Esther Tseng /photo byICRT /tr. byJonathan Barnard
International Community Radio Taipei—better known as ICRT—is Taiwan’s only English-language radio station. It was founded 40 years ago at a pivotal moment in the nation’s diplomatic history. For four decades, it has been issuing news updates on the hour, as well as weather and traffic reports, helping Taiwanese and foreigners alike to understand major international events and prepare to go out and about. The American-style station, which also broadcasts a variety of Western pop music, has enriched Taiwan’s culture and nurtured people’s souls.
Tim Berge, ICRT’s general manager, stresses the station’s mission of serving expats and promoting cultural exchange between Taiwan and the West. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
“This is ICRT, FM 100.” The station’s tag line is voiced before playing “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran, who is visiting Taiwan on his April tour. To a rocking beat, “Redhead Ed” sings of sweet memories of youth, helping both expats and locals to pass the day in easygoing contentment—not unlike ICRT itself.
A fruit of changing US-Taiwan relations
ICRT’s forerunner was a US military station: Armed Forces Network Taiwan.
Pat Torguson, daughter of an American airman, recalls that as a result of the shelling of Kinmen (Quemoy) by the PRC that began on August 23, 1958, the US Air Force base in Tainan was in a continuous state of high alert, and its personnel had to pay constant attention to AFNT broadcasts. She remembers that each time one of the station’s broadcasters said, “The pepper is hot. I say again, the pepper is hot,” her father would, without uttering a word, get up, put on his uniform and promptly leave for the base.
AFNT was the sole channel for American military and foreign diplomats, as well as their families, to hear Western popular music. And it wasn’t just foreigners: Whether for blues-inflected rock music by Elvis Presley, “Let It Be” by the chart-topping Beatles, or “American Pie” by Don McLean, AFNT was also where young Taiwanese tuned their dials during the martial-law era when searching for freedom and dreaming of distant places.
On New Year’s Day in 1979, the US and the ROC broke off diplomatic relations, and the station prepared to cease broadcasting. According to standard procedures, the US military was expected to ship all broadcasting equipment back to the United States. Admiral James Linder, the last commander of the US Taiwan Defense Command, convinced the US government to “sell” the equipment for a symbolic US$1 to the ROC government, which then leased it to ICRT.
Shortly before midnight on April 16, 1979, to the sound of the national anthems of the United States and the Republic of China, AFNT ceased broadcasting. Then, right at midnight, Robert P. Parker, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, announced, “ICRT is on the air.” It has continued to broadcast ever since.
Robert P. Parker (right), former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, put much time and energy into launching ICRT. The photo shows him with Taipei mayor Lee Teng-hui, who would later become ROC president.
Timely news, uninterrupted service
ICRT helped to dampen the shock associated with the breaking of diplomatic relations. Adopting a non-profit status, the station began broadcasting news in English as well as playing Western pop music, bearing a mission to promote US‡Taiwan cultural exchange.
ICRT’s general manager Tim Berge started out broadcasting news and traffic reports at the station. “We were very timely in reporting international and sports news and were often a news source for other media,” he notes. For instance, he recalls reporting on George H.W. Bush’s trip to Japan, describing how the US president grew ill and suddenly vomited on Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap. Not only was Berge the first to report on the news in Taiwan, he even took calls from television stations inquiring about the incident.
Even now, when Internet media can be accessed almost anywhere, ICRT is still holding firm to its mission of serving foreigners in Taiwan and fostering cultural exchange with the West. During the run-up to important international elections, such as US presidential elections, ICRT reminds foreign residents to send in their absentee ballots.
For foreigners in Taiwan, the station’s weather and traffic reports are also important sources of information. In 2001, when Typhoon Nari hit Greater Taipei hard, the Blue (Bannan) Line of the MRT was flooded and put out of operation for three months. “Back then we were in the Broadcasting Corporation of China building on Songjiang Road, and all the equipment was submerged in water,” recalls Tim Berge in fluent Chinese. “The BCC went off air for a day, but ICRT only stopped broadcasting for an hour. That was because ICRT’s general manager hurried up to our radio transmitter on Yangmingshan with a CD player, and started making shows from there.” The dedicated spirit of ICRT’s engineers and DJs kept the station on air through the strong winds and heavy rains.
