Rediffusion

by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia

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.

Background
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

Revival
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




Authors

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Loh Pei Ying



References
1. Singapore International Chamber of Commerce. (1979). From early days. Singapore: Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, p. 136. (Call no.: RSING 380.10655957 SIN)
2.
Oei, R. (2005). Riding the bandwidth. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 46. (Call no.: RSING 384.54 OEI); Rediffusion Singapore. (2010)). Rediffusion (Singapore) Limited. Remembering Rediffusion Singapore. Retrieved from Rediffusion (Singapore) Limited website: http://www.rediffusion.info/Singapore/
3. Rediffusion workers may strike (1950, July 22). The Straits Times, p. 7; Men to picket offices daily. (1950, August 6). Sunday Tribune (Singapore), p. 2; Rediffusion strike talk. (1950, August 13). The Straits Times, p. 11; Colony strike called off (1950, October 11). The Straits Times, p.1; Rediffusion as usual: Wage talks fail (1962, May 5). The Straits Times, p. 20; Rediffusion off the air. (1962, May 10). The Straits Times, p.1; Regrets of firm to subscribers (1962, May 10). The Straits Times, p.18; Silence and shutters up again at Rediffusion (1962, May 11). The Straits Times, p. 24; Rediffusion row is over. (1962, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Oei, R. (2005). Riding the bandwidth. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 48–49. (Call no.: RSING 384.54 OEI)
5.
Cheong, J. (2006, February 12). Redi-rection. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.
McDaniel, D. O. (1994). Broadcasting in the Malay world: Radio, television, and video in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation, p. 183. (Call no.: RSING 380.10655957 SIN; Singapore Department of Statistics. (1977/78).  Yearbook of statistics, Singapore. Singapore: Dept. of Statistics, p. 238. (Call no.: RCLOS 315.957 YSS)
7.
Singapore International Chamber of Commerce. (1979). From early days. Singapore: Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, p. 136. (Call no.: RSING 380.10655957 SIN)
8.
Teo, P. L. (2005, December 12). The original ah jie. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9.
Tan, J. (2006, May 24). Time to move on. Today, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10.
Lam, D. (1990, November 22). Passionate pursuit. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11.
Zakir Hussain. (2009, April 17). Telling stories so that others may remember. The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12.
Rediffusion workers may strike (1950, July 22). The Straits Times, p. 7; Men to picket offices daily. (1950, August 6). Sunday Tribune (Singapore), p. 2; 67-day-old Rediffusion strike ends. (1950, October 11). Singapore Standard, p.1; Rediffusion as usual: Wage talks fail (1962, May 5). The Straits Times, p. 20; Regrets of firm to subscribers (1962, May 10). The Straits Times, p.18; Rediffusion off the air (1962, May 10). The Straits Times, p.1; Silence and shutters up again at Rediffusion (1962, May 11). The Straits Times, p. 24; Rediffusion row is over. (1962, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13.
Cheong, J. (2006, February 12). Redi-rection. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14.
Cheong, J. (2006, February 12). Redi-rection. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
Eddino Abdul Hadi. (2008, September 20). All-local radio station. The Straits Times, p. 15; Mak, M. S. (2008, June 12). Rediffusion now has 22 channels. The Straits Times, p. 69. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16.
Chin, D., & Sim, R. (2012, April 9). Station was ‘part of Singapore way of life’. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17.
Chin, D., & Sim, R. (2012, April 9). Station was ‘part of Singapore way of life’. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18.
Oo, G. L. (2012, April 16). Preserve the spirit of Rediffusion. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19.
Chow, J. (2012, October 29). Rediffusion back on air in February. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20.
Ng, K. L. (2012, December 13). Rediffusion to return - on mobile, Net and cable TV. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21.
Retrieved 2020, May 8 from Ximalaya 喜马拉雅 website: https://www.ximalaya.com/; Rediffusion Singapore website: https://www.ximalaya.com/zhubo/178569794 ; Rediffusion Singapore 丽的呼声. Remembering Rediffusion Singapore. (2010). Retrieved from Rediffusion Singapore 丽的呼声 website: http://www.rediffusion.info/Singapore/
22. Our story. (2019). Retrieved from Rediffusion Singapore 丽的呼声 Facebook website; 杨涵净 (Yang, H.J.) (2019, October 28). 丽的呼声设透明播音站为牛车 水群众“讲故事”. 联合早报 (Lianhe Zaobao), p. 7. Retrieved from Factiva.



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. 

Subject
Organisations>>Companies
Radio broadcasting--Singapore
Business enterprises
Arts>>Radio
Radio stations--Singapore