Phone-in radio programmes are growing in popularity on the mainland. Cadres in charge of propaganda and ideology control are worried such free talk on the airwaves might contaminate the spiritual purity of their socialist country.
The authorities are not so much concerned about direct public verbal attacks on the ruling communist regime. The broadcast stations, after all, are still supposed to be supervised by relevant party cells. Instead, officials are more disturbed by a surge of trifling and petty conversations taking up air-time.
The following conversation broadcast one evening has recently been singled out for criticism in an official journalism journal: Presenter: Hello. What's your name? Caller: You can call me Ah Hong.
Presenter: Ah Hong. Are you a boy or a girl? Caller: Why do you ask? I'm a girl.
Presenter: It's because your voice is so coarse that you sound like a boy. Ah Hong, how old are you? Caller: It's a secret. I won't tell you.
Presenter: Ah Hong, what is your hairstyle? Caller: What do you think? Presenter: Long hair.
Presenter: What kind of shampoo do you like? Caller: Natural . . .
The mundane chat was said to have lasted for about five minutes before Ah Hong named the song she requested. Such irrelevant chatter is not uncommon during similar programmes in Hong Kong. However, in the eyes of Chinese officials, the station failed to point the audience in the right direction.
Even on music shows, disc jockeys are expected to raise issues of public concern and put across the official line. The lack of enthusiasm among radio hosts in defending the government is another problem. Another presenter was regarded to have failed in his duty because of the following dialogue: Presenter: Which number would you like me to play? Caller: Number two.
Presenter: For whom? Caller: For my elder brother.
Presenter: Why would you like to dedicate the song to him? Caller: It's miserable. My elder brother has not been able to come home since he was drafted into the army in Zhanjiang more than a year ago. We miss him. So I want to dedicate a song for him.
Presenter: What a nice sister. I hope he can listen to your song.
The conversation might have sounded warm and tender to some listeners, but officials concluded it was harmful. They insisted that the conscription system was sacred. The presenter, they argued, should have explained to the girl that it was every citizen's honourable duty to serve in the military to safeguard sovereign integrity. They said hosts of phone-in programmes should be politically alert enough to deal with similar topics otherwise the legitimacy of the political institutions would be eroded.
Blinded by political considerations, officials appeared to have failed to see that it is the apolitical nature of the programmes that has succeeded in drawing a growing audience in the first place.
But agitated by this petty-talk phenomenon, some regulatory bodies have taken damage control measures. Last year, the Jiangmen Municipal Broadcast and Television Bureau, for instance, issued a 'Memorandum on Strengthening the Management of Propaganda'. The document harps on the theme of how to tighten control over radio phone-ins.
The city, close to Macau, is served by six radio stations, one which used to broadcast 18 hours a day, with about 30 per cent of the airtime devoted to receiving telephone calls from its audience. The stations together used to put out 38 phone-in programmes. The tally has now been slashed by a third.
The Chinese Communist Party has emphasised that the media should reach out to a largely uneducated, rural population. Even before radios became widely available, wired loudspeakers were installed in communes and work places to relay radio broadcasts until the 1970s.
The rise of commercial broadcasting in Southern China in 1986 made it increasingly difficult for the authorities to exert full control over radio stations. Political considerations often have to be balanced against financial survival.
According to the China News Service, the amount spent on advertising in the Guangzhou market alone last year exceeded one billion yuan for the first time.
The Nanfeng Metropolitan News reported that advertising sales for radio stations in Guangzhou rose 27 per cent. It may become increasingly difficult therefore to convince station managers to give up popular programme formats in the name of political correctness.
On the mainland, market forces often collide with ideological propriety. The extent to which petty talk is tolerated on the radio may be another barometer for politics across the border.