Last night I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I sat down and listened to the radio.
That may sound funny coming from someone who’s spent nearly 15 years working in the industry. Sure, I tune in to the occasional podcast, and often catch snippets of my coworker’s programs, but rarely do I actually sit down in front of a radio and gaze at it until the last chords of the closing song have drifted into the ether.
So how did I become a radio guy without a radio? And when did I get out of the habit of listening?
I arrived at RTI in January of 1999, a fresh-faced recent grad full of curiosity but lacking in any practical experience. My first program involved typing up a 15-minute script, presenting it in a stilted voice, and tacking some music on the end. There’s a cassette tape of it somewhere, but I can’t quite bring myself to listen to it.
Gradually I found that if you want to make good radio, you have to first learn how to listen. By slowing my pace and forcing myself to be present, I discovered an abundance of wonderful sounds -- and stories -- waiting to be shared, like the pop of a bamboo shoot being plucked from the earth, the ring of a ball in a gym class for the blind, and the echoes of an old military tunnel in the cold war outpost of Kinmen. The process of walking around with a microphone searching for sounds opened up my other senses too; I began to discover sights, smells and flavors that I’d never before noticed.
Naturally, we rely on letters to help us “listen” to our listeners too. That helps us create programs with a real person in mind. But rarely over the years have I paused to do what our listeners do: listen to the radio.
September 21, 1999 was perhaps the last time I actively pulled out a radio and gave it my undivided attention. A massive earthquake jolted the island awake in the wee hours of the morning, and without power, I fumbled around to find an old Walkman and some batteries so I could learn about what had happened. I ended up listening until daybreak as the death toll climbed into the hundreds and then thousands.
This year, as I approach my 15th anniversary at RTI, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to the medium of radio, and what sometimes feels like an accidental career path. Winning my first two Golden Bell Awards this year – an honor that had eluded me for years – was a big validation, and it provided an opportunity for introspection. I realized that it was time to return to square one, the foundation of all good radio: learning to listen. After all, it’s easy to forget to listen when you’re so busy talking.
Last week I walked into an antique shop in Taipei and my eyes immediately rested on an old radio receiver: a 1957 Schaub-Lorenz Goldsuper 58. I imagined seeing the radio in a Berlin
storefront back in the late 1950s with its wooden casing and glowing front panel. Entranced by the sound of this old beauty, it occurred to me that I no longer possessed a radio of my own. Over the years the internet had swept in and changed my listening habits for good.
So last night, glass of wine in hand, my living room lit only by a small Christmas tree and the glow of my new (old) Goldsuper 58, I experienced anew the joy of listening, and fell in love yet again with the medium of radio.
Andrew Ryan was honored with two Golden Bells in 2013 -- for Best Variety Show Host along with Feast Meets West co-host Ellen Chu, and for Best Short Feature for Classic Shorts with Natalie Tso.
The Perspective of an “Eternal Outsider”
Two years ago, when Nora Chen published her autobiographical book The Eternal Outsider, I did an interview with her over the telephone. The voice coming from the Bay Area, California, had a slight Zhejiang accent, which I found quite familiar since the southeastern Chinese province was my mother’s birthplace. A naturalized US citizen, Chen gave a riveting account of her family story beginning in 1946, not long after the end of the Sino-Japanese War.
China in the 1940s was no place to be. Countless families faced separation and people struggled to remain loyal to friends and family in a cruel world in which tragedy awaited at every turn. Chen felt compelled to tell her family’s story and she wrote the book with deep cultural convictions and a sense of nostalgia. The book, which offers readers a snapshot of a China in turmoil and her life in exile, pays tribute to her parents’ generation, which bore the brunt of China’s social and political upheaval during the mid-19th century.
Chen’s awareness of being an “outsider” began when she was a child. She was five years old, and it was pitch dark when the sedan chair carrying her, her elder brother and her mother arrived in Linhai, an ancient town in Zhejiang province. Both children were strangers to her mother’s hometown and neither of them spoke the local dialect. “Outlanders!” cried her classmates when they saw her, though not necessarily in an unfriendly way.
Like most of her contemporaries, Chen had a childhood and adolescence which were closely intertwined with modern Chinese history, and she stood witness to one war after another. In October, 1950, about a year after the Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalist troops and took over the mainland, her family fled to Taiwan. The journey, sadly, was kept secret from her grandparents. That’s because any false step could put their lives in danger and add another uncertainty to the escape plan made by her father, a Nationalist military officer who had moved to Taiwan a year earlier. Had they left a few months later, Chen wrote, the whole family would have been subject to persecution under the Communist regime.
In Taiwan, Chen spent six years in relative peace at a Christian school before going on to college. But that doesn’t mean that the Chen family were wholeheartedly welcomed by the locals. In fact, the huge influx of mainlanders following the Chinese Civil War was met with hostility, in part due to the 228 Incident, which broke out in 1947. The conflict, which left thousands of Taiwanese dead, deepened the division and mistrust between the locals and the newcomers. Unlike Benshengren or “people from Taiwan province,” they belonged to another group called Waishengren or “people from outside of Taiwan province.”
In the 1960s, Chen decided to pursue advanced studies in the United States, which she would come to call home. A few years later, her parents also emigrated to the US so that the family could be together. In her adopted country, Chen feels quite at ease most of the time, and “dreams in both languages.” Nevertheless, she and her family are considered part of a minority, and often identified as “foreigners” by both their accent and appearance.
When asked whether she still considers herself an outsider after living in the United States for almost half a century, the self-exiled author says: “Politically, no.” But it’s a different story when it comes to social and cultural experiences. She says at times she has mixed feelings. “I start feeling a lot like an outsider when I miss most of the jokes,” says Chen.
I recently discovered RTI’s online programming and have been enjoying it very much. I just listened to David Chen’s “Occidental Tourist” story on 7-11s in Taiwan and it was so fun and interesting. My partner and I were in Taipei for the first time in June and were struck by how there are 7-11s EVERYWHERE, and even more by how wonderful their selection of food and drink is. We stopped for yogurt drinks multiple times per day because it was so hot outside! And I completely agree with the American David interviewed for his story who said that 7-11s in Taiwan are SO much better than the ones in the US; I would never eat food from an American 7-11, either! Thanks for all your wonderful programming. We fell in love with Taiwan on our recent visit and hope to go back soon, but until then, listening to RTI online is the next best thing to being there!
Rich Murray, USA
It was fascinating to hear Sunny Liu’s story of living in a remote Hakka village, seeing American B-29 planes dropping bombs and later dropping leaflets with comics on them. He told about making an educational robot out of anger that someone wouldn’t believe his idea would work. He has a great idea using the energy of waves hitting a platform to compress air and power a turbine to generate energy. It was inspiring to hear this 79-year-old so passionate about preserving Hakka history through his artwork. He has a remarkable and uplifting attitude towards life.
Brian Newell, USA
It’s more than three months since I last wrote to you, but I’m still a regular visitor to your website and a frequent listener to your programs. As your website contains only individual programs instead of your whole transmissions, my listening is a ‘pick-and-mix” affair whereby I chose the features that interest me the most. These usually include the news, “Time Traveller” and “Eye on China.”
I like the way your news is presented. The pace is normally just right, the reading is generally fluff-free and, unlike some stations, there is a suitable gap between items, which makes it much easier to absorb what is being said.
Roger Tidy, England
Yesterday I received Taipeiwave and this morning I read through the two articles. They were both of considerable interest to me but I am not sure I would even try snake blood and similar delicacies.
Christer Brunstrom, Sweden