The Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) has made a surprise announcement that it will return its operating licence to the government, affecting 113 staff members. It is the second digital radio station announcing its closure within a year.

The company, now solely owned by Beijing loyalist Bill Wong Cho-bau, notified the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau of its decision Monday morning. DBC was the largest digital radio broadcaster in Hong Kong.

“Since the digital audio broadcasting service in Hong Kong has not been developing at an ideal pace, despite the DBC’s hard work in operation and promotion, digital audio broadcasting – especially for cars – has not been popular, and the operation of the company did not receive enough advertisement [revenue] to support it,” the company said in a letter to employees.

DBC. Photo: Stand News.

The company said most staff members will be serving until September 7. After the DBC closes, the Metro Broadcast Corporation and public broadcaster RTHK will be the only two digital broadcasters in Hong Kong.

The DBC radio station, which started broadcasting in 2011 and has seven channels, will continue to operate until the authorities approve its request to stop broadcasting.

Previous layoffs

The station laid off 60 staff members last October, also citing the unsatisfactory promotion of digital audio broadcasting.

The layoff came after the same announcement from URadio in September last year, when the digital station under the Chinese channel Phoenix TV made a request to give its broadcasting licence back to the government. The decision was approved last November by the Chief Executive-in-Council.

After URadio’s announcement, the chief executive of DBC Stephen Loh said that the government did not help drivers install digital radio, and that tunnels, public housing estates and MTR trains were not entirely covered by digital radio signal. The poor coverage meant that digital radio broadcasters could hardly compete with other broadcasters.

Bill Wong Cho-bau
Bill Wong Cho-bau. Photo: Stand News.

A history of controversy

DBC, originally Wave Media, was founded by popular pro-democracy radio host Albert Cheng Jinghan in 2008 and its licence to broadcast AM radio was approved that year.

The shareholders included Bill Wong, former education minister Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, and former lawmaker David Li Kwok-po, among others.

It gave up its AM channels for a digital broadcasting licence in 2010 and switched its name to the current one. The new licence was approved in 2011 and the station started broadcasting that year.

A dispute arose in 2012 when Wong and other three shareholders refused to put in HK$50 million according to the plan – Cheng claimed their decision was due to political pressure from the China Liaison Office.

Wong denied the claim and said that he refused to invest more because Cheng was spending too much money to hire radio hosts. But a recording was leaked afterwards, in which Wong appeared to say that the China Liaison Office was not happy with Cheng planning to hire pro-democracy radio host Li Wei-ling.

Cheng ultimately left the broadcaster to start another station, D100. Wong finally agreed to buy Cheng’s shares months later, while a majority of David Li and Arthur Li’s shares were sold to Wong in 2013, making Wong the holder of 99.6 per cent of the shares. Other shares were sold to Wong in October last year.

donald tsang
Photo: Stand News.

Wong, who was often nicknamed “Shenzhen’s Li Ka-shing”, is a Hong Kong property developer. It was revealed by local media that former Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen lives in a Shenzhen flat developed by Wong.

Tsang was charged with misconduct in public office last year.

One of the charges relate to Tsang’s failure to disclose his plans to lease the flat when he approved DBC’s application for a licence, and the appointment of Arthur Li as its chairman. Li was appointed despite the fact that he was not allowed by law to be the chairman, since his brother David Li was the director of another major station.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.