Now, this certainly isn’t the news of the week, as The Houston Chronicle reported this story early this year—but it is news to consider going forward in the annals of US broadcasting. SIGA Broadcasting’s KGBC-AM 1540 Galveston, TX served the Galveston area since 1947. This year the station blew up its Oldies format and leased all of its airtime to one of China’s state-owned media companies/news agencies, China Radio International (CRI). As CRI is government-owned, it often adopts the government stance on political issues such as Taiwan being an integral part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). CRI, the former Radio Beijing and originally Radio Peking, founded in 1941, is one of the three state-owned medias in China along with China National Radio and China Central Television (CCTV).
CRI can also be heard here on New World Media’s WUST-AM 1120 DC-Baltimore and WNWR-AM 1540 in Philadelphia. But these stations aren’t leasing to CRI 24/7, like KGBC.
Of course, multicultural radio and block programming is nothing new in the U.S., neither is full-time station leasing. In L.A. and NYC, we have 24/7 Korean LP TV stations taking the Korean National Network and rebroadcasting it. Emmis has a time brokerage agreement on an FM in LA and the programming is coming out of Mexico.
CRI has an international news roundup, but most of the English-language broadcast focuses on China. “The thing that amazes me is why Radio International China Beijing?” Glenn Richards, former KGBC morning show producer told The Chronicle. “It’s not really geared to anybody locally.”
CRI may describe itself as the BBC of China, but its goal is to burnish China’s image, said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch: “This is information being provided by a government with a long and inglorious history with regards to freedom of information,” she told the paper.
The Chinese government has made a concerted effort the last few years to increase the global reach of state-owned media, she said. “CRI popping up in Galveston is symptomatic of a much larger trend.”
Looks like it will continue for a while: KGBC owner Gabriel Arango, president of SIGA, said he has signed a letter of intent for a five-year lease with a well-known California broadcaster whose name he can’t reveal because of a confidentiality agreement.
The broadcast arrangement with CRI was made through the prospective lessee, Arango said. “I have no knowledge about CRI negotiations,” he said. He said the CRI broadcast was a test and that he understood that the lessee was considering a Christian format.
But Billy Chung, a CRI agent in City of Industry, CA, said CRI officials in Beijing told him that KGBC was the first station in the US to broadcast CRI 24/7. CRI has been broadcasting in the U.S. at least since 1993, usually by buying one- or two-hour chunks of air time on local stations. KXYZ-AM 1320 in Houston once carried CRI.
Alan Pendleton, VP of New World Media in Falls Church, VA, told the paper the first broadcasts were translations of domestic Chinese programs that were heavy on statistics. “It was like listening to the crop report,” he said.
The Chinese have since grown more sophisticated. One of the first things they learned was that blatant propaganda doesn’t work, said Pendleton. CRI has a point of view, but doesn’t resort to fabrications, he said.
RBR-TVBR observation: It’s perfectly legal, as SIGA is a U.S.-owned broadcaster. The FCC doesn’t care about the origin of the programming – it’s concerned with accountability and the citizenship of the U.S. licensee. However, bottom line, the airwaves in the U.S. essentially belong to the government, which grants broadcasters the right to use the airwaves “for the public good”. If relations between the US and China became much more tense and RCI started trashing the U.S. Government, CRI’s Galveston outlet could be history.
Could more and more CRI full-time station leases be signed with desperate broadcasters? Of course. Could foreign governments airing potential propaganda 24/7 in 50 top markets be something to question? Yes — both are things to consider. On the other hand, of course, any investment in the AM medium these days is a good thing. Perhaps it’s not so bad to have a bit of investment come back our way. So we’ll see how this might help the AM band down the road.