Make the most of digital radio’s last days in Hong Kong by opening it up to the people

Albert Cheng is saddened by the government’s decision to pull the plug on the technology, and suggests opening up the platform to NGOs and others before operations fully end

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 8:13pm

Digital audio broadcasting came to a sad end in Hong Kong last week after only six years. It is sad because neither the government nor most of its four operators even tried to pretend to be making the technology a success.

The government’s RTHK aside, the three commercial operators – Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), Phoenix U Radio and Metro Broadcast – were granted digital licences in 2011. They have, one after the other, surrendered their 12-year licences after finding that their business model was not viable as they failed to nurture a sizeable audience. The government announced last week that it would terminate RTHK’s digital arm within six months.

Officials concluded it would not be realistic to rely solely on RTHK to operate on the digital platform without commercial operators.

The government spent HK$60 million in broadcast infrastructure to kick-start the service. The three commercial operators were obliged to invest a combined total of some HK$1 billion in the first six years. This is now money down the drain.

Failures of Pay TV and digital radio leave Hong Kong’s broadcasting policy at a critical juncture

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung is largely to blame. Unlike in other jurisdictions, he failed to make it mandatory for FM radio services to migrate to digital broadcasting, which provides better sound quality that can be supplemented with auxiliary text and image data. The government could also have provided incentives for new imported cars to be fitted with digital receivers.

Like any other mass media endeavour, digital audio broadcasting is no exception to the rule that content is king

There are some 60,000 digital radio sets in Hong Kong. Their owners and others deserve better. Instead of simply quitting, So owes it to these early adopters and other potential users to think out of the box.

The government has all along refused to grant further licences for traditional FM stations, on the grounds that the airwaves are already congested. As a result, the FM airwaves are stuffed with similar programmes that supposedly appeal to the general public. Digital broadcasting could address the limitations of analogue broadcasting.

Like any other mass media endeavour, digital audio broadcasting is no exception to the rule that content is king. But the licencees failed to come up with high-quality programmes.

The abundance of digital bandwidths mean operators can come up with tailor-made services for different age groups, ethnic minorities, religious sectors, art lovers and internet broadcastors.

Government policy alone cannot rescue digital audio broadcasting

Instead of writing off the costs sunk into setting up digital facilities, So should make the most of the next six months to open up the channels run by RTHK to allow social enterprises, non-governmental organisations, social groups, political parties, arts and cultural companies, and any other entities that have a legitimate cause to take to the airwaves.

This would allow Hong Kong to have a genuine public broadcasting service that is independent of government influence

A skeleton RTHK scheduling team serving as traffic controllers is all that is needed to keep the service running. This would also allow Hong Kong for the first time to have a genuine public broadcasting service that is independent of government influence.

RTHK has already spent HK$9 million on digital broadcasting infrastructure, with another HK$9.3 million a year earmarked for maintenance and programming. Just a fraction of that would be enough for the proposed digital public broadcast services.

So much time and resources have been invested that the government should at least get a second professional opinion before writing a death certificate.

The business sector first expressed an interest in digital audio broadcasting in the late 1990s. The government set up a steering committee to look into the possibilities but we wasted a decade before digital services finally arrived in September 2012.

Today, we have this sorry state of affairs in Hong Kong. But it is not yet a completely lost cause – unless So and his bosses decide so.

If chief executive-designate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is eager to gain some quick political brownie points to boost her dismal popularity ratings, she could step in by announcing her intention to give digital audio broadcasting a new lease of life.

Albert Cheng King-hon is the founder, ex-shareholder and ex-chairman of DBC. taipan@albertcheng.hk