By Anne Donohue
For most of the last 40 years, radio station WILD in Boston was the go-to place for African-American music, news and talk featuring talk shows hosted by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner. But earlier this summer all that changed.
In June, Boston's "Home for Classic Soul" quietly turned Chinese when WILD began leasing its air time to an English language service of China Radio International, a product of the Chinese government.
The programs are an eclectic mix of news and information on Chinese culture and society interspersed with syrupy English and Chinese pop music and the occasional Chinese language lesson.
A one hour-long program focused on the Chinese custom of confinement for new mother's in the first month post-partum. No driving, no leaving the house, no cold food and no washing your hair.
Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam has spent much of his summer listening to the new Chinese WILD. He found some of it amusing – features on hermaphroditic butterflies and snoring police at Beijing hotels, for example. But he also detected a decidedly pro-Beijing bias on some news stories.
Even so, Beam thinks China International Radio might just work.
"I think it could easily be as effective as Voice of America, Deutsche Welle," Beam said. "I think you're hearing Chinese people talking about China, there's always a huge interest all over the world. I think good will does spread that way in the sense that people care that others are reaching out to them."
While China Radio International has been peddling its programming overseas for many years, an hour here and there, WILD is only the second station in the US, to adopt the Chinese format full time. The radio initiative is part of a much larger charm offensive to try to improve China's image overseas. Beijing has even marketed itself alongside the bright lights of Broadway.
Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has written extensively about China's use of soft power. He says there are limits to how much goodwill China can create through government projects.
"Well I think the Chinese don't understand that a lot of American soft power comes from our civil society, it's outside the government," Nye said. "And the problem that CCTV or China Radio International faces is that its a governmental organ. And if its propaganda, it's not attractive, and doesn't produce soft power."
Nevertheless, China is throwing a reported $6.5 billion into this soft power initiative. But AM radio may not get them much bang for their buck. The ratings at the new WILD are dismal: they are reaching only half of their previous audience, about 500 listeners during any given 15 minute interval.
Radio Industry watcher Greg Fitzgerald, whose agency distributes the English language program of Germany's Deutsche Welle, says international broadcasters who 'pay for play' lack the credibility to attract American decision makers. But Fitzgerald says, finding an elite American audience may only part of their goal.
"Some people in different industries like to see dots on a map and if you are in the Information Ministry and you can point to that map and say 'see we're on in Boston, people do hear what we have to say' as a propaganda tool and can be effective within institutions, but in terms of actually reaching listeners, it has very little impact," Fitzgerald said.
China Radio International is still trying. It broadcasts in 43 languages including Spanish, Russian and Arabic and claims to reach 300 million people. But putting your programming out there is not quite the same as actually finding someone willing to listen to it.