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Pirate Radio Storms Hong Kong’s Airwaves

Earlier this week, in a Kwun Tong industrial building, three young people sat in a smoky studio talking about art, family and music. Every so often, they took a break and played a song from My Little Airport, an independent band known for its twee sound and ironic lyrics. After an hour and fifteen minutes — fifteen minutes longer than scheduled — they came out of the studio to make way for the next hosts.

All in all, a fairly ordinary night at Hong Kong’s newest radio station, FM 101, which launched last autumn and broadcasts both on the web and the FM dial. That wasn’t the case a week earlier.

On March 4th, police and officials from the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) forced their way into the studio and seized $20,000 worth of transmitting equipment. FM 101 is a pirate radio station that broadcasts without a licence, which means its hosts and guests run the risk of hefty fines and even jail time. The station’s founders say they are deliberately circumventing Hong Kong’s broadcast laws in an attempt to force the government to open the airwaves to small, non-profit radio stations.

“All I want is a place to play indie music,” said Leung Wing-lai, 28, a musician and one of the station’s founders. “It’s absurd that this is illegal.”

In order to obtain a broadcast licence in Hong Kong, a radio station must demonstrate that it is financially sound, offers a large amount of programming and provides “benefits to the local broadcasting industry, the audience and the community as a whole,” according to the Telecommunications Ordinance. But activists and media observers claim those requirements are too subjective, and that they stifle freedom of speech by making it too onerous for small, non-profit radio stations to operate. Recently, new ventures like FM 101 have begun to challenge the government’s restrictions.

FM 101 was inspired by Citizens’ Radio, the pro-democracy pirate radio station that has operated since 2005. Unlike Citizens’ Radio, however, FM 101’s broadcasts focus largely on music, art, society and local Kwun Tong issues. Normally, its broadcast can only be heard in East Kowloon and in parts of Hong Kong Island’s Eastern District. “I guess you could call it pirate radio, but it’s really more like a community radio that just happens to be illegal,” said composer Ah-Kok Wong, a Citizens’ Radio host and FM 101 listener.

Many of FM 101’s two dozen hosts and contributors say they joined the station because they were unhappy with the content of Hong Kong’s licenced radio stations. “Here we can talk about serious and sensitive topics like homosexuality, but in mainstream radio, it’s very difficult to hear anything about this,” said Lee Ka-lok, 20, a sociology student at the Polytechnic University who hosts a talk show every Monday. His co-host, 18-year-old Yiu Yat-sum, said: “Eventually, if I can have my own show, I want to go to do more for Kwun Tong, like going to Yue Man Fong to talk to people about what they think about things.”

Leung hopes FM 101 will be the first in a future network of radio stations that focus on niche or local issues. “Compared to mainstream radio, which is very commercialized, we focus on things that aren’t well-known, like indie music or local topics like redevelopment in Kwun Tong,” he said. “Hong Kong only has three radio stations. It’s impossible for them to represent everything that’s going on and everything that needs to be said.”

Hong Kong has kept a firm hold on broadcast media since the early days of radio, said Grace Leung, an instructor at the Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication. “It’s obviously for political reasons, not for the public interest. Since the colonial days they’ve kept a tight approach to regulations because they didn’t want the airwaves to be too politicized.”

In other developed countries, Leung said, restrictions on radio have been loosened over the years. In the United States and United Kingdom, community radio stations, funded by donations and broadcast without licences through low-powered transmitters, have been common since the 1960s. Recently, governments in both countries have passed laws allowing such “micro-local” stations to operate legally on otherwise occupied FM channels, provided they do not interfere with other signals.

Though FM 101 uses a channel licenced to Metro Radio, it is only used for broadcast around Stanley, according to OFTA. “Radio frequency spectrum is scarce in Hong Kong,” wrote a spokesperson for the authority in a statement. Currently, all FM and AM radio channels have been allocated. Even if there was space and a station like FM 101 could get a licence, it would need to pay annual licence fees, which can be more than $1 million per year.

Such complications have led some broadcasters to give up on the airwaves altogether. For the past two years, web radio station Radio Dada has broadcast shows on music, design and alternative culture from the basement of Mongkok’s Langham Place mall, where a gelato shop donated space for a small studio.

“We find a lot of people in Hong Kong want this kind of programming, but the major media have no space for it,” said Tommy Li, a designer and brand consultant who founded the station with advertising guru Andy Tam and hip hop artist MC Yan. “What they do offer is very limited and kind of boring, because the Hong Kong government is very sensitive about what’s on air. That’s why it’s so hard to get a broadcast licence. The thing about web radio is that there’s no censorship.”

MC Yan, the station’s programming director, focuses its musical content towards underground and independent acts — in part because of his experience with LMF, a hip hop group that achieved considerable success in the late 1990s and early 2000s but was mostly shut out of radio airplay because of its profanity-laden and politically-charged lyrics. He regularly invites indie bands to perform live in Radio Dada’s studio. “[It's] the most supportive of radio stations towards the indie scene,” says Nadim Abbas, a member of A Roller Control, an electro-rock band that played at the station last year.

Radio Dada’s live web stream attracts about 100,000 clicks per week. Since it has no advertising, its only source of income is from selling blocks of sponsored programming, such as a weekly culture show hosted by Metro, a free commuter newspaper. With no rent to pay, volunteer hosts and audio software donated by Adobe, the station’s start-up and operating costs have been minimal. “We’re happy because it’s been two years, more than 700 days of programming and we’ve still managed to survive,” said Li.

FM 101 is a more cost-intensive operation. It cost between $60,000 and $70,000 to start up, said Leung, which includes the purchase of transmitting equipment from the mainland. Rent, internet and the cost of maintaining a server cost about $10,000 per month, much of which comes from the hosts’ own pockets. But the extra cost is worth it, he said, because FM reaches a more diverse audience than the web. “Even people like hawkers and shoemakers on the street can listen when they’re at work. Not everyone can sit at a computer to listen to the radio.”

FM 101 is now trying to raise money to replace the transmitters that were seized by OFTA. Last Sunday, under a cartoon banner meant to evoke the French revolutionary painting “Liberty Leading the People,” FM 101 held a fundraising event on Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok. Tanya Chan and Leung Kwok-hung, two pan-democrat politicians who resigned their seats to run in a so-called “de facto referendum” on democracy, arrived to speak in support of the station.

“They try to do something alternatively, either musically or by providing a platform for people to speak out,” said Leung, who is one of Citizens’ Radio’s founders and who helped FM 101 cover its startup costs. “In my mind, it’s simple. If the government tries to crack down on any free speech, we should support them.”

The crowd grew as passersby stopped to listen. Among them was Dorothy Tang, who works in a public relations firm. She donated $30 to an FM 101 volunteer after hearing Leung speak. “They’re fighting for our freedom of speech,” she said. “I think the government should open the airwaves.”

Things might change later this year when the government introduces new digital radio channels that will supplement the existing FM and AM channels. When the new channels are launched, public broadcaster RTHK will provide a number of hours of community programming. But Leung says this is only a half-measure.

“We need to keep fighting until Hong Kong allows community broadcasting without a licence,” he said. He anticipates another raid shortly after they buy new transmitting equipment. “When that happens, we’ll just start again.”

This story was originally published in the March 21, 2010 edition of the South China Morning Post.

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