[Viewpoint] Untapped potential for English radio

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[Viewpoint] Untapped potential for English radio

TBS 101.3 eFM has been running now for over seven months. The programming includes commentary, news and music. Before the Internet broadcast was up and running, I sensed enormous potential and pitfalls for Seoul’s first, and so far only, all-English radio station.

The purposes and goals of this new entity were not entirely clear to me. To find out more about 101.3, first I took a close look at their Web site and periodically listened to the station. Second, and more significantly, I scheduled an interview with one of the producers working there.

First, the basics: As part of the TBS network, it has no affiliation with Arirang TV, the all-English television station in Seoul. About 50 to 60 employees work on the station part-time or full-time. The programming is a combination of news, commentary and “entertainment,” which translates into music and occasional comedy. Most of their revenue stills comes from the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

I interviewed one of the station managers a few months ago. My objective was to get basic background about the station as well as more detailed information about the origins of 101.3, the programming and future plans for the station. My interviewee said that putting this kind of radio station on the air had been very much a collaborative effort by a large group of Koreans and foreigners over the past several years. The original target audience was foreign residents first, and Koreans second.

Nevertheless, the reality seems to now be the reverse. Their recent demographic research revealed greater popularity among English-speaking Koreans, particularly those who are more advanced learners, than with foreign residents. Hence, there is a significant problem: The radio station is now trying to cater to both groups. However, balancing the expectations of these related yet divergent segments of people might become increasingly problematic.

I ventured some additional questions about the programming. From my own listening experiences it is obvious the station is managed in a reasonably competent manner. Alas, there are also reasons for some disappointment: Put simply, the station needs to take greater journalistic risks and air some more adventurous music.

On the other hand, the manager’s key concerns seemed to be growing the audience and doing a satisfactory job. While sympathetic to my viewpoint, he felt powerless to do much that would remedy the shortcomings I mentioned.

The commentaries that I’ve read about or listened to indicate one thing in particular: a lack of sufficient, in-depth discussion of current political and cultural issues. At least a few e-mail respondents said as much on the TBS Web site. Furthermore, some controversial topics seem largely unapproachable, such as jaebeol control of the economy, mindless consumerism, limited environmental awareness among most Koreans, the plight of half-Koreans, the absence of primaries in elections, the lack of foreign faces on the vast majority of Korean television programs, etc.

Augmented debate and dialogue on these issues would generate more excitement on the radio and also help foster further democratic development in Korea. Private broadcasters are supposed to serve the public interest in addition to being profitable businesses. Many folks tend to forget that.

A more open and varied approach to music would also be greatly appreciated. Most Korean radio force-feeds its audience an unrelenting diet of pretentious, shallow Korean pop music. And after looking at almost all the playlists of the various DJs at 101.3 shown on the TBS Web site, I found that virtually all of it is, yes, American pop music - no real improvement over its Korean counterpart. Apparently, this network has decided to abandon one pretension for another.

That’s a fairly frustrating prospect for more discerning listeners. The only all-English language radio station in Seoul has no blues, no salsa, no tango, no sounds from Africa, India or Latin America, and no real jazz, except a few pieces late at night once a week or less. Opening listeners’ ears to the sounds of the whole world would be far more appropriate - Americans aren’t the only ones who speak English, after all.

Near the end of my discussion with one of the producers, I suggested that maybe a jazz or blues program could be tried for 2 hours per week. A capable volunteer DJ could host it for a trial period of two months. That would only be for 2 out of 147 hours per week of broadcast time; it’s a tiny risk. Unfortunately, he and the station politely, yet firmly declined.

Candidly speaking, my misgivings about this new station have not been laid to rest, but rather to have somewhat deepened since then. TBS seems only to want to focus on enhanced revenue from advertising, more personnel for the station, and more demographic data about potential listeners. These are worthy goals, but they make for neither a bold nor colorful vision of broadcasting. One would think that with public funding, 101.3 wouldn’t have to worry about being at the beck and call of advertisers. If broadcasters don’t try anything original or innovative, it’s a recipe for mediocrity.

Granted, building the audience and generating income are important, but the overall attitude appears to be overly cautious, conservative, and commercial. My most recent listening confirms this.

This station is the new kid on the block and there is still time for constructive changes to be made, modifications that would significantly improve the quality of the programming. TBS eFM has done well so far and I wish it all the best. However, with more courage, inspiration, and ingenuity from the people who work there, it could become a considerably better radio station.

The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by Joseph, Schouweiler

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