Dead air at China National Radio

China National Radio went off the air for 40 minutes last Saturday night. The grapevine says that a wiring overhaul somehow shorted out power to the transmitters for all nine stations.

However, no explanation has been forthcoming from the station itself. Blogger Pingke, who is an editor at New Century Weekly, wonders whether CNR is a relic from an earlier age of media.

CNR off the air for 40 minutes

by Pingke

CNR is China National Radio. At 8pm on 18 November, the nine stations of China National Radio suddenly cut off, and the break lasted for 40 minutes. Reportedly, this is the largest radio broadcasting accident in the history of New China; leaders and those in charge will face punishment, and some people may have a hard time keeping their jobs.

Hearing this news, the first reaction in my decades-brainwashed mind was "Damn, that's rich. It's a fucking joke that such a huge station like CNR could go dead for 40 minutes! That bunch of good-for-nothings - that their programs are unlistenable is bad enough, but if they can't even broadcast normally, what are they doing there?"

After more careful consideration, that wasn't exactly the case.

In the more than a decade I worked radio, the security education we received was always this kind of commandment: "Radio stations are the mouthpiece of the party, they cannot slack for an instant, any small problem is a big problem." Particularly in the 80s, things were so stern within and without of the live studio as to lead you to believe you had entered a restricted military zone; three levels outside and three inside from the main gate to the studio, all manned by soldiers shouldering guns with live ammo. It's said that China's radio stations originally did not have soldiers standing guard; in the 50s there was a raid on the CNR gate, and after that, there were soldiers at sentry posts. Into the 90s, as radio became more market oriented, some stations eliminated the soldiers outside their studios and replaced them with security guards. Once I went to Nanjing Radio, and from the main gate to the studio there was not a single person standing guard. I was incredibly shocked, and indignant besides - I thought, wouldn't it be really dangerous if class enemies came in wrecking everything?

Returning to the shutdown: short-term shutdowns caused by technical malfunctions have not been rare at stations in all regions during the past few years, but major accidents lasting more than ten or twenty minutes are really unheard of. Forget the station's workers, us common people have always had this as an article of faith - how could the CNR, this sound of the heartbeat of the great motherland, be interrupted? It's absolutely not permissible. But the facts are that the technical work of a radio station is managed by people; and, managed by people, it's impossible for errors be completely absent. Of course, there's a limit to error, and beyond this limit punishment is necessary. But the problem lies in the fact that we always elevate these mistakes to a political level. At its heart, this is a question of how you see the role of the media.

Formerly, radio stations and newspapers were the tools of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now they are called the promotional mouthpiece of the ruling party. There has already been a degree of change in this transition. The ceaseless drive of the media toward marketization will move it in the direction of specialization. Using the shutdown as an example, this is but a malfunction in specialized technology; whether forty minutes or four minutes, it should be handled internally to stop this kind of thing from happening again. For the public, an open explanation of the reason for the problem and an apology ought to be sufficient.

But looking at it now, this probably won't be the case. That CNR had problems and was off the air for 40 minutes seems to be a huge secret; we've seen no public reports. And CNR has made no statement, much less an apology. The millions in the worldwide audience who were met with a broadcast halt at 8 in the evening, Beijing time, on 18 November, to this date have not received an explanation from anyone. On the contrary, according to the established method of dealing with this sort of matter in the past, CNR is probably rife with internal debate and widespread paranoia, and at the very least some high-up CNR positions won't be held for much longer. This silence is in complete violation of the principles of openness and transparency. Everyone guessing back and forth is not beneficial to the establishment of a harmonious society. Perhaps some international reactionary forces are still plotting to destroy us and assume that something happened to our great capital on that day, hmm? Why not issue a news memo as a notification about the reasons for and resolution of the problem?

Turning again to the issue of officials - China National Radio has undergone two years of reforms, and has been systematically divided into specialized channels. Much progress has already been made; Music Radio and Sound of China in particular have achieved outstanding results. An accidental shutdown should not act to remove the leaders from their positions. Ultimately, this is a conceptual issue - punishment is intended as an example to prevent broadcasting problems from occurring again; it is not "killing the chicken to scare the monkeys" or even "killing the hen to get at the eggs."

When I was doing BBC Stories for Antiwave, I asked England's Kang Yi this sort of question, and she told me that the BBC has never been guarded by any kind of soldier or security guard. At the time, I asked over and over, not even security? and she answered, "No!" If the BBC has broadcasting problems, they find the cause, fix it, and make a public apology.

Also: a true story that Kang Yi once told me.

Once, we needed to broadcast from Beijing Radio (in 1986 when the Queen visited China); at the front gate we were surprised to see armed military guards....then when someone came to take us inside, at the stairs we saw another soldier, and at the door to the studio there was another one! It frightened us to death....a colleague asked me: Do they really think the Beeb is going to take them over?!

Today, because of terrorist threats, the BBC has its own security personnel at the front gate to inspect IDs; in the past it wasn't as serious, and there have never been any soldiers.

The big winner in all of this could be China Radio International - many commenters online said that after Music Radio failed to return after a few minutes, they switched over to CRI's Hit FM.

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There are currently 4 Comments for Dead air at China National Radio.

Comments on Dead air at China National Radio

'But the problem lies in the fact that we always elevate these mistakes to a political level. At its heart, this is a question of how you see the role of the media.'

That is a great comment. But first of all, it only rests on a personal reaction, and lacks a depth of reading the 'accident' itself which probably could bring more interesing points.

I read a lot of stories about Chinese state-run media. Foreigners are always so interested in the soldiers or security out front. I think it's a minor, minor point. Actually, I think it's just grasping at straws to see something odd about China's state-run media (because otherwise it's all pretty common sense--a media that does PR for the state.) CNN has security as well. It's just not so in your face.

Also, I imagine the station is silent because it doesn't want to be blamed for screwing up. It's not a good thing, but I don't think it's a detriment to society or will do anything but quickly fade away into a complete non-issue.

eh? of course bbc has security at its buildings and always has had. it's called, erm, security. does the writer want us to believe that anyone can walk into the BBC offices without being challenged or checked? just ridiculous. I can understand the point the writer is trying to make, but s/he is going about it the wrong way.

When the radio broadcast goes silent in a police state like China, it is always important.

Control of the media is not left to chance. The ruling party must always appear be in control.

There are probably a number of "interesting" reasons why this problem happened but I do not believe it was a technical problem.

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