21 August 2019
Commercial Radio owns the building that houses its headquarters. It could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to sources. Photo: HKEJ
Commercial Radio owns the building that houses its headquarters. It could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to sources. Photo: HKEJ

Radio daze: Ho passing clouds station’s future

What now Commercial Radio?

Hong Kong’s most outspoken radio station could face an uncertain future with the death of its founder.

George Ho, who died Wednesday aged 95 after battling cancer, founded Commercial Radio in 1959 and kept a firm grip on the station. It is the only Hong Kong broadcaster yet to change hands.

But the reason is not lack of interested parties. In the past decade, some investors were reported to have expressed interest in taking over the station. Also, many tried to persuade Ho to float the stock. He rebuffed them all. 

For him, Commercial Radio is not only a business but also a public service with an enormous social responsibility, according to a senior executive in the company. Profit is not its main motivation.

After Ho passed the mantle to his son, George Joseph Ho, in the 2000s, the elder man’s vision for the station remained intact.

As a privately owned company, Commercial Radio has no obligation to disclose its business operations and finances, so the public knows very little about it.

But it’s widely known that Commercial Radio owns a piece of land on Broadcast Drive in the Kowloon Tong district which houses its headquarters. The property is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The younger Ho has said he has no plans to move out of Broadcast Drive.

The veil of secrecy over its business has been both a blessing and a curse.

It has kept Commercial Radio at the forefront of free speech in Hong Kong, although not always with a happy ending.

For instance, its outspoken content made a martyr of Lam Bun who was killed by pro-Beijing supporters during the 1967 riots in retribution for his satirical program that lampooned them. Some newspapers at the time labeled him an anti-China spy.

It was a horrific killing. On Aug. 24, 1967, Lam was on his way to work when men posing as road maintenance workers stopped his vehicle at the end of the street where he lived. They blocked the car doors and doused Lam and a cousin who was a passenger with petrol and set the car alight, leaving them to burn alive.

The incident prompted Ho to house the staff in a building complete with armed security. A radio program called Flat C, 18th Floor, was later launched to honor Lam’s memory and continue his social commentary. The program has been running since 1968.   

What little is known about Commercial Radio is a patchwork of estimates and conjecture about its state of affairs.

Observers say it faces an increasingly challenging business environment and declining revenue as advertisers continue to migrate to new media.

Also, they say the station is under growing pressure from both the Hong Kong and central governments to promote a more pro-establishment stance. The sacking of three outspoken hosts – Albert Cheng, Wong Yuk-man and Lee Wai-ling — during the past 10 years might have been made under such duress.

Without doubt, Commercial Radio under the elder Ho made a significant contribution to the broadcasting industry. It remains a market leader due to its innovative and trend-setting programming.

Hongkongers of a certain age might recall the introduction of the disc jockey in the 1970s, or the comedy group Soft Hard in the late 1980s, and the jump of Cheng and Wong from television to radio just before the 1997 handover.

All that is part of Commercial Radio’s storied past. Ho’s passing could be the beginning or the end of a historic chapter.

Related story: Commercial Radio founder George Ho dies at 95

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EJ Insight writer

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