Why is the government so worried about issuing radio licenses?

September 22, 2015 15:08
In 2011, the government invited applications for the digital audio broadcasting service. Photo: GovHK

While former senior Chinese official Chen Zuo’er laments that Hong Kong has failed to embrace Chinese rule, the fact is that the city's administration led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is actively transforming all aspects of Hong Kong society into the likeness of China under Communist Party rule.

Let's just look at the local media landscape and see how the government is trying to bring all media firms under its control. The latest example is the new digital radio broadcasting service.

You will recall that the pro-Beijing Phoenix U Radio received a license to provide free digital audio broadcasting services in 2011. But last week the company said it wants to return its license and stop broadcasting before the end of the month.

The government immediately closed the window for applications for new digital radio licenses, citing the need to review the current situation in the local radio market after the Phoenix shutdown.

Of course, the government has the right to make such a review, many observant parties believe its decision was taken to deny pro-democracy media the opportunity to gain access to the airwaves.

In fact, media veteran and opinion leader Albert Cheng King-hon, who owns the internet radio station D100, has expressed his intention to secure a license to run a digital broadcasting channel.

But he also acknowledges that his application will mostly likely be rejected because of his pro-democracy stance.

The current radio broadcasting service in Hong Kong can be divided into the analogue and digital streams.

The traditional analogue service is currently being offered by three broadcasters including privately-owned stations Commercial Radio and Metro Broadcasts, as well as the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong. Together, they offer more than 10 channels on the AM and FM bands.

In 2011, the government invited applications for the newly developed digital audio broadcasting service. It said the new digital technology will significantly increase the number of channels available to the public, providing them with more choices.

Three broadcasters were granted licenses to run digital radio channels, namely Digital Broadcasting Corp. (DBC), Metro Radio and Phoenix U Radio.

But as pro-democracy voices got louder, the government started getting worried about the impact of radio broadcasts on public opinion.

Cheng is one such broadcaster who has always been a thorn in the side of incompetent and abusive public officials. He used to be one of the most influential radio commentators for more than a decade as program host of Commercial Radio since the 1990s.

He was also blamed by Beijing and Hong Kong officials for urging the public to join the mammoth July 1 march in 2003 against the enactment of the proposed security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Cheng was forced to leave Commercial Radio in 2004 after his contract was not renewed.

Then he founded DBC in 2008 but the radio station soon sailed into dire straits after some pro-Beijing shareholders refused to pump in new funding for its development. A shareholder even revealed that the Liaison Office of the central government in Hong Kong did not like a program host that DBC wanted to recruit.

Cheng later sold his stake in DBC and established online radio station D100 in late 2012.

Given this background, it isn't remotely possible that Cheng could be one of the reasons why the government has decided not to accept new applications for digital broadcasting service.

If applications were open, Cheng, as he has said, would certainly seek a license and could even put pressure on the administration to approve his application.

Right now, Cheng's D100 outfit is running three online channels using the normal radio station model with funding coming from more than 20,000 members.

However, it is very easy for the government to justify its decision not to grant new licenses for digitation broadcasting service. It could cite the lack of advertising revenue, the declining radio audience, the lack of compatible hardware support and so on.

But the government refuses to admit that the reason for its decision to throw a monkey wrench into digital radio broadcasting is simply political.

Digital broadcasting is a powerful medium as it can provide audio and video simulcast of an event or a program, making it almost the same as live TV streaming services. With compatible digital radio receivers, a digital radio station can offer live TV programs, although on a smaller screen.

The government's refusal to grant a broadcasting license to Hong Kong Television Network three years ago indicated that it wants to maintain tight control of the local media industry.  

That's the reason why some local broadcasters are owned by Beijing loyalists or even a former Chinese official.

Market watchers are closely watching how the government will handle the application for license renewal of Commercial Radio, the only local radio broadcaster that is not owned by a pro-Beijing tycoon and maintains programs that are critical of official excesses and incompetence.

Rumors have it that CY Leung, as early as 2003, suggested that the broadcaster's license be limited to three years instead of the normal 12 years as a punishment for the station's critical stance.

This year, as its current license is about to expire, will he again think of new conditions to impose on Commercial Radio to rein it in?

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EJ Insight writer