A pioneering voice for Korean-AmericansThere were times in the 1960s when homesick Koreans in the United States shed tears to hear their country’s traditional music on the radio.
The period after the Korean War saw explosive growth in Korean emigration to the United States. In those early days, when there were no U.S. media to address Koreans whose English was faltering at best, a Korean emigre there stepped in to start Korean-language radio broadcasts.
Jean S. Suh, now 62, has dedicated her life to broadcasting in Korean to fellow expatriates in the United States. Ms. Suh was the first to begin Korean language broadcasts there, in the mid-1960s.
Forty years after leaving Korea with $30 in her pocket, escorting 33 orphans who were being placed in adopted U.S. homes by Holt Children’s Services, Ms. Suh is now the president of Radio Hankook, an AM radio service that broadcasts to the Seattle and Tacoma areas in Washington state. She was in Seoul this month for a conference of Korean-language broadcasters from around the world.
Ms. Suh began her career as a radio actress at the Korea Broadcasting System in 1959. Five years later, she called it quits because she did not like the atmosphere there. She said delicately, “At that time, there weren’t as many programs, and we had to curry a producer’s favor to get a part, and I just did not like the idea of doing that.”
At the time, radio actors stood by in a waiting room at the station. An employee periodically came into the room and wrote the names of some actors on a chalkboard. If the actor’s name was not listed, back home she went. Ms. Suh said she felt miserable. “That’s when I decided to study in the United States and then return to Korea as a director,” Ms. Suh said.
After quitting KBS, Ms. Suh flew to Los Angeles and enrolled in Columbia College in Hollywood in 1964. But the life of a foreign student with little money on hand was difficult. Not only did she have to pay her living expenses, she had to earn money for tuition.
“I asked a school official how I could manage to work as a foreign student,” Ms. Suh said. “Since it was illegal for a foreign student to work, he told me to get a housekeeping job.”
That job, she said, lasted only 15 days. It was so hard that she could not bear it anymore. But she met a kindhearted laundry owner who was willing to pay her in advance to help her pay her tuition. Her wages were a munificent 79 cents an hour.
“None of the Americans wanted to work overtime on weekends, but I worked on Saturdays and Sundays to earn my tuition,” Ms. Suh said. “As a poor foreign student, I could not buy new clothes. I bought used clothes for 10 cents or 25 cents at the Salvation Army or the thrift shop and wore them after washing them.”
But the following year saw her first breakthrough. Ms. Suh started airing a 30-minute program every week of news, music and interviews on a radio station in Los Angeles. The next year, the program was extended to an hour a week, then to two hours daily in 1967.
In 1970, she had a chance to strike out on her own. She and two partners started up an independent radio station using a subcarrier of another radio station in Los Angeles. That technique, now widely used to broadcast stereophonic sound, piggybacks a second radio signal on top of the main signal. Ms. Suh was the on-air talent, and her partners handled financial and technical matters.
This venture, Korea Broadcasting of America, was the first independent Korean-language broadcasting station in the United States, Ms. Suh said, adding that a congratulatory message came to her from President Park Chung Hee in Seoul.
Though perhaps easier physically than being a housekeeper or a laundry worker, running a broadcasting station was no easy task, the partners found. Financial difficulties abounded, and Ms. Suh’s partners drifted away. But she was developing a listener base. Koreans turned to the station for news and music from home, and they sent in cash to keep the station afloat. “Old ladies chipped in a few dollars that they made from selling buckwheat jellies and kimchi,” Ms. Suh said.
Meanwhile, music from home was hard to come by; record companies in Korea were releasing only one recording per month. Her mother in Korea bought up the new releases and sent them to her. She had Korean newspapers delivered, but they were a week old by the time they arrived. She turned to listening to shortwave radio broadcasts from Korea and taking notes.
Working alone, she said, she couldn’t take even a day off for illness. “At that time, most Korean records were compilation albums containing songs by different performers. If I was sick, I laid a blanket on the floor at the studio and broadcast a series of names of the performers whose tracks were on one side of the record. Then I lay down on the floor while the songs were playing until the needle reached the end,” she recalled.
