must be somewhat disorienting to actually see that happening before your eyes.

NAPOLI: Yes, yes! You meet people and see people who live modesty, and you think wow! This village is in beautiful shape because it's self sustaining, everybody works together. The kids are happy, they're going to school, everybody's sort of working together on something. And then the minute there's -- I visited a place in the fall that had just received or had a new farm road built. And you started to knowledge, okay, now that people can travel out more easily and people can travel in more easily, that's a wonderful thing, but it's going to change the whole tenor of daily life once that happens.


NAPOLI: It's really remarkable when you start to think about it.


NAPOLI: Because of course also you want electricity, you want a road, of course we do. You want to be able to communicate with people by phone. But then you start to realize how all of those modern conveniences, while wonderful, when they go too far, which they often do, become traffic jams and major highways and just bottle necks, literally and figuratively about every aspect of life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's just fascinating to think about this. Have you -- do you now have an ongoing connection with Bhutan?

NAPOLI: I do I'm helping to build a library in the eastern part of Bhutan where I would love to build a library in south central Los Angeles, but you couldn't do it for $50,000 the way you can in Bhutan. So I'm working with some friends to raise some money to do that. And I just -- as a journalist, it was unintentionally the most fascinating assignment of my life. I covered the rise of the Internet for many years at the New York Times years before. And this is similarly fascinating of it's just sort of a blank slate of media culture and development and watching it grow grow grow, and following it when I'm there and from a distance, following young people who are becoming journalists and becoming techno files, it's just an -- it's just a wonderful and fascinating time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You never know what's gonna come from chatting up a cute guy at a party, right.

NAPOLI: Yep. Exactly! And it could have come to bad end, but it was a happy end or at least a fascinating end for me, and a great friend too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everybody know that Lisa Napoli will be reading from and signing copies of her book, radio Shangri-la, that's tonight at 730 at war wick's in La Jolla, and Lisa thanks so much.

NAPOLI: Thank you so much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days.

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