28 August 2023

Don’t play that song for me : 2004 : unusual FM radio formats, Phnom Penh

 Here in Phnom Penh, there are seventeen radio stations on the FM dial, even though Cambodia’s capital city has a population of less than a million. But you are more likely to hear a song by Britney Spears or Madonna on the 'BBC World Service' (100 FM here) than on any of the local FM stations. Only one, 'Love FM' 97.5, plays Western music and its playlist stretches solely from the obscure ('Pretty Boy' seems to be the most requested song) to the bizarre (New Kids On The Block?). The rest of the local stations play exclusively Cambodian music. It’s radio, Jim, but not as we know it. Several hundred hours of radio listening suggest two Cambodian programme formats that could be adopted in the West:


Most stations in Phnom Penh have a daily show or two of karaoke call-in. Each station employs a pair of singers (one male, one female) who sit in the radio studio with a standard karaoke CD machine plugged into the mixing desk. Listeners call in to a mobile phone number which is also routed to the desk. Most stations have no Telephone Balance Units or 'clean feed' system, so callers can only hear the presenter by keeping the volume of their radio turned up, which leads to howling feedback (considered normal here) during every call. Stations with Optimod-style audio processing suffer ever worse feedback loops.

There is no pre-screening of callers. There is no delay system. You hear the mobile phone ring in the studio. The presenters answer the phone on-air, ask the caller’s name, where they are calling from, and the song they wish to sing. While one presenter finds and cues the appropriate karaoke CD, the other chats amiably with the caller about the reasons they have chosen the particular song. The song starts, one of seemingly hundreds of Cambodian love songs that are all male/female duets. If the caller is female, the station singer sings the male verses, and prompts the caller to sing the female verses. If the caller is male, the reverse applies.

The karaoke machine adds echo to the singer’s voice. It is no exaggeration to say that most callers have no sense of either melody or rhythm. The majority are absolutely appalling singers and seem to have no sense of shame exhibiting their complete lack of ability on-air. Conversely, all the radio station singers are excellent, not only at singing but also at treating every caller with dignity and respect. Each caller is allowed to complete their selected song, despite their obvious lack of talent, the howling feedback and the poor-quality audio (most callers use analogue mobile phones). At the end of the song, the presenters thank the caller and, as soon as they end one call, you hear the mobile phone ring again, and they move immediately to the next caller.

Because there is no pre-screening, some callers inevitably are put directly on-air who want a different radio programme, a different radio station, or the local pizza delivery service. The presenters treat even the mistaken callers with the same respect. Each karaoke show continues in this fashion for several hours, punctuated only by batches of hideous commercials, each lasting two minutes and using more voice echo than the average King Tubby dub plate. At the end of the show, the two station singers get to sing a song together, without the humiliation of having to duet with an out-of-tune, out-of-sync caller bathed in feedback.


In a country where the legal system rarely delivers results that resemble natural justice, the majority of the population look elsewhere for ways to resolve their problems. What better medium than a radio station? At the same time, in a country where the news agenda is dominated by ruling politicians’ pre-occupations, what content can journalists safely use to fill time in their news bulletins? The answer for both the people and the journalists is to air relatively minor grievances from the population that in no way threaten the government’s rule.

For state radio, this means sending journalists to distant provinces to interview farmers about agricultural problems or minor disputes with their neighbours. The results are passed off on-air as 'news'. Imagine if 'You & Yours' replaced the 'Today' programme on 'BBC Radio Four'. In Phnom Penh, where hard-pressed commercial radio stations can barely afford to employ journalists, some stations sympathetic to opposition parties operate an open-lobby system. Citizens who have grievances to air simply turn up at the radio station, their complaint is recorded, and then broadcast unedited and without context. The results are startling for a Westerner accustomed to hearing only carefully produced 'packages' of balanced opinions or only short sound bites of real people’s voices emanating from cosy UK radio stations.

This week I heard a woman sobbing and moaning her way through an unedited ten-minute monologue, explaining how her husband had allegedly been abducted by a criminal gang and disappeared. Last week, on another station, I heard a widow sobbing uncontrollably and threatening to set fire to herself and her children because ownership of the radio station belonging to her dead husband had just been awarded to another man by the municipal court. Both broadcasts moved me to tears, despite being in a language I cannot understand. Why? Because I cannot remember hearing such raw emotion spilling out of my radio set (except in drama) for a very long time.

The majority of our phone-in shows have become carefully packaged entertainment while our grievances seem trivial compared to the tribulations suffered by people here. Because the majority in Cambodia still have no access to a telephone, the radio station drop-in provides an important forum for aggrieved citizens to voice their anger and emotion. Listening to these raw, unedited voices has reminded me of the potential emotional power embodied in the radio medium, and the need for programme producers back home to play less safe, allowing more real voices on the radio that can move listeners to tears.


After several more months on this diet of karaoke and tear-jerking stories, I anticipate that my return home to a menu of 'BBC Radio One' and 'Capital FM' will quickly reveal such 'professional' stations to be wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes. All faux excitement and faux dialogue with listeners, but nary a raw emotion in sight … or sound.

[First published in 'The Radio Magazine', May 2004]

No comments:

Post a Comment