Taipan of the airwaves will be missed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 July, 2004, 12:00am

The permanent departure of Albert Cheng King-hon from his familiar role as the host of Teacup in a Storm will mark the end of an era for Hong Kong broadcasting.

Cheng, better known to his listeners as Taipan, has fronted the raucous radio talk show for the past 10 years and has turned it into one of our city's most popular institutions. In the process, he has come to be regarded as the personification of free, and irreverent, speech in Hong Kong.

But the controversial broadcaster's abrasive style and unstinting criticism of the government have created problems both for him and his employer.

Commercial Radio is now negotiating the premature termination of Cheng's contract in circumstances that are far from clear.

Matters came to a head on Wednesday, when the radio show host took part in an emotional exchange of words on the airwaves with the company's chief executive, Winnie Yu.

Ms Yu denied that political pressure lay behind the station's decision to end Cheng's contract. Instead, she expressed frustration at his long absences from the show. As for Cheng, he clearly feels betrayed by an employer he described as 'family'.

The politically charged background to the affair is impossible to ignore. Cheng took four months leave in May citing 'political suffocation'. Two other hosts - Allen Lee Peng-fei, who stood in for Cheng on Teacup in a Storm, and Wong Yuk-man from Commercial Radio's evening programme Close Encounters of a Political Kind - quit in similar circumstances within the next two weeks.

Cheng appeared to be coming under pressure as a result of his strident criticism of the government. It is easy to understand why he wanted to temporarily withdraw from the firing line. The radio host said he had received death threats and been the victim of vandalism. And he carried with him the memory of the brutal stabbing attack he suffered in 1998. But he was expected to return to the show in September.

Now, Commercial Radio has decided to bring the Taipan era to an end. It may well have valid business reasons for doing so.

Ms Yu has a point when she says that no commercial enterprise can afford to have employees suddenly taking off for months at a time.

The company may have been emboldened by evidence that the show's ratings have not dropped dramatically since the departure of the popular host. Another factor could be that managing an employee as popular as Cheng had become a difficult task. And, on top of all that, the company is seeking to bring in a new, less-sensational style that may not be suited to Cheng's combative approach.

It was only last year, however, that Commercial Radio signed a new five-year contract with Cheng. If it has been caught out by the sudden change earlier this year in Hong Kong's political climate and, as a result, no longer wants to employ Cheng it should at least be honest enough to say so - instead of seeking to lay all the blame on him.

Wherever the truth lies, there is one certainty. Cheng will be missed. Not by the officials he savaged on air and subjected to abuse but by the army of listeners who - whether they loved him or loathed him - loyally tuned in every morning to enjoy the show.

Cheng has helped create a forum for listeners from all walks of life to freely and frankly express their views.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Commercial Radio's new 'rational' approach. But such words have, in other contexts, been used as code for the suppression of dissent. We hope this is not what the company has in mind.

Cheng's legacy should be the continued, forthright participation of the public in shows such as Teacup in a Storm. They must continue to be a channel for frank and vibrant debate of topical issues, a place where all opinions are welcome.