Open Up The Radio Airwaves in Hong Kong

(Ming Pao)  Opening the Skies of Sounds.  By Audrey Eu (Hong Kong Legislative Council member).  October 31, 2006.

[in translation]

In October last year, Legislative Councilor Leung Kwok-hung and District Councilor Tsang Kin-shing established Citizens' Radio and used a FM frequency to broadcast a one-hour talk show on current political affairs.  Last month, the police raided the radio station and took away some equipment.  But Citizens' Radio replaced the equipment and came back on air.

Last week, the Office of Telecommunications Authority struck again and arrested Leung Kwok-hung during a broadcast and also pressed charges against Citizens' Radio and four individuals for having unlicensed equipment that were used for unauthorized radio transmission.  The case is scheduled to be heard with a maximum penalty of HK$50,000 and two years in jail.

Citizens' Radio had previously applied for a broadcasting license but the Broadcasting Authority and the Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau have not given approval because it was said that there are 3 radio stations with seven FM frequencies and that should be enough for citizens to express different opinions and receive various types of information.  But the number of frequencies should be decided by the market, not by the government.

Presently, the FM broadcasting spectrum is used up by the seven frequencies of Commercial Radio, RTHK and Metro Radio.  There are two unused AM frequencies.  So that is not enough for ordinary citizens to use.  On Sunday morning, a radio program had a male Indonesian host and the callers were mostly Indonesian domestic helpers.  But they had to use lousy Cantonese to talk because this was a Chinese-language channel whose audience is principally Chinese.  These types of small program have always hoped to find their own broadcast space instead of being subsumed under someone else.  In additions, religious and political groups, new immigrants, students and "Victoria Park uncles" are all hoping to have their turfs to speak up.

... Around the world, at least 110 countries or regions have opened up their airwaves to let citizen radio stations flourish.  The audience, the sponsors and the forces of the market can decide what is enough.  Around the world, about 3,000 citizen radio stations have formed an international alliance AMARC to exchange information.  Never mind the faraway Europe because in Asia alone, at least 12 regions or countries (including Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Kampuchea) have citizen radio stations.  When will Hong Kong and China join them?

In opening up the airwaves, it is more important for the Hong Kong SAR government to keep their word to respect freedom of information and to use an open approach to let citizens run their own non-profit radio stations, whatever their positions and without any prejudice by race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, politics and religion.

In discussions about opening up the radio airwaves in Hong Kong, there is often some misinformation that was either intentional or unintentional.

Let me show some examples: 

And then the point is made about why other cities can have dozens of radio stations but Hong Kong only has three.  

Why is this answer misleading?  That is because Commercial Radio, RTHK and Metro are three organizations (two commercial and one government) that do radio broadcasts in Hong Kong and each of them runs more than one channel.  The three are corporate entities as opposed to radio channels.  Therefore, the more relevant question is the following:

Even so, the point is made that other cities have dozens of radio channels but Hong Kong only  has ten channels.  

Why is this answer misleading?  Because each Hong Kong FM radio channel exists at more than one frequency in Hong Kong.  The technical problem for a place like Hong Kong is that it has a hilly terrain and there is no high point (such as Taipei 101 in Taipei, or Sears Tower in Chicago, or Empire State Building in New York City, etc) for a single transmission point to cover all of Hong Kong.  If you erect an antenna on Mount Gough on Hong Kong Island, the signal covers most of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, but it cannot reach the people in Sha Tin or Sai Kung because of the hills in between.  If you set up an antenna on Beacon Hill in Kowloon to cover Shatin at the same frequency, then the people in Kowloon will be receiving two signals which may not be perfectly synchronized and therefore quite unpleasant to listen to.  Therefore, Hong Kong radio stations have multiple transmission antennae across the territory using different frequencies.  For example, here is the RTHK Radio 1 signal according to the locations of their transmitters (and the coverage areas).

 So the proper question is this:

Why do you think the answer is?  You can count for yourself (source:; see also OFTA):

The correct number is 72.  This number gives a somewhat different perspective about the vacancy rate in the radio spectrum in Hong Kong than commonly presented for discussion purposes.

(South China Morning Post)  Poor reception   By Stephen Vines.  July 31, 2009.

Did you know that digital broadcasting technology exists in Hong Kong and could transform the broadcasting industry overnight, offering infinitely more choice of both radio and television programmes? As matters stand, however, implementation has been thwarted by lack of government action. Digital broadcasting is commonplace in many parts of the world and could be introduced here at the flick of a switch, since RTHK has been conducting digital trials since 1998.

So, we are still stuck with a very modest choice of 13 radio channels - seven broadcast on FM, three solely on antiquated AM technology that is barely audible in many parts of Hong Kong, and three belonging to RTHK that broadcast on both frequencies. Meanwhile, only two television companies are licensed to broadcast free-to-air programmes.

Elsewhere in the world, the advent of digital technology is being embraced with enthusiasm and has led to a frenzy of competition and, thus, consumer choice. Because digital broadcasting is both cheap and provides high-quality reception, it enables minority audiences to be accommodated alongside mainstream consumers. While programming quality is decidedly mixed, the powerful force of competition has led to impressive improvements in broadcasting almost everywhere digital technology is in place.

So why is Hong Kong, which is usually anxious to embrace the latest technologies, so laggard in this field? As ever, the answers lie in the familiar litany of reasons that explain why the special administrative region languishes when it could easily do better.

First up are the vested interests that have the ear of government. Then there is the supine attitude that the administration displays in all aspects of expanding freedom of communication because it fears a negative reaction from Beijing. Layered on top of all this is government sloth and insecurity. On the one hand, it can't make up its mind what to do about RTHK and, on the other, the government has a natural inclination towards delay and prevarication in the face of any innovation likely to cause problems.

The vested interests, meaning the two companies that control terrestrial television broadcasts and the two commercial companies, alongside RTHK, which control radio broadcasting, naturally fear competition - although, to be fair to RTHK, it is a stalwart advocate of digital broadcasting. Moreover, the commercial companies are loath to invest in digital technology; Commercial Radio has ruled it out entirely. A fourth entrant to the radio business, Albert Cheng King-hon, who holds an AM broadcast licence, has wisely delayed the launch of his station possibly because he thinks it is pointless to embark on AM broadcasts when there is a glimmer of hope that he could do the same thing at a fraction of the cost by employing digital technology.

The vested interests are also fortunate in having some very powerful friends. The two television stations are now controlled by entities that are as close to Beijing as can be, and more or less everyone has noticed how this affects their news coverage.

One of the commercial radio stations, Metro, is controlled by Li Ka-shing and no one has ever doubted his clout. The other has less guanxi but is very much part of the old order that has shown itself to be government friendly - not least by sacking popular talk-show hosts and commentators such as Mr Cheng and Wong Yuk-man who, in their time, were a big thorn in the government's side.

Even if the vested interests were not so powerful, this administration is wary of any moves that could open channels of communication to broadcasters who may be disliked in Beijing. Indeed, some of the government's more vociferous allies wish to move in the other direction and make RTHK a propaganda channel as opposed to a public broadcaster.

Meanwhile, the old mantra of government - no decision too important not to be delayed - prevails in the arena of broadcasting policy. Beset by fears of criticism and more comfortable with the status quo, the bureaucrats are busy dreaming up new reasons for delay.

Actually, the status quo is not so bad, in as much as freedom of the media largely prevails, but Hong Kong is supposed to be a place that strives for excellence and believes in freedom of choice. So why is broadcasting not part of this picture?

Related Link: Citizens' Radio in Hong Kong