Internet radio takes off in the city
Stations are thriving thanks to advances in streaming technology and low entry costs
A couple of nights each week, stock broker Calvin Choy Chi-hai heads to a small Wan Chai studio after work to host radio talk shows.
His two programmes - one about wine appreciation and the other about Hong Kong's online radio scene - are among 22 shows produced weekly by RagaZine, the internet radio station he set up in 2012 with station manager Dick Lam Kin-yu.
The first general interest internet radio station in Hong Kong to introduce charges, RagaZine attracts 250,000 listeners each week, 500 of whom pay HK$30 a month for live access to its programmes.
"Dick and I had served as hosts at other online radio stations before. After a while, we decided set up our own so that we could have more control over programming," says Choy.
"We also felt that space for survival of mainstream media was shrinking, so we set up an online platform for people to voice their opinions on issues they care about."
Thanks to advances in streaming technology and a low entry barrier (all you need for a basic set-up is a microphone, sound mixer, and about HK$300 each month to rent a dedicated server), internet radio has mushroomed. Hong Kong is now home to about 50 stations of varying degrees of complexity and sophistication.
But while the first internet radio operators focused on politics and offered free access, some stations are shifting to a fee-charging format. And they are extending their brief to cover a spectrum of subjects the way conventional broadcasters would, veterans of the scene say.
"At first, online radio stations served as a pulpit for anti-establishment political parties," Lam says.
Pioneering stations such as Myradio, set up in 2007, helped rouse a radical electoral basefor firebrand politicians Wong Yuk-man, Albert Chan Wai-yip and Leung Kwok-hung, in Legco elections.
Pro-establishment parties have joined the fray, setting up HKFeel last year. The station receives generous funds, which has allowed it to put up in nicely appointed offices with a well-designed website.
While internet radio with a political agenda tends to be free, Lam says set-ups such as Wongsir, the financial news station where he began his radio career, are fee-paying operations.
Wongsir operates just one channel which is focused on investment matters, but it has the drawing power of renowned financial commentator Patrick Wong Koon-yuet, who hosted many of its shows.
Edward Poon Siu-chung, a popular host of programmes on supernatural phenomena, has been able to tap into the potential of internet radio.
He had worked at Metro Broadcast for 20 years before quitting to join Hong Kong Reporter, the internet radio station set up in 2008 by maverick media entrepreneur Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen.
At first it seemed as though he had made a mistake.
"I lost a segment of listeners who were taxi drivers, and had fewer phone-ins from them. I also felt bad being relegated from broadcast to internet radio," he says. "But my decision to go online has been vindicated."
The loss-making Reporter later closed but Shiu then set up the multimedia news site memehk.com which featured more than 10 pay channels.
Poon's channel on memehk.com now attracts a live audience of 14,000 people every day, and another 6,000 people who pay for access to archive content (HK$25 a month for radio programmes and HK$35 for radio and visual offerings).
"Now even taxi drivers use their mobile phones to listen to internet radio. Although revenue is shared with meme.com.hk I'm earning much more than at Metro," Poon says.
"Going online for radio is the trend of the future. It allows you to get visuals to supplement the audio content - meme provided a film crew for me to take video of haunted houses," he adds.
According to Lam, internet radio stations such as RagaZine are increasingly adopting a fee-paying model. It now employs a full-time manager, 10 part-time staff and 40 hosts, who are mainly unpaid enthusiasts. With income from 500 subscribers, advertising and sponsorship (grocery chain 759 pays to have a food programme in its name), RagaZine can just about break even.
Its most popular content includes political commentary, soccer updates, wine appreciation and stock market analysis. RagaZine aims to cash in by hiving off its financial content to create another pay channel in October.
"Listeners will have to pay HK$2,000 a year for the finance channel," Choy says. "Currently, the HK$30 [monthly subscription] is for access to live programmes. [Archived content] is free but not available for download until four days later."
Most internet radio operators are shoestring set-ups like ibhk.net launched in 2013 by secondary school student Kelvin Yu Ka-wan. "I set up the station last year after Digital Broadcasting Corporation was forced to stop [after a shareholders' row over alleged political interference]," Yu says.
"When we first started, 100 people listening at the same time was enough to crash the server. We have since expanded our capacity, and now archived content receives an average of 2,000 downloads."
Operating out of premises provided by a Kwun Tong publishing house, the ibhk team has grown to 23 people, all volunteers. They produce 11 programmes each week on counselling, current affairs and music.
Their biggest obstacle, Yu says, is convincing the government that they are a credible media channel.
