(Raw) talent scout

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(Raw) talent scout

If you've ever flipped about the television dial on a Sunday afternoon, then you've almost certainly come across this talent show. Usually set in the countryside and starring the comedian Song Hae, a jovial, bespectacled fellow, the program showcases the host's telling of jokes and stories, and sometimes dancing, with the various contestants that grace the stage.

It's as much a Sunday tradition as going to church or sleeping late. The talent show "Jeonguk Norae Jarang" (Countrywide Amateur Singing Contest) on KBS1-TV is where your everyday barber, restaurant waitress, or humble whomever is given a chance to set free (or keep buried) their long-hidden talents on live television to the whole peninsula.

The show, now in its 22d year on the air, has long been loved by viewers as well as participants as it moves across the country, week after week, seeking potential singers and dancers. The sound of the show's xylophone, ding dong dang, that determines whether a contestant has passed the test, has become an auditory landmark.

But the show is not the home of ultragifted professional "talents." You don't need to be a well-trained performer or an outstanding singer or dancer. Things are more low-key than that. Even the most complete foul-ups that stir a good laugh in the crowd serve only to enhance the show's charm.

The show is a cross between two American television curiousities now long-gone: "The Gong Show" and "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour," both of which encouraged raw neophytes to take the stage.

"Even though I have been hosting the show for nearly 20 years, I still get nervous," said Mr. Song, 75. who was arriving at the KBS building this day by cab.

The master of ceremonies said he never stops thinking of how to improve the show and make it more fun.

The talent show staff takes off on Fridays for whatever next rural village or city, and Mr. Song always tags along so he can prepare for the Sunday show.

"Idleness is the worst enemy, isn't it?" Mr. Song said.

At every rest stop along the highway, Mr. Song is greeted with happy screams from the show's fans, mostly ajumma, or married women. The throngs of ajumma repeatedly call out his name, kiss him on the cheek and give warm welcoming hug. Mr. Song, in the midst of all the hoopla, only laughs gently.

"These people are the ones who make 'Jeonguk Norae Jarang,'" Mr. Song said.

This week Busan was to be the site of the show. When he arrived, the first thing Mr. Song did was to visit the local public bath house. For Mr. Song, the sauna is a good place to gather information about the town and its customs, as well as to learn more about the residents. He talks nonstop with the people relaxing around him.

Mr. Song says that during the show, something unexpected always happens, either in the audience or on stage. "But if you know the atmosphere of the town and are familiar with its sentiments beforehand, it becomes easy just to laugh it off when it happens."

After leaving the bath house, Mr. Song begins the next phase of his research by having dinner at the town's market. When night falls, Mr. Song becomes more busier than ever because he has to study the script, newly received from the writer.

Before he goes to bed, he reads and rereads the script, adding to it the stories he had earlier heard from residents.

At 7 a.m. Mr. Song has breakfast at a down-to-earth Korean restaurant, striking up a conversation with a couple of senior citizens returning from their morning hike. Around 9 a.m., contenders slowly start to show up at the filming site. This week, the 16 contenders include a pet shop owner, a middle school student, a bank employee, an owner of a stationary shop and a few police officers. Mr. Song tries to loosen them up by making a few jokes. The show has only one rehearsal, and even then Mr. Song is busy taking notes, preparing for interviewing the contestants.

"People are surprisingly getting better with their singing skills," he says. "Regardless of age and sex, people are less reluctant to express themselves."

By noon the crowd start to gather and the show finally gets going at 1 p.m.

When Mr. Song is on stage, any fatigue on his face vanishes, and the little man is full of life. As always, something unexpected does happen. In this case, Mr. Song is offered some of the town's special beef; but it's undercooked and looking less-than-special. As he tries some, his face twitches and he grabs his belly with discomfort. But soon he manages to straight his face and eats another piece.

After the show ends, Mr. Song leaves the stage to large applause. The master of the show slumps exhausted in his seat on the bus as the crowd fades in the distance.

"Nowadays it's really hard to stand for two hours," he says. "But when I get on stage, I feel exhilarated. The day I die may be the day when I quit 'Jeonguk Noare Jarang.'"

Because Mr. Song's hometown is in South Hwanghae province, North Korea, he wishes he could host a joint North-South talent show. He wishes he could bring harmony to the peninsula through a simple talent show.


Over 2 decades, thousands of ding, dong, dang

Loved by the audience nationwide for more than 20 years, "Jeonguk Norae Jarang" has an impressive list of accomplishments.

As of last Sunday, the show has aired 1,148 episodes, made by 46 producers, taking place all across the peninsula.

More than 30,000 people have tried out for the program, with only 20,600 making it on stage, in front of the camera.

The oldest person to appear on the show was a 103-year-old great-grandmother, Kim Hee-you, and the youngest was a 4-year-old boy.

The show once had a hopeful who wanted to be on the program so badly that he tried out 30 times, following the staff all across the country.

The oldest item on the show is the trusty xylophone that determines the fate of the contestents. The xylophone is just as old as the show itself, and has never been replaced since the program began.

by Lee Sang-bok

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