(519) Who Listened to the Radio?
By Andrei Lankov
In 1915, the Governor General's Office and the Korean branch of the Japanese Imperial Post conducted an experiment.
Using what was then cutting-edge technology, they sent a voice message over a distance of 800 meters, without the use of wires. This was the first experimental radio broadcast in Korea.
Worldwide radio broadcasting began in earnest just after World War I (in the U.S. it spread with remarkable speed after 1920).
In Japan, the Tokyo radio station went on air in December 1924, and around the same time both the colonial administration and Korean society at large began to consider the introduction of radio broadcasts in Korea.
Most Korean books on the subject mention an experimental broadcast arranged and widely publicized by the Chosun Ilbo daily in December 1924. This event attracted much attention because it was the first experiment staged largely by the Koreans themselves, but it was by no means the first or largest in scale.
For example, from March 10, 1925, the Seoul Post Office began a regular broadcast. Initially the airtime was two hours a week, an hour on Wednesday morning and an hour on Saturday afternoon, but it was soon increased. These broadcasts, while considered ``experimental,'' actually were regular and widely listened to.
In 1924 the colonial administration also began to prepare regulations to govern the soon-to-arrive radio age. After some deliberations, in February 1926 it was decided that radio broadcasting should be a quasi-monopoly, with only one station, privately owned but nonprofit, to be allowed in Seoul. This was a fairly standard approach for the era.
The Kyongsong Broadcast Company was officially registered on November 30, 1926. By that time, it had already built its office and installed some equipment. The board of the company consisted of 11 people, three of whom were Korean ― the other eight were Japanese.
This roughly reflected both the proportion of Japanese to Korean in the early broadcasts and in the proportion of radio sets owned by the local Koreans and Japanese.
The scarcity of radio sets was the major issues. In early 1927 there were 1,114 radio receivers nationwide, with 212 receivers owned by Koreans and 894 the property of Japanese families. Over half those numbers (171 and 584, respectively) were to be found in Seoul, the most affluent city with the best-educated population in the colony.
Initially it was expected that regular broadcasts would start before Christmas of 1926, but the death of the Japanese emperor led to a delay, so the Seoul station began regular operations only from February 16, 1927.
The station's call sign was JODK. It received it because it was the fourth station in the then Japanese Empire _ the three other stations then in operation in Japan had the call signs of JOAK (Tokyo), JOBK (Osaka) and JOCK (Nagoya). The JODK used a 1kw transmitter and its broadcast time, as of April 1927, was six and a half hours.
Initially, most of the programming was in Japanese, with merely 1-2 hours of Korean language broadcast per day. Only in 1933 did JODK launch a separate Korean-language channel.
The programs dealt with current news and, as is evident from the surviving schedules, the stock market and market prices in general were a very important topic.
I would assume that it was a deliberate attempt to increase the audience, since only affluent people could afford a radio receiver back then, and those who could afford a receiver needed market news.
Indeed, the cheapest crystal radio set could be bought for some 10 won, a significant sum of money in those days (around a month's salary for a female factory worker).
Such a receiver had no loudspeaker, and was good for only one listener. An advanced set, with loudspeakers, suitable for a family room, would cost much more, perhaps about a hundred won.
However, earlier programs did not only carry stock information. The 1920s was a time of great interest in radio for it was seen as a great educator.
Both colonial authorities and their opponents from the nationalist camp firmly believed in education (albeit the former thought that education would re-make Koreans first into loyal subjects of the empire and eventually into Japanese, while the latter hoped that progress in education would bring independence).
Hence, both were equally ready to sponsor numerous events dealing with radio. There were traveling radio exhibitions in the countryside, with large crowds listening to the Seoul broadcast, and there were ``radio classes'' in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and other schools.
Hence, the programs came to include educational lectures of all kinds, book reading sessions, concerts of Korean and Japanese artists, and even serial radio plays, the distant but direct predecessor of modern-day TV soaps.
This had serious impact on the audience, and at the same time the price of radio sets was dropping. So, in 1932, just before a Korean-only channel was launched, there were some 20,000 radio receivers in Korea.
By 1945 the number reached a quarter of a million, so for a majority of Koreans the news of liberation from Japanese colonial rule came through a wireless in August 1945.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.