But after two years, she said, she had no choice but to sell the station. The buyer was a son of Lee Hu-rak, then the head of Korean intelligence, and he paid her $80,000. “If I’d only had $10,000 a month, I wouldn’t have had to sell it,” Ms. Suh said.
The new owner, however, had a tough time, and before long shut the station down. She recalled the negotiations to sell the station to Mr. Lee.
“The buyer’s lawyer said to him, ‘If you hire Jean Suh, the station will last. She is passionate about broadcasting and she cried a bucket of tears because she had to sell the station,’” Ms. Suh said.
After the station was closed, Ms. Suh tried to repurchase the programming content, especially the records her mother had sent her. She visited the owner of the shuttered station and asked him to return what were once her cherished belongings. Mr. Lee sold the non-operational station back to her for $10,000.
She made a second attempt to keep it going, but had no better luck. But, she said, “I promised to myself that someday that I would have a radio station of my own.” She waited for a second chance while working on other ventures, including the World Song Festival in America, to which she holds the U.S. rights.
In 1996, with some financial help from her friends, Ms. Suh was able to acquire two former country music AM radio stations ― KSUH 1450 AM and KWYZ 1230 AM, both located near Seattle ― and launched Radio Hankook.
“The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time. The stations were on the market and were incomparably cheaper than those in Los Angeles,” Ms. Suh said. “I was lucky.”
Most Korean broadcasters in the United States, whether television or radio, do not own their own stations but rent time on existing stations, Ms. Suh said. “Korean radio stations in Los Angeles, where there is a big Korean community, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per year,” she continued.
Of the 26 U.S. radio stations airing Korean language programs, only three stations, including Ms. Suh’s, are owned by Korean-Americans; one is partly owned by Koreans. “Their advertising revenue comes from small Korean businesses like grocery stores. The money does not circulate within the Korean community; it all vanishes,” she said of most of the stations.
During the last eight years, she managed to turn around her own stations, which are now profitable. But it was never easy.
“For the first three years, major advertisers didn’t give me any advertisements,” Ms. Suh said. As the stations became more established and the listener base grew, corporate clients such as Asiana Airlines, Kia Motors and Hyundai Motor started blocking out steady advertising time.
According to Ms. Suh, while radio stations in general have lost their luster because of competition with other media, radio stations for minorities are expanding in the United States. “There are 800 laundry shops in the Seattle and Tacoma area run by Koreans, and a number of Korean restaurants,” Ms. Suh said. “They start every morning by turning on the radio.”
First-generation Korean immigrants listen to the program to obtain legal, immigration and education information, because many have difficulty understanding English-language programs, Ms. Suh said. “Our goal is to help them achieve the American dream, for the second and third generations to make inroads in mainstream American society.”
Also, she said, young Korean-Americans use the station to learn the language. “More and more young Koreans listen to Korean pop music, and become interested in learning Korean and Korean culture,” Ms. Suh said.
Ms. Suh comes to Korea every year to attend the World Korean-Language Broadcasters’ Conference, sponsored by KBS. The most recent conference ended on Nov. 12. Ms. Suh has won several grand prizes for programs presented by Radio Hankook, including one from 2002 titled “100 Years of Korean Immigration: Another Challenge Ahead.”
As part of this year’s broadcasting conference in Seoul, she traveled to Mount Geumgang in North Korea.
“Visiting North Korea brought back childhood memories,” she said. Her father was a district judge before the Korean War; she said communists in the South took him away and later executed him.
“I went to look for my father at the Seodaemun prison. There I saw a pond full of bodies and the water turned black because of blood,” Ms. Suh said. Because of that experience, she is strongly anti-communist, she said.
Ms. Suh still produces a two-hour program every day on stations that reach as far as western Canada. “I have fan e-mail from all over the world, even from Korea, thanks to our Internet broadcasts,” she said. “I would like to continue working as long as I can, but if I meet someone who is really devoted to broadcasting, I will turn over the station and retire.”
by Limb Jae-un