Chinese Americans find community on their radio dial

The caller sounded as if he had just won the lottery. After years of trying, he had finally reached the disc jockey at his favorite radio station, KAZN-AM (1300).

“I’ve been listening to your program for 10 years. This is the first time I got through,” the caller said, adding that he was listening from work and that he and his buddies would love to hear the Mandarin oldie, “Do You Know I’m Waiting For You?”

A few minutes later, DJ Steve Kuo played the romantic ballad. It sounded a little like something by the band Air Supply, except the singer was crooning in Chinese.

“I was very touched; he’s been listening to us for so long,” Kuo said of the caller. “We all face pressures from our daily lives. We all want to hear the familiar language, music and sound of home.”

That helps explain the popularity of Pasadena-based KAZN, the nation’s first 24-hour Chinese-language radio station. Since 1993, it has delivered around-the-clock news, entertainment and music to the fast-growing Chinese population in Southern California.

The station’s owner, Multimedia Radio Broadcasting Inc., runs sister stations: KMRB-AM 1430, which provides similar programming in Los Angeles, but in Cantonese, and KAHZ-AM 1600, a simulcast of KAZN heard primarily in Orange County and parts of Riverside County.

The stations’ combined audience is more than 250,000, according to a 2005 Arbitron ratings survey. That pales in comparison to some Spanish-language stations, but industry insiders say the Chinese American audience shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Our consumers are educated, brand-conscious, bilingual. . . . These are loyal customers with high buying power,” said Eric Chang, national sales account director for Networks Asia, a division of Multimedia. “The Hispanic market is 10 years ahead of us. But in another 10 years, we’ll be just as strong.”

For now KAZN remains the dominant voice in the Chinese community in L.A. and serves as a clearinghouse for all sorts of general information. On the weekends, one can hear Bible stories, Buddhist sermons, family counseling, celebrity interviews and lectures on immigration law.

Even its infomercials are popular.

“That’s how I find out if there is a new restaurant opening up or summer camp for the kids or programs that help them get into college,” said Jennifer Zhou, 44, an insurance agent in Arcadia who emigrated from Beijing and is a loyal KAZN listener. “A lot of my friends love the station because we don’t always have time to read the newspaper or go online. So they really do help a lot of people.”

Exploring topics

One of KAZN’s most popular and longest-running programs is the morning talk show “Today’s Topic,” hosted by Felix Guo and Nick Gao. The two like to take on one or two hot-button issues of the day, chatting as if they were two friends standing around a water cooler.

“They do it like storytelling, and they provide a lot of analysis,” Zhou said. “Even my son knows when I drive him to school in the mornings that’s Mommy’s program.”

Among the topics the show explored recently were the death of Qian Xuesen, a former Caltech rocket scientist who was deported in 1955 on suspicion of being a communist, and the recent shooting rampage that left 14 dead at Ft. Hood in Texas.

“We want to push the community to understand what’s going on here in America,” Guo said. “We try to encourage them to be part of this country.”

Another listener favorite is Cat Chao’s evening talk show “Rush Hour,” on which guests and callers are known to hurl verbal barbs at one another while discussing sensitive subjects like Taiwan and Tibetan independence.

“In China you are taught to follow orders. The government, the police or the teacher is always right,” said Chao, originally from Taiwan. “But in America, we try to show them that these are just people who can also make mistakes. We can talk about these people and question what they do.”

During a show about President Obama’s recent trip to China, one of Chao’s guests argued that America should stop imposing its values around the world and treat China with more respect.

Another guest countered that if China wants Americans to be more understanding and tolerant of Asian customs and traditions, the communist government there should start by respecting the diversity of its own people, especially its ethnic minorities from Tibet and Xinjiang.

“My show is set up to be controversial,” Chao said. “I want to show the listeners that there is not one correct answer, you can have different points of view and there is always room for debate.”

Vivian Hsu, 53, who emigrated from Taiwan and runs a shoe boutique in Monterey Park, said she leaves the station on in her shop all day. She said patrons enjoy the give and take.

“I like the exciting political debates. Most of my customers like it too,” Hsu said. “They would listen as they browse for shoes and sometimes they would stop to talk to me about the topic of the day.”

Demographic shift

KAZN began tapping into the region’s diverse Asian population in 1984. Calling itself K-Asian, the station offered a few hours of programming a day in eight Asian languages: Korean, Cantonese, Japanese, Mandarin, Polynesia, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

In 1993, the station’s first owner, Edward Kim, a Korean American businessman, decided to make it an all-Chinese-language station. Five years later he sold the station to MRBI, the nation’s largest Asian American-owned broadcast media company with more than 40 radio stations in the nation, including another 24-hour Chinese station in New York.

During this period, KAZN saw a demographic shift in its audience. Roughly two-thirds of its audience base used to listen to the station in Cantonese and one-third in Mandarin; today those numbers are reversed.

The change reflects a shift in immigration patterns. The Cantonese-speaking people from Southern China and Hong Kong have given way to a new generation of immigrants from the mainland. Most of them speak Mandarin, the official language of China.

But the Chinese audience in America is as diverse as it is large, posing big challenges to DJs like Kuo, who are often inundated with requests he can’t fulfill.

Recently a caller wanted to hear a popular folk song from her hometown in China’s western Xinjiang province, where many of the country’s ethnic Muslims live. Kuo, who is from Taiwan, the island where the nationalist government fled after a civil war 60 years ago, had never heard of the tune.

“Music changes all the time, and L.A. is such a big melting pot of all races and all Asians and all kinds of Chinese people. This is a big challenge to any DJ,” Kuo said.

Most of the station’s advertising revenue comes from mom-and-pop businesses in the Asian community. Only about 20% is derived from large general-market clients. Critics say that’s because despite their strong purchasing power, Asian American consumers are still largely ignored by the mainstream.

But Asian media are expected to keep growing.

Nearly 60 million Americans already get their news and information from TV, radio, newspapers and websites that are published or broadcast in languages other than English, according to a new survey by New America Media, which represents 2,500 ethnic news organizations. That number is up 16% from 2005.

“It’s quite stunning that it is growing at a time when the mainstream media audience is rapidly shrinking,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media. “What is equally interesting is this growth has occurred during the worst recession in modern history.”

These days KAZN and its affiliates have the Chinese market in Los Angeles mostly to themselves. The only other Chinese-language programming in the L.A. area is on KWRM-AM (1370), which shares airtime with Spanish-language news and sports shows. Its reach is also limited by its relatively weak signal.

“I have no other choice,” said Qiu Ming, an immigrant from Beijing who listens to KAZN when she is driving to her job at the Commerce Casino, where she works the graveyard shift. “It keeps me company.”