L.A.'s Ethnic TV Stations Are Struggling, but This Filipino-American TV Show Is Staying Alive

Kababayan Today host-producer Giselle Töngi-Walters and associate producer Nicanor Evangelista on the setEXPAND
Kababayan Today host-producer Giselle Töngi-Walters and associate producer Nicanor Evangelista on the set
Courtesy Giselle Töngi-Walters

When the executives at KSCI Channel 18 announced that most programming on the TV channel was coming to a halt, Giselle Töngi-Walters had one question for her boss. Could she self-produce Kababayan Today, Channel 18’s Filipino-American talk show?

“I want to look at it as an opportunity, because it is,” says Töngi-Walters, who has served as host and producer of the show for more than three years.

Channel 18 was a primarily Asian-language station for more than 30 years, providing Southern California with an array of broadcast shows in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tagalog. The free, locally produced Asian-language shows on Channel 18 were a great resource for many new immigrants, helping ease them into their relationship with their new city by connecting viewers to others who were like them.

But the channel faced many struggles in recent years, including filing for bankruptcy in 2012.

“The thing we hate to lose is we do produce local programs for the Filipinos, Koreans and Chinese, and unfortunately we won’t be doing that any longer,” KSCI general manager Dennis Davis told City New Service.

Last month, following a recent auction of network stations, Channel 18 sold its broadcast spectrum and announced it would be ending all local programming for the Asian-American community. By July 1, most Asian-language programs had been replaced with English-language infomercials.

But Töngi-Walters wanted to find a way to keep Kababayan Today on the air.

She started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.com and recruited sponsors and advertisers within the local Filipino community. She also has volunteered to self-finance the show, and she plans to edit and produce it on her own.

L.A. is home to the largest population of Filipino-Americans in the country, according to U.S. Census figures, and Kababayan Today serves as a resource for Filipino immigrants as well as Filipinos who have lived in Southern California for generations. “The community needs this, and I will independently produce this because I think there is enough content even if I have to shoot and edit it myself, which I’m used to doing anyway,” says Töngi-Walters. Like other Channel 18 shows, she worked with a skeleton crew that included associate producer Nicanor Evangelista and the station production team.

Kababayan Today first began in 2006 as Kababayan L.A., a newsmagazine and talk show for and about Filipinos, originally hosted and produced by journalist Jannelle So. Eventually, it evolved into the daily, half-hour program Kababayan Today; it is presented in English and Tagalog, featuring a mix of guests from the Filipino and Filipino-American community. It bills itself as the first and only daily talk show for Filipinos in the United States.

“As a Filipino-American, I feel that one of the biggest hurdles in our community is the segregation not only of our generations and the way we think but also because we’re very region-based,” says Töngi-Walters, who grew up in New Jersey before launching a successful career as a model, actress and MTV Asia presenter in the Philippines. She picked up hosting and producing responsibilities for Kababayan Today in 2014.

“To unify a Filipino diaspora that has so many different sensibilities based on where you grew up, these are issues and topics that really were very interesting to me,” Töngi-Walters says.

Independently producing the show has come with its own challenges. Töngi-Walters says she received hundreds of messages on social media criticizing her work when she launched the crowdfunding campaign. They were mostly from supporters of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who claimed she was attacking his administration for critiquing the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines.

Despite the backlash, Töngi-Walters says she raised enough money to keep the show going through the summer as a weekly program.

Kababayan Today host-producer Giselle Töngi-Walters with journalist-activist Jose Antonio Vargas and members of Filipino-American nonprofit organizationsEXPAND
Kababayan Today host-producer Giselle Töngi-Walters with journalist-activist Jose Antonio Vargas and members of Filipino-American nonprofit organizations
Courtesy Giselle Töngi-Walters

Over the years, Kababayan Today has featured interviews with Filipino entertainers and artists while also addressing social and cultural issues not often discussed in Filipino-American households, such as mental health, suicide and trans issues.

A popular episode featured the relationship of a Filipino woman and her American husband whom she met online. Other episodes have featured the burgeoning Filipino food movement, the work of nonprofit Filipino community organizations and discussions about Filipino identity.

“[Töngi-Walters’] level of commitment attests to how important and integrated this show and this kind of programming is to the local Filipino-American and Filipino communities,” says Karen Tongson, associate professor of English, Gender Studies and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC.

Walk into any Filipino restaurant or establishment in L.A. and Tongson says you’re likely to find Filipino programming playing on a television set.

“Whether it’s your local turo-turo joint or a karaoke restaurant and bar, TFC will always be playing in the background,” says Tongson, referring to The Filipino Channel, a global subscription television channel featuring news and entertainment programming from the Philippines.

TFC is available in the United States as well as in other parts of the world that are home to Filipino expatriates and overseas workers. Many Filipinos subscribe to the channel in order to keep up-to-date with news and entertainment from their home country.

Kababayan Today is unique in that it caters to a very specific, local audience of Filipino-Americans in L.A. At the same time, it connects them to topics and issues about Filipinos around the world, while being easily accessed for free on Channel 18 and on the show’s YouTube channel.

Though there are still some internationally licensed shows on Channel 18, the end of locally produced Asian-language programs has registered as a deep and profound loss for many immigrant communities, especially for older generations.

Tongson says these changes are part of a larger shift in media as international content has become readily available through video platforms such as Netflix and YouTube.

“You can even watch Korean dramas on Hulu,” Tongson says. “The fact that Channel 18 survived for so long is a testament to the kind of services and community-building it provided to Angelenos from these different ethnic communities.”

Haydee Nepales, a caregiver in Encino, was happy to hear that Kababayan Today would continue to air on Channel 18. Every weekday afternoon, she would tune into The Ellen DeGeneres Show at 3 p.m., then immediately switch to Kababayan Today at 3:30. No matter who Ellen DeGeneres had on the show, Nepales always switched over to watch Töngi-Walters.

“She has different guests every day,” Nepales says. “Sometimes she has musicians, sometimes she has a stage actor, sometimes it’s about the culture of the Philippines, the history. She deals with a lot of different topics that are relevant to Filipinos.”

Nepales says she watched the show with her caregiver patient, a Jewish woman, who also appreciated the diverse array of guests interviewed by Töngi-Walters.

“I think it definitely got us out there to a different audience,” says Elaine Dolalas, who was featured on the show along with her co-hosts of This Filipino American Life, a podcast exploring the experiences of Filipinos in the United States. “And by different, I mean folks who don’t really know what podcasts are.”

In its new weekly format, the show is now called Kababayan Weekly, and the first episode aired June 14. It featured clips from a celebration held at City Hall in honor of Kababayan Today and its contributions to the local Filipino community. Many of the speakers, including KTLA news anchor Cher Calvin, spoke to Töngi-Walters’ dedication to the show while working with a slim crew and a minimal budget.

Töngi-Walters says that, like its predecessor, Kababayan Weekly will continue to be for and about Filipinos.

“We’re all here in America because we had to leave our motherland, and exploring the deeper issues about who we are amongst ourselves is so much more important to me and interesting to me than having Americans or white people understand what a Filipino is,” Töngi-Walters says. “This show is not for anybody else but for ourselves so that we can be reflected in media, we can see ourselves, validate ourselves and validate our stories.”


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