It starts with the calm, measured tones of US President Jimmy Carter making an announcement on December 15, 1978.
I would like to read a joint communique which is being simultaneously issued in Peking at this very moment by the leaders of the People’s Republic of China:
The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.
The music starts: funky electro-jazz with a sharp beat. And then we hear the smooth, powerful voice of Bobby Kong.
Welcome to our Radioactive Taiwan podcast.
In this our first episode we’ll bring you back to the music and the politics of the 1980’s
And how a mixed bag of radio pros, Chinese students, and people literally plucked off the streets of Asia were able to help bring a fledgling outcast of a country into a new era of political freedom, worldwide respect, and democracy!
And so begins the fab new podcast about the Glory Days of ICRT, (International Community Radio Taipei) how it went from being Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan, to a fully-fledged American-style commercial radio station with 3,000,000 listeners per day.
But more than that, claim the makers of this fun, slick, and even inspiring 5-part podcast series, ICRT became a force for American soft power in Asia, keeping the love for America going after the soldiers left. Not only did it allow a wide range of Taiwanese to tune in to the latest and/or greatest pop, country, rock, jazz, and classical hits, it also served as a window on the world with uncensored news 24/7, the only such public source in Taiwan, at that time under Martial Law. What’s more, it became a free source of English learning for young and old alike, encouraging many to come to America to study, and it promoted democracy, freedom, truth and the American Way of Life!
In fact ….
And if that seems a bit hyperbolic, shame on you! Old radio people never exaggerate; they just remember it better.
Radioactive Taiwan is the creation of a group of former (and one current) ICRTers. The writer is veteran radio-man Rick Monday, ICRT DJ and news guy at various points from 1986 to 2012. Former ICRT DJ Bobby Kong is the silken-voiced main narrator for the show: 50+ years running as a pro DJ, said Rick, and still on the air in Tokyo. Nic Gould, a former ICRT newsman / marketing manager from 1988 to 2000, is the old guy who can still remember the most stuff, and was hence invaluable to the project. And then there’s Tito Gray, who did news and music for the Pinoy community in Taiwan on ICRT for years before retiring to the Philippines. He is still sending in his show AsiaNation that plays on Sundays. Tito’s the one-man production studio who put the show together and made it greater than the sum of its parts.
This documentary series covers how when the US switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC on Jan. 1 1979, the armed forces had to leave. Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan had already been a popular station, and very useful for the business expat community, who convinced the ROC government to let them take it over. In 1983 they hired an American guy from Hawaii called Craig Quick, a natural leader with broadcast experience and a bold vision for ICRT. Quick hired some talented, motivated people and they got to work up in the old fortified AFNRT studio on Yangmingshan. Leadership, talent, and teamwork – combined with having the only private radio license in Taiwan at the time – led to a huge success. ICRT became a media elephant. Not long after that, on July 14th, 1987, martial law was lifted, and the country saw a wave of openness and democratization that ICRT fit perfectly into. It was truly a golden time for the radio station.
But it was not to last: there were rough waters ahead. According to a Taipei Times article of April 16, 2014: “…in January 1993, the central government lifted its ban on new radio stations, going on to approve 46 new stations across Taiwan on Dec. 24, 1994. ICRT found itself floundering: Within the next few years, it had taken the AM channel permanently off-air and severely downsized its FM.”
It was too easy for the new Taiwanese-owned stations to simply copy ICRT’s successful format: popular western music, jingles, contests, phone-in requests, and chatty DJs. The loss of the monopoly position was a massive hit to ICRT’s advertising revenue.
But even as the station slowly started to fade through the late 1990’s and early 2000s, it still served the community. When I polled the Facebook hive-mind on favorite ICRT moments, many people talked about how Terry Engel’s morning show cheered them up on blue Mondays, or how Bill Thiessen’s jazz show chilled them out on Sunday nights. Good vibes! Many also expressed strong appreciation for the news department’s solid coverage in the aftermath of the 9-21 Jiji Earthquake on Sep. 21st, 1999. In a similar vein, current general manager Tim Berge recalls how useful the station was to the international community when Typhoon Nari slammed into northeastern Taiwan on Sep. 16 2001. Much of Taipei was flooded and without electricity for a couple of days, but ICRT was there, back-up generator cranking away, keeping everyone up-to-date on conditions and recovery efforts.
Of course, everyone had a radio back then, whereas today probably most people don’t have one, unless they drive a car. Everything is online and on your smartphone. ICRT has tried to adapt with podcasts, live streaming, an app, and a presence on Facebook and Twitch, among other innovations. But let’s face it: in the media landscape they’ve gone (through no fault of their own) from being an elephant to a dwarf elephant; from 3,000,000 listeners a day to 500,000 per week; from number one to number 6. Tim Berge and the team, like Ron Stuart, Joseph Lin, Gavin Phipps – and many others – soldier on at their new digs in Xinzhuang, refusing to give up, keeping the legend alive. Thanks guys!
Even Tim remembers the Yangmingshan days with fondness, how as “Captain Tim” the traffic guy, he beat his chest to simulate the sound of their non-existent traffic helicopter. Like everyone else, he was having fun and enjoying the moment, riding a big golden wave. Everyone was younger and more optimistic back then, as was Taiwan.
So if you want to uncork and experience those moments, the Radioactive Taiwan podcast is a powerful blast from the past. There’s a lot I didn’t share because you should experience if for yourself: the stories of concerts promoted, marketing triumphs, and cultural impact. There are cameo voice appearances by veteran ICRTers (including Craig Quick), notable expat personalities, famous politicians and recording artists, and more. The whole thing is not only informative, but also dynamic and fun like radio itself.
Give them a listen: I absolutely guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Here’s the link:
If you like it as much as I do, and want to support some cool old coots preserving their glory days in a compelling way, they can use your vote at the People’s Choice Podcast Awards, a big-deal annual event. Give them a vote! There is a brief, non-invasive registration process to make sure that people only vote once for any entry. I did it: it’s easy and didn’t lead to spam.
Go to www.podcastawards.com
Podcast’s name: Radioactive Taiwan
Categories: Adam Curry and History
And in these times of Covid-19, PRC saber-rattling, and squabbling on Facebook, you can still tune into the good vibes on ICRT or in this podcast.
So remember everyone: Taiwan’s More Than a Place to Live, Taiwan’s a State of Mind…
I’m John Groot, the author of this blog and also Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan, the story of my walk around the shoreline of Taiwan, and also the story of the Taiwan I discovered. If you’d like to know more about my book, please check out its Facebook page here. Cheers!