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September 30, 2009

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Soulfire radio for trendy young folks

Chinese broadcast media are overwhelmingly the domain of state-run organizations. But one enterprising foreigner has got a foot in the door of this vast market with an independent radio station licensed to broadcast on mainstream airwaves.

The station, Soulfire, targets the sophisticated, upwardly mobile Chinese audience.

Since 2007 the station has developed rapidly from its base in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, to broadcast in four cities in southern China.

Shanghai is the latest to receive broadcasts from Soulfire's array of lifestyle-type talk shows and "soulful" music. Since this April it has been broadcasting twice a week for one hour each time.

Soulfire has a slot on a more established channel to broadcast one hour per day in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, 30 minutes per day in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

"No one has done what we've done here," says Peter Bommer, founder of Soulfire. "Unlike traditional radio in China, we cherry-pick our audience, keep in close communication with them, and change our programs to reflect their changing tastes and interests."

With a background in marketing for multinational drinks companies, Englishman Bommer understands the needs of the increasingly wealthy, young Chinese demographic.

The station targets audience aged between 28 and 38 years old who are "hugely proud of being Chinese but also increasingly aware that they are part of the wider world."

"More and more people in this group have traveled abroad, but many still don't have the opportunity to do so. We give them the experience of international influences at home," says Bommer.

The station's program includes magazine-like talk shows on fine wines, travel and food. The music is also carefully chosen to be "sophisticated" - involving intelligent lyrics or skillful playing that touches the mind, body and soul, and which is not well known in China.

Reflecting the East-meets-West nature of their programs, the station's staff is a mix of Chinese and Western.

Apart from the founder, five other staff are Western in an office of 32 people.

As economic development continues to race ahead, the interests and attitudes of the Chinese middle class are also fast-changing.

Through focus groups and letters from their listeners, the station keeps close tabs on their changing interests. A year ago Italian food was in vogue, now it's fine wines. There was even a time when yachting was all the rage.

When they first started, listeners were interested in combining Chinese and Western things, such as how grape wines can be paired with Chinese food. But now, says Bommer, there is more confidence and interest in appreciating wine for itself.

"One thing remains the same," says Bommer. "The group experience is important in China. Our listeners like to have something to share with their peers, to learn and understand together, and have a conversation. They want to celebrate and enjoy the finer things in life together."

Creating and running a radio station in China has been a challenge. Independent radio is a very new thing, which makes for "a wide open field," says Bommer.

"At first more established radio platforms would be nervous of working with Soulfire, and our new crazy ideas. But once we help them improve market share, it becomes mutually rewarding," he says.


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