It garners nearly 10,000 weekly hits. This Sunday (22 April), City Radio, CHC’s online radio station, City Radio, turns seven. We talk to programme producer Bernard Loh and program editor Mervyn Lim about the journey.
In 1998, Bernard Loh was a second year mass communications student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic when he received salvation at City Harvest Church. For his Final Year Project, he decided to create a Christian radio station called SHINE97.7. He didn’t win the book prize that year, but he did present his ambitious project to Kong Hee, the senior pastor of City Harvest Church.
The time wasn’t right, back in those early days when the church worshiped at the old Hollywood Theatre along Tanjong Katong Road, but the idea wasn’t forgotten. In 2010, when Loh was an emcee at CHC’s staff retreat in Bintan, Kong and his wife Sun spoke to him about starting a Christian radio station for CHC.
Loh joined the church as program producer of City Radio on January 11, 2011. He had three months to get the station up and running. Drawing help from veteran Mandarin radio host and emcee Danny Yeo and the late Andrew Crothers, a popular radio deejay, Loh hammered together the online radio station, which consisted of seven programs: three English, two Mandarin, one dialect and one Bahasa Indonesia. (Today it’s four English programs, two Mandarin and one Bahasa.)
“Strums was our first music program,” recalls Loh. “It was just me and (CHC worship leader) Annabel Soh and (guitarist) Raymond Sigarlaki sitting on the floor of Pastor Kong’s library, talking. I interviewed Annabel about her journey as a worship leader. That was our very first program.”
Radio, says Loh, has a unique appeal. “You’re eavesdropping on this guy asking this man what he thinks of divorce,” he describes. “It draws people.”
It does, indeed. Since its inception, City Radio has grown to a weekly hit rate of 9,545 listeners. Though he doesn’t have precise statistics, the audience is spread throughout the globe, with listeners not just in Singapore but the United States, Taiwan, Japan and Indonesia.
COFFEE WITH KONG
So in the seven years of City Radio, what has been the most popular show? “Coffee With Kong,” says Loh without hesitation. “It still is.”
Coffee With Kong was a weekly 10-minute show in which Loh posed questions—some exceedingly challenging ones—to the church’s senior pastor. Listeners could submit their questions via City Radio’s email. The idea came from a zone leader, Wayne Choong, who said to Loh one day, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you just have coffee with Pastor Kong and recorded your chats? You could call it Coffee With Kong.”
Getting the senior pastor to sit down and talk without filter (or the corporate communications department vetting answers) took uncanny persuasion—something Loh is gifted with. “This was my pitch. ‘Pastor, we go by seasons, and each season is only four months. It will be me sitting with you, just having a chat. Each episode will only be 10 minutes.’” Kong finally agreed, but was a bundle of nerves at the first recording.
“I got him to relax by asking him ‘this or that’ questions,” describes Loh, “like, ‘coffee or tea?’ and he would say ‘Coffee’. After a while, he got the hang of it.”
Loh recorded Coffee With Kong in all kinds of places, from “the only hotel with a lift in Papua New Guinea” to each of their cars, to Kong’s home, the office, and even in the carpark of the building where Kong’s lawyers were located. “Each episode was 10 minutes, so we could record about five in an hour,” Loh says, explaining the expediency of each session.
Coffee With Kong ran for five years. Loh observed Kong “listen attentively and answer carefully” many difficult questions and some funny ones. “People ask about how to deal with depression; ‘Are there such things as ghosts?’. People also ask about fasting.”
But Kong’s most memorable answer, to Loh, was when a mother wrote in. “She had had a complicated pregnancy before her baby was finally born. But 26 days later, he died. She asked, ‘Why does God provide, then take away?’” Loh remembers. “Pastor gave a genuine answer. He said ‘I can’t answer your question, I’m not God.’ But he talked bout his own (miscarried) son Andrew. He said he was sure that the lady’s son and Andrew have met.’”
Says Loh “I learned from listening to Pastor that being in church, you have to be good at stewarding people’s problems.”
Kong’s last Coffee With Kong episode was recorded last April, a week before the pastor began his jail term. “He made me promise to take care of the church,” recalls Loh. “Then he gave me a hug.”
Today, listeners can still catch the best of Coffee With Kong episodes on City Radio.
HERE TO CONNECT
Loh initially wanted City Radio’s tagline to be “Hear To Connect”. But he put it to a vote, and the eventual tagline was and still is “Here To Connect”. That drives all of City Radio’s planning and programming, says Loh. “I tell our deejays, it doesn’t matter what you play, as long as you connect.”
The station gets great response to its current music program City Radio Air. Loh proudly announces that it’s the first 24-hour Christian online radio music program. This playlist is the “baby” of Mervyn Lim, who works alongside Loh as City Radio’s program editor. “I probably have the largest collection of Christian music in church,” Lim quips.
The playlist used to take Lim eight hours to compile but today, he can get it done in three hours, including having the deejays come in and record introductions. The playlists changes weekly, every Saturday.
Before joining City Radio part time in 2013 and then full time in 2014, Lim worked with Images In Motion, recording inflight radio programs for the likes of Singapore Airlines and Air China. He felt the call to work in church full time, and the opening came when Jonathan Ong, City Radio’s first program editor, was leaving to go overseas for his studies.
City Radio occupies a unique position in the local Christian landscape. “I think we are the only station that broadcasts 24/7 music,” says Lim, “but the main thing is I guess we are fulfilling a need. People (from other churches) are always very surprised when I tell them I work in the church’s radio station. And their response has always been, “Wow, we need more of this.” I think it is also through City Radio that people are exposed to other Christian music besides those by Hillsong, C3, Bethel, etc. At the end of the day, the fact that we can hit nearly 10,000 listeners shows that we are fulfilling our purpose, which is being here to connect.”
Besides appealing to listeners, City Radio has organically grown its presenter/deejay pool. “We have never called for auditions,” admits Loh. “Some people just walk up to us and ask if they can join us. Other send a cold email. And now we have about 32 presenters.” Presenters do have to pass certain criteria, “because faith comes by hearing,” notes Loh.
Loh is the first to recognise that radio is not for everyone—its appeal is unique. “I tell the presenters, we are not the main course in church. We are not even the dessert. We are that piece of chocolate right at the end of the meal—that nice touch.”
Finally, speaking of nice touches, City Radio gives away some remarkable prizes each year during its anniversary. This year, it’s seven guitars (electric and acoustic) personally signed by the Planetshakers. The guitars are from Alternate Tone, a local guitar maker that Loh “fiercely supports”.
Tune in to City Radio’s programs at cityradio.sg. For contest details, visit their website this Sunday, April 22, 2018.