Wednesday, March 07, 2012


“If you do a live radio show in the morning, nothing worse can happen to you all day.”

Open Miked in Busan

I’ve been very busy recently. It’s the kind of busyness where you’re basically on the move and working from the moment you awake after five to six hours of sleep to the moment you go to bed, seven days a week, and I’ve pretty much been like this since November. It seems like a superhuman effort for a foreigner, but it’s just normal life for many Koreans. Is it a sign my attitude is becoming Korean? And if I don’t care, is the answer yes?

Before I became one with the near catatonic mental state that the Korean work experience brings about, I used to write this blog – this post may well be a figment of your imagination – and along the way I tried, and failed, to keep up with posts taken from my Busan e-FM radio segment, Open Mike in Busan. For the sake of posterity, my desire to maintain a record of my Korean experience, I intend to complete these posts, which in the end will number 51, because my time on the show came to a close, something I was extremely glad of because after 51 weeks of strip-mining this blog, I’d run out of material and laid waste to the environment.

Zen and the Art of Radio Presenting

The radio station then posted an advert for writers and presenters, and I decided to apply because even though all the station’s writers are Korean, I like writing and the worst they could say was no if I expressed an interest. A phone conversation ensued during I was asked if I’d like to try out as a presenter, and even though I regard myself as having a face for radio and a voice for writing, I ended up going along with it because I’d decided to let the cards choose my fate considering how letting my intellect and logic choose the course of my life had turned out. There was also a strong element of my saying I was interested in writing, and the person on the other end of the phone hearing I really wanted to present. Many of my conversations in Korea seem to follow this pattern.

So it was that I turned up one day at Busan e-FM thinking someone was going to interview me about both options, but instead found an unfamiliar script thrust into my hands with the words “you’re on in ten minutes.”

As far as I understand the process, writers write pieces for the radio station, which are then translated into English by Koreans, and in my experience the results are invariably less than perfect in the way that a large asteroid hitting the Earth would be less than ideal. So I spent a tense ten minutes correcting what I was about to read in the studio.

During the reading, half-way down the second page and so far word perfect, I saw the end in sight and thought “I’m going to make it”, which almost inevitably was the trigger to make a small mistake. The producer immediately cut me off and ended the test recording. I knew it was over – live radio is a harsh mistress. As the producer clicked away on the computer, I stared out of the window contemplating the fact that if I’d had more than five hours of sleep the night before – which my baby son’s screaming had prevented – I might have been better. But in those moments I enjoyed the Zen-like realisation that my son was going to wake up at night for the foreseeable future, I was always going to be this tired – and hosting a live radio show was not for me.

I won’t pretend not to have been a little disappointed though; I was curious about how things would have turned out given that I’m just far enough beyond giving a damn not to try and have fun with it, which I expect would have ultimately pitched me against the people who run things.

This Segmented Life – Busan and More and Less

Something unexpected came of the test recording though. It was played to the station’s producers who’d gathered to formerly reject me in favour of someone better, but one of them was looking for a new segment guest and so it was that I was offered the role of writing and guesting on the Morning Wave in Busan show segment, Busan and More, which every Monday morning discusses the events taking place in the city in the week ahead.

On the downside, there was little scope to indulge in the kind of subtle freelance subversion I’d engaged in for Open Mike in Busan, but on the other hand I thought researching all those events would be a good opportunity for my wife and I to kick-start our social and cultural life which had ended after the birth of our son (I was wrong).

And then I unexpectedly got the chance to host a show after all, when – and I’m going to be necessarily vague here – the new presenter of a show was absent on their first day, leaving a hanging question of whether they would appear for their second. It was a one-time deal because no-one else was available and they were desperate, so I spent two hours the next day working through the translated English script trying to understand what it meant – no easy task - and correcting it. This certainly gave me an additional perspective on just how much work being a presenter at the station required, and how ill-advised doing such a job would be considering the hidden commitment.

I worked through that script correcting it and practising the Korean names within it, knowing that the missing presenter may resurface and I may not appear anyway – and so it was. I’d sent the station my corrected script anyway and later listened somewhat perplexed - and yet somehow completely unsurprised – as the new presenter awkwardly read out the original English translation, not my corrected version.

