With Their Own Limbaugh, Taiwanese Tune In to Politics

`THIS is FM 89.5, the Voice of Taiwan. You're on the air,'' Charles Chiang said, flipping the switch on the afternoon's first caller.

On the eve of Taiwan's recent local elections, Mr. Chiang - usually an accountant in his adopted California, but right now a visiting opposition activist in his native Taiwan - was starting a five-hour stint behind the microphone at Taipei's best-known pirate radio station.

The incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) candidate for Taipei mayor is running so badly, he will soon pull out of the race, one caller reports. The ruling KMT is spreading lies that the opposition candidate for governor will destroy all temples in Taipei, another said, urging the public to turn out in force to prevent fraud.

Amid a democratic blossoming here, an explosion of rebel radio and cable TV stations is loosening the ruling party's long-time grip on the media, spreading the opposition message, and helping shape a new Taiwanese identity.

For the first time in years, newspapers and airwaves are full of debate and babble over the island's political future.

In the mixed outcome of the Dec. 3 polls, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taipei mayor's seat but was rejected in the race for governor and the mayor of Kaohsiung, the island's second largest city.

Out of sight during the noisy election run-up but not out of mind was Hsu Rong-chi, the vociferous founder of ``Voice of Taiwan'' and something of a cult talk-show hero to opposition supporters and working-class Taiwanese.

Mr. Hsu, regarded by his backers as a Taiwanese Rush Limbaugh, has captured Taipei's imagination, particularly among the capital's 40,000 taxi drivers, with his potent antigovernment invective and calls on government officials to answer the public's questions on the air.

In February, he galvanized a taxi-driver protest against high insurance premiums at the finance ministry, and two months later, mobilized hundreds of drivers to rally against the planned razing of an old landmark in the national capital. Mr. Hsu's arrest in July for allegedly ``inciting'' the taxi protest and the shutdown of ``Voice of Taiwan'' and 13 other illegal broadcasters caused another traffic jam.

Out on bail posted by three opposition Taiwanese legislators and using hidden spare equipment, Hsu had his station up and running again in a few hours. But fearing rearrest and another raid, Hsu went into self-imposed exile to California during the election campaign and has broadcast daily from the US, says his wife, Lin Shiou-ching, station manager in her husband's absence.

``I'm only driving part-time and devoting 10 to 15 hours a day here,'' said volunteer Yih Yi-min who was acting as radio engineer for the afternoon instead of driving his taxi. ``I support Hsu's goal to give laborers a chance to speak out.''

``My husband really fought to set up this kind of radio station so people can have freedom of expression,'' says Mrs. Lin, who says she was a ``simple'' housewife up until a few months ago. ``The taxi drivers face long hours and ... hardship,'' she continued as another volunteer driver snoozed in an office corner. ``Taipei traffic is ... always jammed. Before the drivers could only sit in the traffic and scowl at [KMT] officials. But now they can listen ... and the jam becomes almost enjoyable.''

Despite the existence of more than 40 illegal radio stations and the proliferation of more than 300 newspapers and 300 cable TV stations, the KMT still exerts strong influence over the media. Although the DPP has finally won clearance to establish its own television station, the ruling party still owns several newspaper and TV properties.

As evidence of the government's continued media clout, opposition leaders point to extensive TV and newspaper exposure of James Soong, the incumbent Taiwan governor who overwhelmed his two rivals.

The government maintains it is trying to free the media. It lifted a ban on private radio stations last year and is reviewing dozens of new applications for new radio and cable TV systems that will end the government monopoly within a year, says official spokesman Jason Hu.

But government officials are befuddled by Hsu and nervous about the populist, anti-authoritarian reach of the Voice of Taiwan, which refuses to apply for an official license until the ruling party ends its control over broadcasting.

``The Voice of Taiwan has insisted it will not apply, but I am prepared to talk to them. I don't believe you can just use a frequency and run a station without applying,'' says Mr. Hu. ``When many pluralistic views are available, the unique problem of the Voice of Taiwan will not exist.''

Meanwhile, Hsu, who has political ambitions, is due back in Taiwan by Christmas to face charges, a confrontation which could trigger new taxi protests and blockades in Taipei. ``The government tried to shut his mouth before the election, but fortunately it failed,'' says Lin, his wife. ``One of the reasons the station is so popular is because we speak native Taiwanese [language]. Now, housewives and the common people can hear about the government.''

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