From China's mouth to Texans' ears: Outreach includes small station in Galveston

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A01

GALVESTON, TEX. -- Cruise southeast out of Houston, past the NASA exits and toward the Gulf of Mexico, and you pick up something a little incongruous on the radio, amid country crooners, Rush Limbaugh, hip-hop and all the freewheeling clamor of the American airwaves.

"China Radio International," a voice intones. "This is Beyond Beijing."

Way, way beyond Beijing.

Sandwiched between a Spanish Christian network and a local sports station, broadcasting at 1540 on your AM dial, is KGBC of Galveston, wholly American-owned and -operated, but with content provided exclusively by a mammoth, state-owned broadcaster from the People's Republic of China.

Call it KPRC. Or as the locals quip: Keep Galveston Broadcasting Chinese.

The little Texas station may be modest, but it is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Chinese government to expand its influence around the world. As China rises as a global force, its leaders think that their country is routinely mischaracterized and misunderstood and that China needs to spread its point of view on everything from economics to art to counter the influence of the West.

Beijing's new response is typically massive and ambitious: a $6.6 billion global strategy to create media giants that will challenge agenda-setting Western behemoths such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the BBC and CNN.

At a time when the Western media are contracting, China is pushing its government-run news services to expand from America to Zimbabwe. The Chinese are creating TV networks, pouring millions into English-language newspapers, leasing radio stations on all continents and broadcasting TV news to a worldwide audience in six languages.

The stations don't broadcast outright propaganda, but rather programming with a Chinese focus and flavor, tailored for local audiences. In Galveston, the format mixes China-centric international news, talk shows about the status of China's women and a healthy dose of gangsta rap -- all in English.

In New York, China's official Xinhua News Agency is moving its North American headquarters from a small building in Queens to a sprawling office complex in Times Square. It will soon have more than twice as many bureaus in the United States as any Western news agency has in China.

Xinhua plans to increase its worldwide footprint from about 130 bureaus to close to 200 and is equipping each one with a videographer. And last year it started its own television news channel -- in both English and Chinese.

China Central Television, the main state broadcaster, operates its biggest overseas bureau in Washington. In a sign of its increasing ambition, CCTV will begin live financial news coverage (in English) on Monday from the New York Stock Exchange.

Behind the push is a Communist Party hierarchy that has seized upon the idea of "soft power" as China's new Holy Grail in its search for superpower status. President Hu Jintao has publicly stressed the strategy. And in 2008, Li Changchun, the party leader responsible for propaganda, summed up China's rationale: "In the modern age, whichever nation's communication methods are most advanced, whichever nation's communication capacity is strongest . . . has the most power to influence the world."

Tangled party line

But if there's a whiff of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in China's efforts to mold minds, there's also a dollop of Rube Goldberg in its missteps.

Much of the $6.6 billion budget hasn't been allocated because Chinese media companies have come up with unworkable ideas, Chinese government sources said. For example, a scheme to place TV screens showing pro-China content in European supermarkets hasn't materialized because China is having difficulty finding a firm to downlink the satellite feeds.

Beijing bureaucrats ended a program that allowed reporters on the recently relaunched U.S. edition of the China Daily, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, to do original reporting and not simply reprint stories provided by headquarters.

But even reprinting the party line has caused problems. Chinese journalists broadcasting to overseas markets have been punished for repeating reports of state-owned media in China. Chinese diplomats complained that those reports -- in one case about China's mining disasters -- were hurting China's image abroad.

"We've increased the quantity of the work we do but not the quality," said Yu Guoming, deputy head of the journalism school at People's University in Beijing. "So far, the results are lousy. We really need a new way to present our story. We can't just use the old logic and throw lots of money at it."

Not quite Houston

Then there's Galveston.

China Radio International thinks that KGBC is broadcasting in Houston, as evidenced by on-air announcers saying, "You're listening to KGBC Houston." But Galveston is about 50 miles from Houston, and the station's signal fades well before it reaches Texas's No. 1 media market.

