Rediffusion was Singapore's first cable-transmitted, commercial radio station. It started broadcasting in Singapore in 1949. In the 1960s and ’70s, the station's Chinese dialect programmes enjoyed a strong following, and many coffee shops and households were fitted with Rediffusion sets.
The Rediffusion company in Singapore was a subsidiary of Broadcast Relay Services (Overseas) Ltd, a London-based company pioneering the use of cables to broadcast radio services. As part of the company's expansion into Asia, it entered Singapore in 1948, setting up broadcasting studios at the site of the former railway station at Tank Road (now Clemenceau Avenue). On 1 August 1949, Rediffusion (Singapore) Ltd was officially opened by then Governor Franklin Charles Gimson. It was Singapore's first commercial radio station, and also the first and only cable-transmitted radio station.1 This form of transmitting is known as radio diffusion, hence the name “Rediffusion” (re-diffusion).2
In August 1950, the Singapore Rediffusion Employees Union went on strike for 67 days, while in May 1962, Rediffusion employers went on strike due to disputes over wages and working conditions.3
The growth years
Rediffusion became a great hit and garnered 9,600 subscribers within a few months of its launch. Radio sets in those days were too expensive for many households and Rediffusion was an affordable alternative at a subscription rate of $5 per month. Initially, the station broadcasted programmes from the United Kingdom, but Chinese dialect programmes were subsequently added to meet local demand. Each day, two Rediffusion channels provided a combined 34 hours of radio programmes to subscribers. The station's entertainment-based programmes, which were a stark contrast to those produced by the government-run Radio Malaya, became very popular.4
During its heyday, Rediffusion radio sets were a common sight in coffee shops and many people gathered there to listen to American rock 'n' roll music and stories narrated in Chinese dialects by storytellers such as Lee Dai Sor (Cantonese), Ng Chia Kheng (Teochew), Ong Toh (Hokkien). and Chong Soon Fat (Hakka).
It was estimated that up to 100,000 listeners followed the programmes hosted by these master storytellers.5 By the 1960s, the number of Rediffusion subscribers had increased to about 50,000. Rediffusion continued to experience subscription growth in the 1970s, and by 1977, it had 90,428 subscribers.6 The size of the company also increased during this period of expansion. By 1979, it had 800 staff, including permanent employees and part-time broadcasters.7
Over the years, Rediffusion nurtured many local talents such as veteran actress Xiang Yun, who used to be a child artiste with the radio station;8 popular radio DJ Mark van Cuylenberg (better known as The Flying Dutchman);9 and drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun, who began his career with Rediffusion's Mandarin Drama Group.10 Foong Choon Hon, one of Singapore’s more well-known journalists, also rose to fame when he was a broadcaster with Rediffusion.11
Rediffusion’s golden years were marred by two strikes in 1950 and 1962. A 67-day strike involving the Singapore Rediffusion Employees Union began in August 1950 and ended that October. In 1962, a deadlock in wage negotiations with the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union led to a partial strike on 4 May that year. Subsequently, programmes were temporarily shut down, and Rediffusion went off-air for three days. The dispute ended on 29 May 1962 when the union and the company agreed on the amount involved in salary increases for selected employees.12
Declining popularity and closure
When the Singapore government launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, Rediffusion was required to stop all dialect programmes by 1982. This proved detrimental to Rediffusion. As a result of the ban on dialect programmes, coupled with increased competition from free-to-air radio, its subscription plunged from 110,348 in 1982 to 62,940 in 1988. By the 2000s, Rediffusion had become a shadow of its glorious past.13
In 2003, the Rediffusion company in Singapore was bought over by two partners – Ronald Reagin, a retired American lawyer, and Wong Ban Kuan. The new owners decided to venture into digital audio broadcasting (DAB) to help boost subscription, which had shrunk to about 10,000. Rediffusion was awarded a five-year DAB licence in 2005 and it started airing content digitally that year.14 By 2008, its number of channels had grown to 22, including Redistar, which specialised in playing local music made by homegrown talents, 24 hours a day.15
With its DAB service and wide range of channels, Rediffusion hoped to attract a younger audience. However, in early April 2012, the company announced that it would stop broadcasting by the end of that month. The decision was business motivated, as its losses were accumulating due to dwindling subscription, which was purported to be around 3,000 by then. At the time of its closure, Rediffusion had been running for 63 years.16
Many long-time listeners voiced their concerns over the closure of Rediffusion. It was often cited as an integral aspect of dialect culture and an important entertainment source for the elderly.17 There were also some proposals to resell Rediffusion’s content so as to preserve some of it.18
In June 2012, it was reported that a former Rediffusion DJ, Eva Chang Mei Hsiang, had bought over the Rediffusion brand name as well as the company’s audio-visual archives and equipment, with plans to revive the station.19 Chang revealed later in December that Rediffusion would be back in business in 2013, starting with the airing of old programmes from its archives.20
Today, Rediffusion maintains an online presence with a website detailing its history, a Facebook page featuring interview broadcasts, a YouTube channel and the Ximalaya FM (喜马拉雅FM) channel that airs podcasts.21 With the support of the Singapore Tourism Board and Chinatown Business Association, the Chinatown Rediffusion Open Studio (牛车水街道透明播音站) opened on 26 October 2019. Since its launch, programmes such as interviews with Chinatown shop owners have been organised there. These interviews are broadcast on Rediffusion’s Facebook page.22
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Loh Pei Ying
1. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, From Early Days (Singapore: Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, 1979), 136. (Call no. RSING 380.10655957 SIN)
2. Rafael Oei, Riding the Bandwidth (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2015), 46 (Call no. RSING 384.54 OEI); “Remembering Rediffusion,” Rediffusion (Singapore) Limited, 2010.
