Ip Sai-hung (also known as Sir Ip) is currently the head of Digital Audio Broadcasting at RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong). Over the thirty years of his career, he has witnessed the decline of radio dramas in Hong Kong. With his Master degree background (in literature) from Hong Kong University, Ip is a specialist in the research of Cantonese songs. His publications have included The Development of RTHK and Cantonese Songs and Opera in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1990s, The Heritage of Cantonese Opera in Hong Kong, and Cantonese Opera and the Modern Stage. In 1997, Ip, in collaboration with the Education Bureau, produced a CD-ROM about Cantonese opera — the first educational CD-ROM produced by the Education Bureau as well as the first Cantonese opera CD-ROM.

Talk about Radio Dramas

“In the minds of the public, the one thing people know about radio dramas are that they are purely entertainment. In principle, radio dramas are like all other forms of media and could indeed be purely entertaining; yet, they could equally express the serious subjects and explore the meaning of life.”

– Ip Sai-hung

Ip Sai-hung (to be abbreviated as Ip): Nowadays those who know how to produce radio dramas have all retired, since they are getting on in their years. After the radio drama unit was disbanded around 2001 or 2002, the form of the radio drama has already been absorbed by other kinds of programs and became skits or short dramas of a dozen minute length or so, inserted within other variety shows or programs. In contrast, a proper radio drama production — due to the high cost and to the lack of talent — no one is really willing to start. A radio drama needs a basic budget of about 7000-9000 dollars per hour, while a DJ with a one- or two-hour program takes home a monthly salary of 20000 dollars, so the gap is really too large.

After the radio drama unit was disbanded, the younger members went over to TVB and film companies to do sound acting. I just met up with Lau Chiu-man, who used to be part of the radio drama unit; now he works at TVB providing the voice of male main characters. There is also Lo Kar-ling. They do voice acting because their training for radio dramas include many techniques related to articulation. Voice acting makes use of these techniques — though not to the full. Voice acting is really different from radio dramas: voice acting is about “taking in the cartoon character”; the voice has to match the “cartoon character”. If the voice is too distinctive, it wouldn’t resemble the character. However, the voices in radio dramas have to have “color”. “Color” is what is distinctive about someone’s character (this of course can be fabricated) — say, once your voice is heard, we could know if it’s evil, loyal, sweet, or childish….. Once you have such distinctiveness in your voice, then you wouldn’t do any good acting any other characters.

Sound as a Box

Ip: As I just said, the voice is very distinctive. When people play certain characters, they can be very distinctive — which is what’s special about the actors in radio dramas. The voice of DJs can’t be too distinct. A DJ has a neutral sound, and this “neutrality” has two meanings: first, it is a neutral sound out of all sounds; second, it’s a neutral sound between the male and female voice. Deng Ai-lin’s voice is really “neutral”; you could say she is a man or a women, and either men or women like her. When we listen to radio dramas, Brother Chung (Chung Wai-ming) has a loyal voice. If we get him to play a bad guy, it wouldn’t do at all. Uncle Gamgong of Eighteen Floor Block C is definitely a voice of the little guy, so it would be a waste to use him as the main character.

Sound seems like a whole bunch of boxes. We have signified this to be an evil voice and that to be a loyal voice. How did this come to be? Perhaps we heard it from the belly of our mothers, having heard bad guys speak. Yet this is passed down, since every country or people is different. Sometimes when we hear someone from a minority group speak, we might feel this guy has nothing good about him, but in fact he is a hero. In our minds, certain sounds are defined — and this is what is special about radio dramas.

A Bygone Companion On Air

Ip: Radio broadcasts up to the 1990s were a way for the masses to pass the time. If people liked a program, they paid attention; if not, they just left the radio on. So expectations weren’t very high. As long as there were no swear words and bad models people were satisfied. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean people have high expectations; people with real expectations were actually in the minority. Once something starts going downhill, it’s not that the thing in question is going bad; in my understanding, when something else starts taking its place, then the original gets replaced, and people will look for a new amusement. Radio broadcasts make you feel like you have someone around you, but still you need to feel interested enough to turn up the radio; if there’s no sound, you’d wonder whether the station or the radio was down. People don’t focus on listening to what you say until they feel what you’re saying is relevant, at which point they pay attention. In this case, even if people demand quality, that is only focused on one or two individual programs rather than on all programs; at this point, radio dramas became something that did not need much quality.

In our understanding, radio dramas aren’t something that the masses need to listen to, because they could watch TV series and so forth. So when TVB moved from Enjoy Yourself Tonight towards TV series, radio dramas already faced a challenge. We have already discovered and found another type of programming, the DJ programs. They’re cheap! Critical! And they replaced radio programs as the main programs. Being unlike TV programs, DJ programs are something else and don’t need to compete with them; they just need to win another market — or even absorb the market for radio drama. The shift from radio dramas to Cantonese Pop in fact took in audiences that used to be fans of radio dramas. An audience of those 3-5% who absolutely needed radio dramas did not have an effect on the overall listening habits.