Marc Shorey, an American who advised CRI on its expansion plans last year before he was forced to resign for criticizing the plans as poorly thought out, said a Chinese middleman convinced CRI that KGBC would reach listeners in the Houston market.

"Oops," he laughed. "They really haven't a clue as to how to win over the foreign market. They could use a lesson in geography as well."

Bad advice and corrupt consultants bedeviled the Chinese as they sought to increase their global heft, several consultants said. "They don't know the market so they are relying on the kindness of strangers," Shorey said.

CRI signed the Galveston deal in December; last year it replaced the country music on KHCM-AM in Hawaii with Chinese content. It also broadcasts one or two hours a day in about 20 other cities in the United States and Canada, including Washington's WUST-AM.

It has two FM stations in Australia: in the capital, Canberra, and in the western city of Perth. It runs a station in Nairobi, and it is becoming a major player in local radio throughout the South Pacific, Africa and Latin America.

"Their philosophy is build it and people will tune in," Shorey said. "It's unclear whether that's happening."

After Tiananmen Square

China started its campaign to change how the world thinks after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 when its worldwide reputation had hit rock bottom.

First it focused on the overseas Chinese because of their importance as investors to China's economy. In 1992, China Central Television launched a Chinese-language satellite TV channel called CCTV-4, on which it spends at least $5 million a year. Beijing also began a campaign to influence Chinese-language media outside China. China's state-run news media successfully bought off or competed against outlets that supported Taiwan, democracy in China or banned groups such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Anne-Marie Brady remembers using New Zealand's Chinese-language newspapers in the 1970s to study Chinese and being impressed by the broad array of opinions. Not anymore. "Twenty years ago Chinese-language newspapers definitely didn't have the People's Daily view of the world," said Brady, a professor in Chinese media studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. "Now they all do."

In the United States, the Chinese-language market is more diverse because of the presence of a large number of Taiwanese. Even here, however, China's voice is rising. CCTV is now distributing its Chinese-language news and drama programs free to dozens of smaller cable and other TV stations throughout the United States in an attempt to squeeze out Taiwanese programs, industry insiders said.

China first hit the U.S. airwaves in English in the summer of 1993 when Alan Pendleton, of New World Radio in Falls Church, negotiated a deal to get China Radio International on his station WUST in the District.

In the beginning the broadcasts were not only hard to hear, they were also boring, Pendleton said. "We told them we're not interested in listening to a bunch of propaganda about the five-year plan in Sichuan province for wheat production. We want you to be our window into China. And so they did it."

Now, Pendleton said, "I listen to the program and I don't hear any blatant BS. What they try to do is put a human face on China."

In 2000, China started a 24-hour satellite English news channel called CCTV-9. CCTV-9 is planning to grow from 10 bureaus to about 50 worldwide, and that's just for its English-language service, said Jack Fensterstock, a Bethesda-based consultant who has worked with China's media for more than 30 years.

In October, Fensterstock's company, Tantao News, signed a contract with China's other mammoth new agency, Xinhua, under which Tantao can chose any Xinhua content for its Web site, YouTube and mobile platforms such as the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Google's Android system and the iPhone.

Fensterstock said he believes he has a viable business model because Xinhua's coverage is broader than almost any other news service in business. Xinhua has more reporters in Africa and Asia than any other news service in the world. And it is not bothered -- at least for now -- about advertising and profits.

"Their primary concern is to show they are professional and not biased," he said. "They are looking for credibility."

Back in Galveston, there's befuddlement about why China chose the sleepy hurricane-ravaged island as the gateway into the American psyche.

George Lee, who hosted a show on the station before CRI took over, said when he first heard about the Chinese coming he thought it was a joke.

"They're taking over the world and they're starting here?" Lee said looking out at the Gulf of Mexico on a recent blustery afternoon. "I guess they just took a wrong turn."

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