Chinese state radio takes to local airwaves

WILD-AM shifts formats in deal

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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Tune in to WILD-AM 1090 these days, and you can learn to speak Chinese, hear Beijing pop songs, and follow breaking news out of China.

That’s because the station that catered for decades to the local African-American community with talk and news programs sold all of its airtime last month to China Radio International, the English-language news service produced by the Chinese government.

Although China Radio has placed programs on local stations for years, WILD is one of only a handful nationwide to go all-China Radio, all the time. As China expands its economic reach, the government is stepping up efforts to burnish its image globally, spending billions of dollars to expand state-sponsored media agencies, including China Radio, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television, a CNN-like TV service.

With programming from a feature on a tourism boom at historical sites of the Chinese communist revolution to updates on a Shanghai museum named for Hong Kong martial-arts movie actor Jackie Chan, China Radio presents a glowing portrait of the world’s most populous country.

What you won’t find on China Radio is actual news, said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.

“It’s not news, it’s propaganda,’’ she said. “This is a state-run press in the truest sense of that term. There won’t be anything about the rising tensions in the South China seas. You never hear anything on that radio station about China’s human rights issues track record. This is very much the government’s view.’’

The Chinese government is trying to improve its image, said Joseph Fewsmith, an international relations professor at Boston University. “It’s consistent with China’s public diplomacy efforts,’’ he said. “They are trying to tell their side of the story to persuade other populations that China is basically a good and reasonable government, and that it’s not a threat.’’

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, called the radio service’s US presence valuable. “It’s kind of a cultural exchange,’’ he said. “We encourage the local American people to listen to such programs to gain a more comprehensive understanding of China, what Chinese culture represents, and what the Chinese people are thinking themselves.’’

WILD’s parent company, Radio One Inc. in Baltimore, and China Radio International did not respond to requests for comment.

Beginning in 2009, China invested a reported $6.6 billion to expand the international presence of its state-sponsored media outlets, including China Radio, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television. Each presents an official spin on news, features, and entertainment.

China Central Television reaches 300 million people globally and offers broadcasts in multiple languages, including Russian and Arabic. China Radio broadcasts in 43 languages. Xinhua News has been adding more than 100 bureaus around the world and moved its US operations to expansive new headquarters in New York’s Times Square in May.

China Radio’s strategy in the United States has been to buy airtime on small AM stations near a metropolis. The network has leased limited hours from at least 20 other stations in the United States and Canada since 1993.

In at least one case, the network missed its intended target market.

Mark Shorey, a London-based radio consultant who worked with China Radio, said the network was looking to reach the Houston market more than a year ago by leasing the broadcast day of a radio station in a deal similar to the WILD agreement. But the station was in Galveston, Texas, 50 miles away from Houston, and the signal was too weak to cover the bigger city effectively.

“They are still finding their feet when it comes to the American market. They are trying to put as many pins on a map’’ as they can, said Shorey.

“Boston is their best attempt so far,’’ he said, because the signal is strong in the city and in Quincy, both areas with large Asian-American populations who could be a target listenership.

However, Baodong, of the Chinese embassy, said the station is trying to reach American listeners in general. Whether listeners will tune in is another question.

“I don’t think being on a relatively low-profile AM facility, without a lot of publicity for it, is going to get them a huge listenership as a result of this,’’ said Scott Fybush, a radio analyst who publishes the Northeast Radio Watch newsletter.

In the most recent Arbitron ratings, prior to the switch to China Radio programming, the station drew 0.7 percent of radio listeners in the Boston market, ranking 25th overall in May. WILD averaged 75,900 listeners a week.

China Radio may have approached WILD because it was available and relatively cheap, the result of a slow economy, radio analysts said.

Listeners here have been intrigued and puzzled by China Radio’s move to WILD. The Chinese service arrived unannounced at the station on June 1, without any promotion. Some WILD listeners said they have tuned in to the new format out of curiosity, but were disheartened over the loss of WILD’s previous format, which they described as part of the fabric of the black community.

“It’s a good thing for the community that needed a voice, such as the Chinese and international community,’’ said Tessil J. Collins, a longtime listener and owner of Spectrum Broadcasting Corp., an entertainment consulting group.

But for the African-American community, she said, “it’s a tragedy. We lost the local voice.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story misidentified Tessil J. Collins’s gender. Collins is a man.