Talkonly.net is another outfit set up by a teenager. The founder, who runs his own IT company, was in Form Three when he created the technology-focused station in 2000.
"I set up the station after I found out that many reports in IT magazines are nothing more than sponsored articles which sing praises of products," says the owner, who would only give his nickname, "Netbugs".
Talkonly brings together IT aficionados every Friday nighto talk about the latest tech trends, going out live from 10pm until 6am (with occasional specials such as a session on September 9 on the release of iPhone 6). But most of its 20,000 listeners access archived content.
Talkonly has grown in many ways. It started with just four hosts "but over the years, many listeners have become host themselves. We once had more than 10 people talking in the studio," Netbugs says.
Its coverage has also expanded beyond IT topics to cover film and current affairs. A recent segment focused on emigration.
"We called Hongkongers who emigrated to Taiwan and Singapore and asked them how their lifestyle and work compare to those in Hong Kong. The content is sorted by subject so those who just want to listen to computer-related stuff can just click on the relevant segments."
Unlike RagaZine, talkonly does not run any commercials, even though its programmes are free. "We want to have the freedom to criticise any products we find substandard. After using the products ourselves, we share our experience and give frank comments.
"The biggest cost in running an amateur radio station is the rental of computer servers. But we are using the servers at my own IT company and another host provides the space for our studio, so we can minimise operating costs," says Netbugs.
Being an internet operation gives stations like RagaZine greater flexibility than regular radio stations, which are governed by the Broadcasting Ordinance, Choy says.
"We have fewer qualms about using vulgar language," he says. "One big advantage of running an online radio station is that we can be bold in criticising social injustice. You won't see mainstream radio stations producing programmes about corruption in the mainland communist hierarchy.
"But our Go North channel does that. The hosts are experts in China affairs, and we invite people doing business on the mainland to act as guests," he says.
Although neither Choy nor Lam have political backgrounds, RagaZine has acquired an activist element; it set up booths during the July 1 rallies, and broadcast live from the annual protest march.
At the same time, the station caters to niche audiences with offbeat content which now makes up a large chunk of their programming.
"We have the leeway to accommodate specialist interests when mainstream stations cannot afford to," Choy says, citing subjects ranging from conspiracy theories to the Kama Sutra.
"We even have a show for those soccer fans who hate Manchester United. We made anti-Manchester United cups and T-shirts for sale."
A loquacious fellow, Choy is in his element in front of the microphone.
"There's no limit on airtime, and our shows can run for hours. For our wine appreciation programme, we bring together connoisseurs to drink and talk through the night."
Dynamic duo's next move: generating revenue
Of the many internet radio stations in Hong Kong, D100 stands out as more like a mainstream operation. That's because it has links to Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), which was co-founded by commentator and entrepreneur Albert Cheng King-hon.
After a row over political interference at DBC in 2012, Cheng and former DBC chief executive Morris Ho Kwok-fai sold their stake in the broadcaster and set up D100.
They launched in Cyberport the following year, taking along with them a team of former DBC staff.
D100's four channels now attract 500,000 listeners daily, but Ho says they are still working out a sustainable business model.
Only 15,000 people pay the HK$780 annual subscription - not enough to cover operating costs. "We use the technology of internet radio, but our positioning and programme strategy is like that of [mainstream] radio," says Ho. "After the DBC incident, we realise that it's important to have an independent voice. To be able to do that, we need investment in hardware and programming.
"We produce many live programmes, and comply with the Broadcasting Ordinance voluntarily. Unlike other internet radio operators, we do not allow foul language, as we want to reach inside homes to the whole family," he says.
"Internet radio stations are usually small-scale ventures with limited content. As long as you have a microphone and a server, you can start one. But we're not like that. A lot of resources go into production, like sound mixing, editing, and dubbing."
Ho says the D100 website will be revamped in November to boost advertising. Unlike traditional radio stations, D100 does not weave advertising into content, because subscribers don't want it. The current website cannot attract visitors because it only features programme listings.
"We want to transfer content from our Facebook page to the website and add new features to boost traffic," Ho says. "Our Facebook page has been very successful. Posts like funny pet videos attract more than 20 million views, and our news posts receive 100,000 views on average.
"The new website, like our Facebook page, can also act as enticement. After people come to our website, they might be interested in listening to our programmes.
"And if the website gets between one million and three million visitors each month, it will be no problem in attracting advertisers."
The partners have not looked back after losing their digital radio licence. "We won't seek another broadcast licence," Ho says. "We believe the spread of smartphones, which allows people to listen to radio everywhere, can build a mass audience. More than 200,000 people have downloaded our app on mobiles and we are optimistic that we can break even."