San Gabriel Valley's Mandarin Radio Wars Are Heating Up

Phoenix TV's headquarters in Southern California. (Photo by Iris Ouyang for LAist)

Los Angeles is a land of many languages, at least 185, as far as researchers can tell. After Spanish, Mandarin is one of the most common tongues. Thanks to a steady stream of immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan, hundreds of thousands of Angelenos speak the language — and Victor Che-wei Cheng has a bold plan to capitalize on that audience.

In August, Cheng launched URadio, a terrestrial radio station in Irwindale that broadcasts in Mandarin on AM 690 and can be heard all over the San Gabriel Valley

It fills its airtime with local news, traffic reports, Mandopop and a growing slate of original shows like Jin tian ni xin wen le mei (今天你新聞了玫), which roughly translates to "Have you had your news yet?" The afternoon drive-time program is hosted by Cathy Shen, a veteran TV reporter in Los Angeles who has covered everything from the second Gulf War to Michael Jackson's funeral for Phoenix Television, the Hong Kong-based TV network that owns URadio.

It's Shen first foray into radio. The transition means she can skip the makeup — a plus — but it also puts her in unfamiliar territory. She has to riff on the news for close to 60 minutes, something she never did as a reporter.

Producers at URadio work on the day's broadcast at Phoenix TV's Southern California headquarters. (Photo by Iris Ouyang for LAist)

Shen says she starts thinking about which topics to cover as soon as she wakes up. She spends the day doing research while her two producers scour Asia and the United States for guests. Shortly before 5 p.m., she and her producers, who also act as the board operators, squeeze into a studio the size of a small bedroom. They sit almost shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a line of computer screens and, for the next hour, deliver stories about the recent stock market selloff and its impact on Chinese investors, the arrest of a Chinese tech billionaire for allegedly raping a college student in Minnesota and Kanye West's tweet about the 13th Amendment. It's the kind of programming they hope will appeal to an audience with ties to both Asia and L.A.

"Most of our listeners, they are new immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong," Shen says. "They care about this country, otherwise they won't go through so much hassle to immigrate here. But they have a language barrier. They have a cultural barrier."

Shen, who's from Taiwan, has lived in Los Angeles for more than three decades.

The key, she says, is to make whatever's happening in the U.S. relatable to her audience's lives before immigration and to make connect whatever's happening in Asia to their current lives. That could mean talking to an expert who can contextualize California's renewable energy movement globally or interviewing a Chinese food blogger about the fairly un-Chinese concept of brunch while educating listeners about food terms like "bread and butter" or "sunny side up."

With the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, Shen couldn't just hit the topic straight on.

"It's the talk of the town but I can't just say, 'Everyone is talking about it, so we have to talk about it,'" she says. "I have to find an angle that Chinese people care about. A lot of them care about education. They want to get their kids into Ivy League schools." Shen's hook was to explore the culture of drinking in American colleges.

That's the editorial sweet spot that Cheng, who is also URadio's director, wants the station to own. He's been on the air for less than three months and has only six staffers (although the station is hiring) but he has his sights set on making URadio the go-to spot on the dial for Mandarin speakers — and advertisers — in Los Angeles.

The exterior of Phoenix TV's Southern California headquarters, which is home to URadio. (Photo by Iris Ouyang for LAist)

In Southern California, the Mandarin-language radio space is tiny, a motley crew of DIY faith-based operations, online-only entities and commercial operations, including KAZN AM 1300. They're the undisputed Goliath to URadio's David and kicking them off the throne won't be easy.

Based in Pasadena, KAZN has been offering a blend of news, talk shows and music programming since 1993, long before boba shops and dim sum houses made the SGV cool. A quarter-century after its launch, it has become part of the fabric of life for many L.A. residents who consume Chinese media, a companion to generations of immigrant Angelenos.

"It's difficult to break into a market when there's already a dominant player," Cheng says in Mandarin.

Chinese-language radio (which also includes programs in Cantonese) had about 338,000 listeners in 2006, most of them Asian Americans, according to Arbitron. A lot has changed in the intervening decade, including the explosion in social media, an evolution in handheld devices and the increasing move to online as a source of news and entertainment.

With a behemoth on one end and a splintering audience on the other, Cheng is clear about the challenges ahead. He plans to target car-bound white-collar workers in their 30s and 40s, a younger demographic than the traditional Chinese-language radio listener.

The bespectacled 30-something has worked in commercial radio in Taiwan and China. He's a Los Angeles newbie, who only relocated from Taipei earlier this year. In other words, he's part of the demographic his station is targeting. How he plans to do that remains to be seen but Cheng thinks he has the experience and sensibility to make it happen.

"I am new here," he says. "I think everything is interesting. I can hear and see what people who have been here a long time don't hear and see anymore. And I can bring that to the air."

Chinese businesses along Garfield Avenue in Monterey Park, circa June 2014. (Ken Lund/Flickr Creative Commons)

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