Is Hong Kong's English-language radio speaking to its audience?

John Patkin calls for a major review of the main channel, RTHK Radio 3

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 2:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 3:39am

As Commercial Radio and Metro Broadcast Corporation prepare for licence renewals, the government should consider clarifying why both organisations must provide English-language services and why they are so heavily scrutinised.

The Communications Authority should ask RTHK to explain how its main English-language station, Radio 3, is meeting the needs of the English-speaking community of Hong Kong, defined as a sector of society that uses English as a lingua franca.

Metro's English-language service has struggled since its launch, while Commercial Radio's AM864 has mostly been reduced to a jukebox.

Both stations meet their licence requirements by providing English-language news and weather, and government announcements.

Foreign-language programmes for ethnic minorities that are limited to 20 per cent of the air time raise the most revenue, if not all, but would not pay for the cost of running a compulsory news service. It would be unfair and unrealistic to ask both organisations to do more than the licence requirements as audiences are miniscule in comparison to the main Chinese-language FM channels.

While the private broadcasters keep their costs down with automation and a skeleton news service, RTHK has a well-staffed, government-funded newsroom providing live updates round the clock. Programmes on Radio 3 feature multiple presenters and are supported by producers as well as web pages and advertising.

RTHK recruitment advertisements show that full-time English-language staff can be paid considerably more than those working in the private sector. Although publicly funded and billed as Hong Kong's No 1 music and talk station, the method and results of Radio 3's annual review are not disclosed.

At present, Radio 3 is less of a local station and more of a hotchpotch of rehashed BBC content, eclectic music and inherited programmes that are disconnected from its audience. A formal review would help the station understand its community and its role.

It would also help it better use its resources at more appealing times. For example, research shows people have little time to listen in the morning and throughout the day, yet Radio 3 uses most of its on-air resources between 6am and 1pm. RTHK may argue that some of its programmes have won awards but that does not guarantee they are relevant.

Making changes would be painful for Radio 3. Staff working the day shift would need to change their schedules and some programmes would need to go. Programmes such as Teen Time, which is sponsored by the Education Bureau to support English-language learning, would need to be revamped to better suit the audience.

But the most difficult change would be the anachronistic All the Way with Ray, which should be axed or condensed into a tightly produced weekend show, as it eats into valuable air time that could be better used.

English-language media is an important source of information for non-Chinese speakers. Research from the Asian Corpus of English shows that in the absence of mother-tongue communication, English becomes the de facto lingua franca for many non-Chinese speakers. As such, Radio 3 should play a more active role as a public broadcaster.

Instead of rehashing international news and broadcasting information that lacks a connection, Radio 3 should critically review its content with input from the community it is supposed to serve. Local radio should focus on current events that relate to the audience.

A serious rethink of English-language radio in Hong Kong is needed. Radio 3 could start by being more transparent about its operations.

John Patkin is a media researcher