English-language media can be considered as the backbone of a country’s overseas promotional campaigns as well as a window for people outside the country.
As is the case with many other non-English speaking countries, however, such media outlets in Korea struggle with three common shortfalls: budget, manpower and consequently lack of content.
Arirang TV founded in 1996 by the government under the slogan of “Korea for the World, the World for Korea” is also not free from the triple whammy. The 24-hour English-language channel has struggled with a chronic budget shortage, high turnover rate and sluggish improvement of programs. It was given 30 billion won ($25.7 million) in state subsidies this year.
The sole external broadcaster for the Korean government was embroiled in an embezzlement scandal early this year, galvanizing some cost-sensitive lawmakers to push for its merger with KBS World, the English language unit of the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the nation’s largest broadcaster.
Against this backdrop, Sohn Jie-ae took the helm of the Korea International Broadcasting Foundation, which operates Arirang TV and Arirang radio stations, in August.
Sohn, 48, served as a Seoul-based correspondent for CNN between 1995 and 2009, and then presidential spokeswoman before being appointed to her new post.
In an interview with The Korea Times at her office in southern Seoul, Sohn said her priority at the job is bringing Arirang up to the level of globally-acknowledged English-language channels such as China’s CCTV, Japan’s NHK World and Qatar-based Al Jazeera English.
To that end, she said, she is ready to make full use of her experience in journalism and a wide range of personal connections with high-ranking officials in bureaucracy, business and other sectors.
“My duty is to make Arirang a station that never falls behind any other English-language broadcaster,” she said. “I believe my experience in journalism as a foreign correspondent will be a key asset to achieve this goal.”
Sohn said that gone are the times when state-backed English media could churn out propaganda on behalf of the government.
“We need homegrown, eye-catching content to attract the attention of the international audience,” she said, indicating that she will aggressively push staffers to develop fresh programs based on Korea.
Arirang has cashed in on programs based on contemporary music and dramas, riding on the “hallyu” or Korean wave that has swept many Asian countries. She said the company plans to put a fresh spin on this by mixing in the country’s traditional forms of art as a way to provide overseas viewers with a bigger and more balanced picture of Korea.
“I would like to show them not only contemporary culture but also its roots in history and its social background,” Sohn said. She also plans to produce more news programs to help foreign viewers deepen their understanding and knowledge of Korea-related affairs.
Arirang will also pay keen attention to distribution.
She recently visited Guangdong Province in an effort to add the affluent region in China to the list of Arirang’s global audience. An agreement, signed between Arirang and Guangdong TV during her stay, will enable the entertainment program “Showbiz Korea” to be aired on the Chinese channel.
Arirang’s programs, ranging from news to entertainment, are currently available in 188 countries, its spokesman said.
She said she spends much of her working hours meeting with Korean business leaders and advertisers to get their firms’ commercials aired on Arirang networks, the second largest source of revenue for the company, followed by income from cultural events and leasing.
“Still many big Korean firms don’t have their ads running on Arirang. But this attitude will change gradually given our growing clout in overseas markets,” she said.
Asked about the possibility of Arirang’s merger with KBS World, she underscored that it’s “impossible” because the two have totally different audience targets.
While KBS World brings content from KBS, subtitles it and transmits it overseas for first-generation Koreans, she explained, Arirang mostly makes original, English-based content for a non-Korean speaking audience.