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Radio Broadcasters Seek to Overcome Limitations in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's FM 101 logo
Hong Kong's FM 101 logo

Even in the age of web-based communications and social media, activists in Asia still view radio as an important medium to get their message across. But the growth of community radio in Asia faces many challenges, notably technical difficulties and censorship. Broadcasters in Hong Kong are battling technical and political limitations to reach audiences.

Every year in Hong Kong on July 1, tens of thousands of people march to voice their concerns about living under Chinese rule. But there is little opportunity for them to air their grievances over radio.

Albert Cheng is a political commentator and former Hong Kong legislator. In 2004, his station canceled his popular radio talk show.

“I think it was self-censorship of the station itself because it kind of offending, in particular offending the China groups at that time," said Cheng.

Cheng wants to increase the number of available radio channels on Hong Hong’s limited frequencies by pushing the government to adapt digital audio broadcasting. The technology allows more broadcasts on an individual frequency that now allow only one.

“We have a technical problem because Hong Kong is surrounded by mountains," he said. "We only have seven FM stations occupying 49 frequencies because of geographic factor and locations of seven transmitters.”

Hong Kong authorities say they expect to make enough frequencies available to meet the digital demand. But there are others who say the limited radio offerings are more than just a technical problem.

These Hong Kong rights activists say the government is trying to control what goes on air by restricting the frequency allocation to big businesses with substantial finances.

“They will ask you to do 24-hours a day, seven days a week broadcasting," said Dominic Fok Wai-pong. "Or they have a minimum broadcasting hours that will be letting those who have money, who have capital to invest. This ordinance can provide a tool for them to control who can use the airwaves.”

Dominic Fok Wai-pong runs FM101 from a former factory building in Hong Kong's Kowloon district. It is a so-called pirate radio station that uses a miniature antenna installed on the roof to broadcast to the surrounding neighborhood on a frequency occupied by another station.

“Honestly, it is illegal, according to regulations and code in Hong Kong," he said. "We do not apply for a license and do not want to apply for a license. This is a game of civil disobedience.”

The station houses a small studio where volunteer broadcasters record shows about political and social issues in Hong Kong and China.

While there is press freedom in Hong Kong, a separately governed Chinese territory, mainland China has a sophisticated censorship system that blocks non-government approved broadcasts, including VOA.

No other media covered this event except FM101. The station also streamed the broadcast to China via another website to get around China's “Great Firewall” that blocks online FM101's broadcast.

“We focused on mainland issues, especially labor rights, merging of politics and economics for the wealthy, because for me I'm afraid if there is no one in mainland China to speak up about the truth, we will no longer know what is happening in mainland China," said Dominic Fok Wai-pong. "If we do not know what is happening there, we do not know what will be happening here.”

Former talk show host Albert Cheng says most mainstream media do not cater to these people and their concerns because the owners want to protect their business interests in China.

"All the media organizations in Hong Kong are owned by big business and big conglomerates," said Cheng. "They all have business in China. Obviously they don't want to be critical to China because it may affect their business.”

Cheng’s digital plans call for several channels catering to community listeners, including a channel for migrants. Despite his plans, he concedes he does not know if he will be able to keep the station independent.

“I hope we can become more independent," he said. "I also have my shareholders. My shareholders are big businessmen too. I hope they will leave me alone. I cross my fingers. That's have to be tested. Don't know, never know.”

Cheng’s station is expected to go live in 2012.