Bangkok call-in - Issue 15 - Magazine | Monocle

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With a choke in her voice, a mother is talking on the phone to the DJ live-on-air. Her daughter has stolen some money and fled to find her absent father. “She’s my only child, I’m so worried,” sobs the mother.

It’s a rainy Friday night on Bangkok’s Ruam Duay Chuay Kan, a talk radio station on a simple mission summed up by its name which translates as “Come Together to Help Each Other”. Evenings feature call-in programmes peppered with reports of traffic accidents, while daytime programming focuses on matters such as health, law and pets. The silky voice of the nightfly, Chotika Wiranat, 30, asks listeners to urge the errant daughter or her father to get in touch. The next caller is a man stranded deep down one of Bangkok’s long and winding lanes. “My car battery’s finished, can anybody help?” Then a woman comes on. Her dog has been in an accident. “I want to take him to the animal clinic at Kasetsart University, can anyone assist?”

The all-talk format of RDCK is a call to action, an attempt to solve problems via the community and its bulging Rolodex. Around 40 per cent of the daily audience – typically between 80,000 and 100,000 – is found among the drivers of Bangkok’s fleet of 70,000 taxis who are frequently glued to the frequency. Up to two-thirds of calls to the station’s 1677 hotline are from people reporting items left in a taxi.

“If you dial 1677 you can expect to have a 50 per cent chance of resolving your problem. You don’t have to feel lonely in the big city; you call 1677,” says Boonchai Bencharongkul, 51, the station’s chairman and biggest patron. “Even the government calls to get help,” he laughs. A break begins with the station’s “Khunaparb Chiwit” (literally Quality of Life) jingle. Adverts follow from government agencies; Poysian, a famous maker of traditional aromatic inhalers; and Nitiphol, a cosmetic skin clinic.

“Commercial advertisers are attracted because they want to project an image of social responsibility by associating with our positive image,” says Apiradee Pornlert, senior DJ and assistant managing director of the station. Nevertheless, revenues fall short. The station’s accumulated loss is 130m baht (€2.6m) for the 11 years it has been broadcasting. “The price you pay for being really useful,” concludes Apiradee with a shrug.

Six months after broadcasting began in 1997 the economy collapsed. Many people, their lives in a tailspin, turned to the station and as mobile phone ownership boomed so did the station’s impact. The station has forged a community in a Third World city, which, with its ­haphazard development, ceaseless expansion and sclerotic bureaucracy, leaves ­residents, immigrants and visitors alike spinning in confusion.

“In my early days as a volunteer I couldn’t do much because I only knew people in my community in Klong Toey. But since RDCK started I’ve been able to link up with other districts to create a larger network,” says bus driver Prasat Sutthowa, 51. Prasat heads the RDCK Group, one of dozens across the city inspired by the station, at the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority’s zone four depot in Klong Toey, a district which runs from million dollar flats to the city’s largest and most notorious slum beside the port on the meandering Chao Phraya river.

Bangkok’s 20,000 buses, mostly 1970s Hino clunkers and 1980s aircon Mercedes, are not linked by radios. Mobile phones and Ruam Duay bridge the gap when drivers, usually male, and conductors, invariably female, face an accident or trouble aboard.

“Last Friday a foreign man, about 50, was getting on my bus at the airport when he collapsed – I think he had a stroke. I called RDCK and straight away they arranged for an ambulance,” says Prasat. “In the past 24 hours four people have called RDCK about snakes in their homes,” says Sompop Sridarachop, a 54-year-old snake wrangler, his burly forearms scarred by bites. “In Bangkok there are a lot of snakes, they’re part of the city, they eat the rats – RDCK helps people find me to catch their snakes.” he says.

Sergeant Pichet Wisetchoke is a traffic policeman who has used his specialist midwifery training to deliver 14 babies in the past six years. “Most of the time the station has alerted me to the pregnant woman’s distress. Very few people will call the police station if a woman is going into labour. They usually call RDCK,” he says.

RDCK uses public donations on providing training for community leaders and supplies for communities struck by flood or fires. When it was switched off by the army, which controls radio broadcasting, in a dispute over fees in November 2003, public anger spilled on to the streets.

“We were swamped with calls, people asking us what was happening. A few thousand went to protest. They wrote to the prime minister and the army commander and the army renewed the contract. We were off air for about three days,” says Apiradee. “We were missed.”

Friendly waves

Bangkok’s three major community radio stations share the call-in format but each has its own focus. RDCK FM96, owned by Independent News Network, tackles community issues such as traffic, crime and welfare. Jor Sor 100 sticks to traffic and accidents. Sor Wor Por FM91.5 looks at crime and other police matters.

Four more city soundtracks

La2x4, Buenos Aires: there is no more typical Buenos Aires experience than reclining in a cabby’s cigarette-infused back seat, listening to tango music at 3am. Much of that can be attributed to La 2x4 a 24-hour tango station that, in taxi drivers, has conquered a prime demographic. When there’s no fútbol, Buenos Aires’s 40,000 cabs waft tango over the populace, turning 92.7FM into its soundtrack. Started in 2000, La 2x4 is named after tango’s musical time signature.

Kiss FM, Nairobi: stick your head into any Nairobi bar or barbers, get in any passing matatu or taxi, and it seems there is one radio station the whole city is tuned to: Kiss FM. With a mix of US R&B and Kenyan hip hop, it has become the station of choice for 20- and 30-somethings. Before the elections, Kiss implored its listeners to use their vote wisely. During the post-election violence, it raised funds for the Kenya Red Cross.

KCLW, Hamilton, TX 900 AM: broadcasting for 80 miles in each direction from Hamilton, Texas, KCLW is a reminder of the purposes of a local radio station. Leanne Jackson, owner of Cake & Cookie Creations, listens to auction show “The Trading Post” every morning between 11.00 and 12.00, where she finds everything from trampolines to children’s clothes. Kent Wenzel, who runs Wenzel’s LoneStar Meat, says: “There’s just a good feeling about the station.”

J-Wave, Tokyo: now in its 20th year, J-Wave (81.3FM) is Tokyo’s “listening magazine”. From Roppongi Hills, J-Wave beams out a mix of music, culture and news. Shows include Tokyo United, the breakfast show presented by J-Wave veteran Jon Kabira, one of several bilingual presenters; Modaista, the Sunday music, fashion and culture show and Tokio Hot 100, the chart show. Reaching an audience of 40 million, J-Wave broadcasts 24 hours a day, with late nights reserved for mellow shows like Giles Peterson’s weekly music session from London.
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