3. “Rediffusion Workers May Strike,” Straits Times, 22 July 1950, 7; “Men to Picket Offices Daily,” Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 6 August 1950, 2; “Rediffusion Strike Talk,” Straits Times, 13 August 1950, 11; “Colony Strike Called Off,” Straits Times, 11 October 1950, 1; “Rediffusion as Usual: Wage Talks Fail,” Straits Times, 5 May 1962, 20; “Rediffusion Off the Air,” Straits Times, 10 May 1962, 1; “Regrets of Firm to Subscribers,” Straits Times, 10 May 1962, 18; “Silence and Shutters Up Again at Rediffusion,” Straits Times, 11 May 1962, 24; “Rediffusion Row Is Over,” Straits Times, 29 May 1962, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Oei, Riding the Bandwidth, 48–49.
5. June Cheong, “Redi-Rection,” Straits Times, 12 February 2006, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Drew O McDaniel, Broadcasting in the Malay World: Radio, Television, and Video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1994), 183 (Call no. RSING 380.10655957 SIN); Department of Statistics, Singapore, Yearbook of Statistics, Singapore (Singapore: Dept. of Statistics, 1977–78), 238. (Call no. RCLOS 315.957 YSS)
7. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce,From Early Days, 136.
8. Teo Pau Lin, “The Original Ah Jie,” Straits Times, 12 December 2005, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Jeanine Tan, “Time to Move On,” Today, 24 May 2006, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Dana Lam, “Passionate Pursuit,” Straits Times, 22 November 1990, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Zakir Hussain, “Telling Stories So That Others May Remember,” Straits Times, 17 April 2009, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Rediffusion Workers May Strike”; “Men to Picket Offices Daily”; “67-Day-Old Rediffusion Strike Ends,” Singapore Standard, 11 October 1950, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “Rediffusion as Usual”; “Regrets of Firm to Subscribers”;
“Rediffusion Off the Air”; “Silence and Shutters Up Again at Rediffusion”; “Rediffusion Row Is Over.”
13. Cheong, “Redi-Rection.”
14. Cheong, “Redi-Rection.”
15. Eddino Abdul Hadi, “All-Local Radio Station,” Straits Times, 20 September 2008, 15; Mak Mun San, “Rediffusion Now Has 22 Channels,”Straits Times, 12 June 2008, 69. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Daryl Chin and Royston Sim, “Station Was ‘Part of Singapore Way of Life’,” Straits Times, 9 April 2012, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
17. China and Sim, “Station Was ‘Part of Singapore Way of Life’.”
18. Oo Gin Lee, “Preserve the Spirit of Rediffusion,” Straits Times, 16 April 2012, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Jermyn Chow, “Rediffusion Back on Air in February,” Straits Times, 29 October 2012, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Ng Kai Ling, “Rediffusion to Return - on Mobile, Net and Cable TV,” Straits Times, 13 December 2012, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Ximalaya “喜马拉雅” [Himalayas], Ximalaya.com, accessed 8 May 2020; “Rediffusion Singapore,” accessed 8 May 2020: Rediffusion (Singapore) Limited, “Remembering Rediffusion.”
22. Rediffusion Singapore, “Our Story,” Facebook, 2019; Yang Hanjing 杨涵净, “Li de husheng she touming boyin zhan wei niu che shui qunzhong ‘jiang gushi’,” Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 28 October 2019. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
The information in this article is valid as at 8 May 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.