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[Newsmaker] Seoul’s English-language radio faces existential crisis: CEO

Chief of city-run broadcaster TBS cries foul over city council’s move to gut funding

July 16, 2022 - 16:00 By Yim Hyun-su
TBS CEO Lee Kang-taik talks during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)
From traffic and weather to music, current South Korean affairs and the latest COVID-19 case counts, Seoul’s mostly English-language radio station TBS eFM has kept expat listeners updated on issues and matters that impact their life in Seoul.

Running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the station has struggled financially since its 2008 launch, but has managed to continue serving the expat population thanks to city funding.

Now, its future looks uncertain.

“As the foreign population continues to grow in South Korea, the role of the station remains important and needs to expand,” said Traffic Broadcasting System CEO Lee Kang-taik. TBS operates two radio stations and one TV channel, including eFM.

“But at a time when we are already forced to play music and re-runs on the weekend, it will be impossible to continue its operation without the help from the Seoul city government,” he said during an interview with The Korea Herald last week.

Lee was referring to a city council bill, proposed by members of the conservative People Power Party, that essentially defunds TBS.

If passed, the legislation would take effect in July 2023, gutting some 30 billion won ($22.7 million) in funding that the broadcaster receives annually, which accounts for around 70 percent of the network’s budget.

The English language station, eFM, will be hit the hardest by the cuts as it already operates on a deficit, the CEO stressed.

Last year, the radio spent around 2.5 billion won in production but earned a revenue of 400 million won.

Lee emphasizes the public role eFM has been playing, which can’t be measured by numbers.

Some of the programs made by the radio station are aired in smaller, regional English-language radio stations in places like Gwangju and Busan, the CEO explained.

“Whether it is information about COVID-19 or disasters, only few means of information would be left (for the foreign community),” he said.

Many of eFM’s programs are hosted by foreign nationals with its content catering to the foreign community in the country and those abroad interested in Korea. Public service announcements between shows also convey useful information for those living in the city such as tips for using the subway.

Two of the most popular programs are the current affairs show “This Morning” and “Life Abroad,” which focuses various aspects of life in Korea.

‘Attack on free press’

Regarding the controversial bill, Kim Hyeon-ki, the chairperson of the Seoul Metropolitan Council has said that TBS has run its course as it is and should switch to commercial broadcasting. Mayor Oh Se-hoon has also made similar remarks, calling for a drastic reform of TBS’s role and function.

But CEO Lee said those words are a thinly-veiled guise for what is essentially a political vendetta.

It is no secret that the conservative faction, which gained control of Seoul’s administrative and legislative branches in the June elections, was unhappy about TBS Korean radio’s weekday morning talk show “News Factory,” hosted by liberal-leaning journalist Kim Ou-Joon.

Kim’s show has been the most-listened to radio show in the country for four years, according to pollster HanKook Research. But it has faced criticisms, mainly from conservatives, for being too political and biased against the right wing, despite being funded by taxpayer money.

The show also received multiple warnings from the Korea Communications Commission, a state media watchdog. One of them, which came about earlier this year, was in regards to the host’s call for support of then presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party on YouTube last year.

“When South Korea is internationally being recognized as an advanced country culturally and economically, the fact that this kind of political repression exists is such an embarrassment,” Lee said.

“Instead of assessing what the problem is and discussing solutions, (the critics) are calling on our organization to be completely dismantled, as if dealing with an enemy in war,” he said, adding that News Factory is just one show that airs for two hours in the morning.

The broadcasting network, which has some 350 staff, saw its funding from the city government slashed by 5.5 billion won this year already, after the current mayor, who is a member of the People Power Party, was elected in the by-elections last year.

In the second half of this year, the CEO said the broadcaster has no option but to tighten their belt drastically, reducing third-party presenters and replacing them with in-house staff or reducing appearance fees for guests.

Criticisms and debate around the role of public broadcasting are found in other countries, too. In the United States, the publically-funded National Public Radio often faces calls for funding cuts. In the United Kingdom, debate over the BBC’s license fee made headlines early this year.

Yet, none face the same gravity that TBS faces, a network that relies on public funding to support 70 percent of its operation being forced to stand on its own all of a sudden.

If attacks on TBS prevail, Lee warned there will be a chilling effect on other state-sponsored media outlets in the country, driving them towards self-censorship when it comes to criticizing the government.

“If TBS is forced to go after being a critical voice (against the government), it will make other public broadcasters such as MBC and KBS become more cautious in tone.”

In a country where the print media is, according to Reporters without Borders, “clearly dominated” by conservative newspapers, the absence of TBS could also have major consequences, he added.

“When conservative newspapers are accounting for nearly 80 percent of the print media market and their cable TV channels are helping increase their market shares, I believe TBS is contributing to the overall balance in this country’s media landscape.

“Media impartiality should not be judged based on a single program but the broadcaster should be looked at in its entirety as well as the media landscape it is in.”