Musical variety, youthful spirit
An audience poll by ICRT in 1979 showed that 65% of the station’s listeners were foreigners, but since the 1980s, according to Neilsen surveys, more than 90% of ICRT’s audience have been Taiwanese.
That an English-language station would nonetheless attract many Taiwanese listeners is mainly a result of ICRT broadcasting live shows of Western music, as well as chart countdown shows and special jazz, soul, and dance programming on the weekends, which attract hardcore fans of Western popular music.
ICRT’s live shows have accompanied many listeners through their youths. The late David Wang didn’t major in English or another foreign language, and he didn’t go overseas to study. But his authentic-sounding American accent helped him to become an ICRT DJ. He became a station legend, an idol to many listeners.
Learning English by listening
ICRT’s top host today is Joseph Lin, who originally planned on working at the station for two years before returning to the United States. In the blink of an eye, he’s been in front of the station’s microphones for 20 years. With his magnetic, charming voice, Lin says: “That’s because I’m doing what I’ve loved to do ever since I was small: finding and listening to music. I even get free CDs from record labels. Imagine a fashion lover who was able to get free clothes to wear every day!” What could be more enticing than getting your dream job?
ICRT was the first radio station in Taiwan to take call-in requests. But it hasn’t stopped there: For ten years Joseph Lin has been making “surprise call-outs,” where at the request of listeners he calls people up to reveal secret crushes, to wish them happy birthday, to play songs in their honor or to prank them. These calls excite listeners and sometimes even move them to tears. “I’ve proposed marriage on listeners’ behalf at least 30 times.” A call from Joseph Lin often provokes a scream of delight, and this ever-popular segment has turned many people into faithful ICRT listeners.
David Wang (right) was a renowned ICRT program host.
ICRT is also an excellent channel for local students to learn English and practice their listening comprehension skills. With the development of social media, ICRT has gone on to launch online broadcasts and podcasts, allowing more listeners to listen and study English on their smartphones through the station’s app.
A DJ lends his voice to a programming ad. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
In 1993 the government took steps to open up the broadcasting industry. Facing competition from more and more channels, ICRT has held major outdoor events and organized community public interest activities to emphasize its local roots and bolster loyalty from listeners. Its We Love Hakka show, with its lively and easygoing style, has become one of the best mediums for introducing Hakka culture. ICRT’s annual singles parties, Halloween parties, and bike days are enthusiastically welcomed by listeners and DJs alike and help to build relationships between them.
ICRT has been organizing its annual Bike Day since 2009. For ten years, listeners and DJs have been riding together.
ICRT holds a Thanksgiving Day banquet to introduce the culture of Thanksgiving Day to listeners.
Having left the studio for the IRCT Halloween party in Tianmu, DJs keep listeners informed of the latest goings-on there.
ICRT Singles Night Parties are popular with listeners.
At a singles event, an ICRT host wearing a costume interacts with listeners.
As the leading broadcaster of Western music in Taiwan, ICRT has worked hard at developing new shows and programs. Its “Battle of the Bands” activity was first held in 2007. Deputy general manager Ding Yu points out that ICRT has contributed its channel and programming to spotlight outstanding independent bands and musicians. After being “discovered,” champions of those battles have gone on to bright performing careers.
ICRT’s “Battle of the Bands” gives exposure to independent bands and musical artists, both local and foreign.
Born the same year as the Taiwan Relations Act, ICRT is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019. On July 13, it will hold a concert of Western music, inviting fans to gather and reminisce about their experiences listening to the station over the years. The concert will bear witness to how beautiful music makes a mark on history and transcends eras, and will spotlight the station’s unique history. As the station’s slogan goes: “Only on ICRT!”
Host Joseph Lin has interviewed Jay Chou several times, starting back before he was famous. (courtesy of Joseph Lin)
Former ICRT DJ Dennis Nieh interviews the singing duo Michael & Victor.
ICRT’s former DJ Tony Taylor interviewed Boyzone when the band visited Taiwan on its 1997 tour.