International Media Talk and Historical Figures

After this, I was offered another segment on the Weekly Review programme, called International Media Talk, which I would do every other week and discuss news in the global media. Finally things came full circle when the formerly absent presenter left the station after three months, the original host returned, and I was offered another segment on his show – Inside Out Busan – called Historical Figures, which essentially tries to discuss facts about famous people from history you possibly never knew.

Even by my standards, I knew the new segment would likely push me to breaking point, but the presenter and I had become friends along the way and I’d always said I would do more for his show if called upon. I also saw that the new segment potentially promised to be something I could have fun with because the entire premise bordered on the subversive. Seeing society through the perspective of the absurd is the only thing that motivates me to get up in the morning these days. Later in writing it though I’d discover that producing something that matched my expectations in the limited time I had would be a difficult trick to pull off.

About twelve to fifteen hours goes into writing those 30 minutes of radio for Busan e-FM every week, which I’d be the first to accept is probably far in excess of what most other people in my position would sanely put in. This is not work I’d recommend to anyone; I’ve long since developed a love-hate relationship with it, although I suppose at this point that could be said of most of my Korean experiences in general.


Anonymous said...

Having spent four years working at my university's radio station and a few years with National Public Radio (, I considered working at the TBS E-FM in Seoul when I heard they had a few openings.

But, my crystal ball told me to stay away. For one, most of the programming lacks a certain professionalism. 70% of the programming screams college radio station. After reading your account, I guess it's bc of the Koreanism in the business.

Anyway, I'm glad I dodged that bullet.

Thanks for your insight.

Just listening to the programming is enough.

Mike said...

Yes, I think it's fair to say it does have a bit of a college radio station feel to it - which I've also come to realise is about my level :-) That said, I've done college radio, and by comparison the technical set-up is much more professional.

It would be interesting to discover what the output would be like if the foreigners had free reign to put their ideas into practice, but as things are it's really broadcasting designed by Koreans, for Koreans, although I think some foreigners out there are trying to push the envelope.

Anonymous said...

Mike, don't get me wrong; there has been some class "A" programming on Seoul's TBS.

Last year, they had a great evening news/ commentary show with "Sid Kim" (I think). it's been replaced by a very competent personality whose name escapes me. However, they really screwed the pooch on the format by having teams of university students debate various current events.

These students come from SKY, EHWA, and other decent Seoul universities. The TBS moderator is top notch, but when those kids start going at it, it's painful to listen to.

In contrast, Kim had regular "adult professional" guests; lawyers, professors, etc. I'd sit in my parked car for an hour listening to his show.

Where did it go?

Another program that was worth a listen was Hatherly's show, last year. It had a comedy/ chat feel. He did a great job. Now they have Hatherly DJing a music slot. Doesn't make sense.

Just one more thing: I don't know if you guys have to broadcast the K-Popular "As One" chicks down in Busan, but if you don't, thank your particular diety.

They have been the one terrible constant on Seoul's TBS. Even my university and adult Korean students and friends change stations when those girls come on.

Sorry for venting, but Korea is pretty good at copying cars and electronics, but there is a definite shortfall when it comes to them taking anything from "the west" that has worked and continues to work in radio and television.

Just one more thing.... I was driving to work one morning... 9ish... and the DJ actually played William, Capt., Kirk, Shattner's rendition of the Beatle's Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds....

The sad thing is that it wasn't part of an AM comedy show! It was just in his line up. No show, just music...

Anyway, I'm glad it exists. I hope it evolves in a good way.

Mike said...

I'm sure there are diamonds in the rough. I hadn't realised Hatherly's show had changed though - that's a shame.

I haven't heard of "As One", but then I don't listen to Busan e-FM much, partly because of my work, but mostly because of the bad English and the processes which I know create it.

Feel free to vent about it - I feel there's a lot that needs to be said about the subject. One day I'd like to put up the definitive post about my my time at Busan e-FM and what it says to me about Korea and my Korean experience, but out of a sense of proper decorum and completeness that probably has to wait until I'm not working there any more.

I think these stations will evolve over time. Previously I mentioned the inability of foreigners who are fluent Korean speakers to break the divide into station management - though I do think it will come. But in the end, while Busan e-FM is supposed to be aimed at foreigners, its real audience is Korean, and perhaps they are getting what they want as it is.

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