Sun, 02 Feb 2003

`Cakrawala' rides the Chinese cultural revival

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

For almost a full decade in the 1990s, Radio Cakrawala had to be content with being a nondescript private radio station with little to distinguish it from among the many other private radio stations operating in Jakarta.

Today, riding the wave of the Chinese cultural revival that has come about since the downfall of the New Order regime in 1998, it is the only radio station in the city that broadcasts in Mandarin, and it is doing increasingly well commercially as a result.

But the change in fortune did not happen overnight.

Founded in 1971 by Abraham Ari Supono, Syarifudin and Hendrik Deil -- all non-Chinese (the latter two are no longer shareholders) -- the station began as an AM broadcaster airing Indonesian songs aimed at middle to lower-income-bracket listeners.

In 1992, they moved their studios from Jl. Gajah Mada in West Jakarta to Kota and switched from AM to FM. At the same time, they also changed the station's listener profile from the lower income bracket to the upper and higher income brackets, playing easy listening Western songs.

Then, after a year of doing business in the city's thriving Chinatown commercial district, they began eyeing the Chinese communities around their offices as a potential market.

So, the station began playing a few Mandarin songs every day -- furtively, because the government at that time banned the public airing of all aspects of Chinese culture.

First, they played one Mandarin song about every hour, later increasing this to three songs per hour.

"Sometimes when we played Mandarin songs, we received phone calls, probably from BIA (Military Intelligence), just hinting at us not to play them," Harry, a staffer in the human resources department, recounted.

In 1998, after the Soeharto regime fell, the new situation gave Cakrawala -- which literally means horizon -- greater opportunities to play Mandarin songs. But it was not until 2000, when then President Abdurrahman Wahid abrogated the law that banned Chinese cultural and religious activities, that the station finally got the opportunity to freely broadcast in the Chinese language.

That year, the management and owners -- all non-Chinese Indonesians -- Abraham Ari Supono, Effendi Ilham and his wife, decided to use Mandarin as the station's principal medium.

"Fifty-five percent of the programs are now in Mandarin, while the remainder are in Indonesian and English," explained Harry.

However, finding DJs fluent in Mandarin was no easy task as at that time the station had no ethnic Chinese staff members, let alone someone who was expert in the Mandarin language.

So, they hired a graduate from the University of Indonesia's Chinese Literature Department.

"We do not hire DJs who speak Mandarin with a Hokkian or a Khe dialect. We use the national dialect," said Harry, who does not understand Mandarin himself.

First, they hired one Mandarin DJ. Now, out of the 20 DJs they have, 12 of them are fluent in the Mandarin language and, coincidentally, are of ethnic Chinese origin.

"Most of the Mandarin DJs have spent time in Taiwan or China," he said. Brenda Yu, who once worked as a presenter in the Mandarin news program, Metro Xin Wen, on Metro television, had been a DJ at Cakrawala.

Harry said that most of the station's listeners were members of the Chinese community, especially those living in West Jakarta. "If you go shopping in Glodok or Mangga Dua (both business centers run mainly by Chinese Indonesians), you will notice that many of the shops there are tuned in to Cakrawala," said Harry proudly.

In 1998, the station established a fan club. With membership of the club, listeners get an ID that can be used as a pass for requesting songs or joining quizzes. Now, the club has around 7,000 members, 92 percent of them ethnic Chinese.

Sometimes, fans come flocking to the Cakrawala offices on the third floor of an old building next to a Chinese ancestor worship house across the street from Kota railway station. "Some of them are surprised to see us with non-Chinese faces working in a Mandarin-language radio station," he said.

However, Harry said, no problems had arisen because of this so far. "This station intends to encourage the assimilation process, a process that is still not working properly," he said.

According to Harry, ethnic prejudice still exists, although he has never encountered any ethnic conflict inside his office.

While admitting that at least half of Cakrawala listeners are middle-aged people, Harry feels optimistic about the future of the station.

"For 32 years, the Chinese language was banned, so those who understand Chinese are mostly older people. But now I see that Chinese language courses here are booming," he said. "Besides, music is universal. A lot of Cakrawala listeners do not understand Mandarin, but they tune in to our radio anyway."

Hendra Suryadi, a photographer with a magazine in Jakarta, says that although he does not understand Mandarin, he sometimes tunes in to Cakrawala.

"When I'm going home in my car, I sometimes listen to Cakrawala. I don't understand what the DJs are saying, but I like listening to the songs they play," he said.

As the Chinese culture in Indonesia undergoes a revival, so have the fortunes of Cakrawala improved. Since Cakrawala started broadcasting 55 percent of its content in the Mandarin language, the station has seen its revenue increase fourfold compared to when it was broadcasting solely in the Indonesian language.

"We will continue broadcasting mainly in Mandarin for as long as it brings us good fortune," Harry said.

History, it seems, is repeating itself. For centuries in the past, business and trade have been factors encouraging friendship and rapport among peoples around the world, no matter what their ethnicity or race.