When I first joined the profession, radio dramas reached the height of its popularity. Every week between 1.5 to 2.5 million people tuned in; on a single day, there were some 500,000 listeners. At the time, there were lots of factories, and all the factories listened to romantic dramas about people meeting and being forced to part ways. Once factories headed north [to mainland China], what to do then? They have all moved away now, so there’s no market. Eighteen Floor Block C had the advantage that it was really close to the little guy, with a relatively stable audience, so to this day it can still

Mass Broadcasting in the Future

Ip: Actually the death of the radio drama had many causes, its high cost being one of them. I believe that radio dramas will always have its fans, but they will not make up the mainstream and appear to be at odds with the whole model of mass broadcasting in the future. Because the future of broadcasting will be focused on certain audiences and produced at very little cost. We’ll have many frequencies; Albert Cheng Jing-han has 7, but in fact there could be 30 or 40 frequencies. Each frequency will have very few listeners and so won’t attract a large investment. Radio dramas certainly cannot be produced regularly under such a model. This is why individual story telling could reappear again. At least it’s cheap! If one guy is a DJ, and another does storytelling, isn’t this a race to the bottom? I find it very interesting. One person’s expenses are low. People like Lee Ngor, Cheng Gwan-min, Deng Ji-chen, Lei Ngo, Siu Seung — these are all one person narrating in different voices.

I want to emphasize one thing: sometimes it’s not a question of something being good or not, but of creating an equilibrium between the costs, the audience, and market trends. This is why I truly believe when we really have thirty or forty channels, storytelling could undergo a revival. You often say to me how it’s a pity if radio dramas were to disappear; actually, it’s more of a pity if[1] individual story telling disappeared. In terms of the manipulation of the language, having a single person interpreting several different voices is a real skill. Yet fashion changed, and radio dramas took over individual narration; radio dramas have different voices and are more plural. So if radio dramas weren’t so expensive in terms of costs and investment — hiring a whole bunch of people, recording studios, and so on — they could in fact survive a little longer, up to now. But it is true that labor costs are a major issue. I think places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia must still have radio dramas, because of the low labor costs; in mainland China, they still exist (labor costs in second- and third-tier cities are still low). Such actors didn’t make it as singers, TV actors, or film actors, and so became radio drama actors instead. So when I see their programming schedule, there are both radio dramas and many individual story tellers.

Sounds That are Perhaps Preserved, Transformed, Absorbed

Ip: Under its extreme economic development, Hong Kong has lost a considerable portion of its traditional performing arts or culture. I really don’t know how we should preserve them, or whether we should preserve them at all. My feeling is that even if you want to find someone able, you won’t be able to, so it’s probably best to safeguard and preserve the older recordings. In radio drama, what is important are the recordings and the scripts. Unfortunately we haven’t kept the scripts; we only have fragments. We should safeguard them — and let posterity decide whether they are useful or not. There is no need to be dejected. I think radio dramas haven’t died; only the traditional model has died.
Just today I heard a little radio drama produced by Michael Leung and Sara Lee. They wrote a radio drama called “As Loyal as the Clouds in the Sky”, based on “As Loyal as the Clouds in the Sky: A Seven-Day Romance”. In fact “Eighteen Floor Block C” is most unlike radio dramas; they use the form of the radio drama to put forth their opinions instead of displaying a certain dramaticality. But such transformations will allow radio dramas to survive; the mode of survival will not be a continual reproduction but instead a process of absorption or transformation. This has happened before in Cantonese performing arts. The Cantonese Naamyam, wooden fish and Lung Chou (dragon boat song) we’ve heard about are all part of this Cantonese performing tradition, but you won’t see anyone today carrying dragon boats and singing for a living. However, we do still see “dragon boat” episodes in Cantonese songs; in absorbing it, Cantonese opera has preserved a certain form of it, no? At least the melodic structure has been preserved, so unconsciously, such older forms have been preserved.

[1]Personal narration relies on the skills of the individual to perform different roles as well as to create the ambient / surrounding sounds. The narrator creates and constructs the story and the plot, serializes and narrates it — all in one person, so this could be considered the highest skill in broadcast. Back in the day, actors known for their narration included Lee Ngor, Deng Ji-chen, Chung Wai-ming, classic representatives of the genre, each with his or her own style.

http://www.rthk.org.hk/classicschannel/liaozhai.htm (15 Jan 2013)





– 葉世雄











[1] 單人講述,純靠個人口才去扮演不同人物、演譯環境聲音,又由主講人自己創作、構思故事橋段,集編劇、敘述、演員於一身,可算是播音的最高技巧。當年以單人講述而聞明的播音名聲,各有風格,李我、鄧寄塵、鍾偉明是其中表表者。資料來源: http://www.rthk.org.hk/classicschannel/liaozhai.htm (2013年1月15日)