EVERY WEDNESDAY NIGHT, Cyd Ho Sau-lan enters the back room of a Jaffe Road fitness centre for a verbal workout. She appears to have recovered from her defeat in September's Legislative Council elections and, sporting new burgundy highlights, is chirpy and upbeat as she meets with volunteer technicians.
The environment is relaxed and Ho's tone is serious but friendly as she sits at the head of the table, dons headphones and speaks into a microphone about tonight's topic, the US election. Behind her, a large yellow banner on the wall proclaims: 'People want to speak, we want to open the microphone ... safeguarding freedom of speech.'
As soon as her hour-long show, Missing You, starts at 10pm, more than 200 people log on and 'tune in' to People's Radio programme, broadcast on one of Hong Kong's growing number of internet radio stations. Most of the audience is from Hong Kong, but a few contact the show via instant messaging from overseas. Despite her experience as a legislator it has taken a while to feel comfortable as a broadcaster. 'I used to feel tense, but now I'm relaxed. It's like talking to a group of friends,' she says.
People's Radio Hong Kong has been broadcasting from 10pm to 11pm every weekday since June 28. Formed by a group of volunteers, it provides a forum for discussions about a range of subjects, including government policies, politics, art, film, history, sport and even fortune telling. It is one of about a number of politically oriented internet radio stations launched recently and among what industry experts estimate are dozens operated by individuals, independent groups, secondary schools, universities, activist groups and even private housing estates.
'I want to use my show to do an alternative media, discussing issues in depth, and stimulate people to think and do something,' Ho says. It also helps maintain her political profile following the election disappointment.
The increasing use of the internet as a broadcasting tool not only provides more choice than traditional radio, but is an important factor in the issue of freedom of speech in broadcasting due to its lack of government regulation. The issue has come to the fore in recent times following claims of pressure exerted on RTHK to toe the government line and over the departure of outspoken host Albert Cheng King-hon from Commercial Radio after alleged outside interference.
'Internet radios can help teach people about the need for freedom of speech,' says Chan King-fai, who hosts a political programme on another internet station, DIYHK.
Stage performer Vita Au, who founded politics-art-culture internet station Hi Radio - and known to her audience as 'brainman' - agrees. 'The trend is important for Hong Kong,' she says. 'It lets people realise that everyone can voice their view. It is public education on freedom of speech.'
Internet radio stations were first established during the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, including the now defunct Radio Republic, Metro Radio subsidiary Own Channel, and On Air 100, broadcasting popular and conventional music programmes. In 1999, non-profit radio stations emerged - among the first was Hi Radio which broadcast mainly alternative music and art programmes.
But internet radio listening really started to take off last year as the economic downturn took its toll and Hong Kong was suffering political instability. Pro-democracy websites and radio stations, including A45 by Article 45 Concern Group, DIYHK, and People's Radio emerged.
'More are coming,' says Damian Yau Nai-kuen, a decorator who helps people set up web stations. 'Two more groups have recently asked my opinion on how to make their own stations. One plans to provide shows to South Asians in their own language.'
Au says the rise of what is being dubbed 'free voices' reflects social unrest and people's need to speak their minds. People such as secretary Lam Wai-han. 'Hong Kong people's voices are being suffocated, especially after [the Albert Cheng controversy],' she says. 'Hosts on radio stations now are deliberately neutral and don't say who they support or even dare express their real opinions. I can't find a voice which represents Hong Kong.'
In September, Lam started listening to the Article 45 Concern Group internet station, hosted by the group's four legislators and several volunteers, and she now listens to People's Radio. 'Web stations have no advertising or economic constraints and are more genuine. They say what they believe. I feel that they're representing people's voices.'
People's Radio was set up by three friends - former legislator Reverend Fung Chi-wood, former journalist Leung Kam-cheung and former university law lecturer and newspaper columnist Terman Wong Kwok-ngon - at the height of the Albert Cheng affair at Commercial Radio. 'We felt freedom of speech was being infringed,' says Wong. 'We wanted to make a station for the people.'
They initially wanted to open an FM station, but with the government's tight control over TV and radio broadcasting - Hong Kong has just four terrestrial TV stations and 13 radio stations, far fewer than similar sized jurisdictions - their request, as expected, was rejected. So they turned to the internet. With an investment of about $30,000 for equipment and software, Wong says they can accommodate an audience of up to 3,000.
Chan King-fai, a member of political group Youth Commune, launched internet programme Live Politics on DIYHK early this year. 'We hope to broaden people's concept of politics,' says the 22-year-old. 'The mainstream media is inadequate.'
There are also stations to fight for the rights of minorities. Rainbow Broadcast, launched in 2002 by Rainbow Hong Kong, is one of a least three stations devoted to gay and lesbian issues. With old computers and basic facilities, the group turned a room at their Shamshuipo centre into a studio where they broadcast issues concerning gay rights.
'Hong Kong radio stations would never have programmes about gay people,' says its group founder, who gives his name as Tony. 'They talk about having shows that can increase their advertising revenue, and will not support gay programmes. We hope to provide a platform for gay groups to voice their concerns.'
Cyd Ho believes the government should regulate internet radio to help prevent possible abuse such as bad language or inciting racial hatred. 'The internet stations should follow the same standards as others and be responsible,' she says.
Chan disagrees, however, saying a democratic society should let people exercise self-regulation.
Eddie Cheung Kwok-choi, principal assistant secretary at the Communications and Technology Branch of the Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau, says there are no plans to extend legislation to cover internet stations. 'To license internet radio stations is a sensitive subject. People may suspect that we want to control the internet,' Cheung says.
While Ho's internet show remains relatively popular, there are limitations - only computer savvy people with internet access can tune in. But they have a potential worldwide audience, and with new technology being developed, access to wireless internet connections will soon be common.
'A freedom of speech movement does not mean just giving a chance to say what other people can't say,' Chan says. 'It should also send a message to educate the public about the importance of freedom of speech.'