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Media : China's Late-Night Radio Programs Tell It Like It Is : Hot topics for call-in shows are sex, psychology and cultural changes. 'Politics is too complicated,' says one host.


GUANGZHOU, China — It's nearly midnight, after curfew at Zhongshan University. The lights are out, but all through the dorms students are switching on their radios in the darkness.

"Paul's Wonderland is open again," intones a deep voice over rock music. "It's Thursday, and we're still alive." Tonight's topic on the most popular radio show in town is one of special interest to the students lying still in their beds: the worthlessness of a diploma in the anything-goes economy of this southern China boom town.

"After 11:30 they turn off the lights and power. You can't drink, you can't take a bath, you can't make love," says Banike Wong, a guest host. "But you can listen to the show. It's a kind of freedom."

Late-night radio shows with names such as "With You Till Dawn," "Night Date" and "The Night Is Not Lonely" have sprung up across China, giving people a chance to tell it like it is. After decades of not daring to voice an opinion lest it be held against them--even resisting sleep for fear of blurting something incriminating while dreaming--people are now staying up late for a chance to talk about subjects that were once taboo.

Open for discussion are topics ranging from how to make love to how to make money, psychological problems and growing up in a fast-food culture.

"We tend to talk about sex a lot," says Paul Lowe, the Chinese host whose English stage name has become a trademark. "Politics is too complicated."

It is also banned. An official sits in the studio of the state-run station to monitor the phone calls, screening out unsanctioned topics.

"When we talk about sensitive subjects, we don't even have a call-in line," says Wong, the guest host. "Homosexuality, for example, is too dangerous. Prostitution is too sensitive."

Discussions of sexual technique are OK, but a show about living together before marriage brought an official reprimand from the state.

But the talk jockeys know that it's not what you say, it's how.

"The topic of homosexuality is banned, but talking about movies is not," Lowe says. "So we talk about homosexual movies like 'Philadelphia' or 'The Wedding Banquet.' "

Lowe is no Howard Stern. His show is sentimental, not shocking. It's meant to provoke, not offend.

He got his start on the radio six years ago with a program that introduced Western pop hits, and it evolved into one of the country's first talk shows, with Lowe doing most of the talking. Between songs, he told stories of growing up during the Cultural Revolution and personal tales of love and life.

"Everybody has his story, but I think it is also important to tell mine. Some of the listeners are too young to remember the Cultural Revolution, and don't know why China is the way it is today," he says, referring to China's 1966-1976 political turmoil. "These days, young people only think about which restaurant is best. When I was young, my only thought was how not to be hungry."

Exposing his own thoughts draws out others, he says, and creates an atmosphere more intimate than the average radio program.

"It's a little bit mysterious. Girls can hear my voice, but can't see my face," he says. "I can be anything they imagine."

The ratings of "Paul's Wonderland"--more than 70% of the listening audience--show that he has captured more than a few imaginations. Lowe mentions that he is the highest-paid broadcaster in the province, perhaps the country. That brings him a degree of celebrity and the protection that goes with it.

Two young women in ankle-length slip dresses come into the cafe where they have heard Lowe is having dinner, and stand on their combat-booted toes to scan the crowd. They don't know what he looks like, but the 27-year-old with permed hair, a crisp white linen shirt and easy confidence stands out.

They spot him. "Paul! It's Paul!" they giggle, but are afraid to venture any closer. Wong smiles slyly, and points to his friend. "He is known as the Music God," he says. "He can do anything he wants."

Right now, Lowe wants to push the limits a bit. His new project is an experiment in radio theater. Tomorrow's show is a thinly disguised political allegory called "Zooropa," using animals as characters, reminiscent of George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

"It's very progressive, very sensitive," Paul says. "We'll see how it goes."

As much as Paul is progressive, Su Jingping, the director of a popular talk show in Beijing, is cerebral and cautious. Su would rather take calls than risks.

"Doing our show is like playing with kites, not balloons," he says. "We hope to fly higher and higher, but with the strings still in our hands."

Su says that after he spent 13 years in the northern countryside during China's turbulent political campaigns in the 1960s and '70s, he came to the Beijing radio station with an idea: "One thing we learned is that people shouldn't believe propaganda in a simplistic way." He wanted to create a people's program where "everybody could say what they want to say."

The result: a hit call-in show called "Life Hotline."

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