On Tuesdays at 2 p.m. in Montreal, Quebec, five to six Korean students and Canadians gather at the CKUT radio building close to McGill University to broadcast something rarely heard on the airwaves -- a one-hour live show about Korea.
The Voice of Korea, or VoKo, is a bilingual English-Korean broadcast with a mandate to serve both the Korean community in the greater Montreal region and Canadians interested in learning more about Korea. In a country where locally produced Korean programming has thinned out in recent times, the group delivers unique content on Canadian airwaves.
"I want VoKo to be a bridge between Canadians and Korea," says Hong Sung-nam, the show's producer and creator.
Hong, who came to Montreal 15 years ago after graduating from Catholic University of Daegu with a degree in French literature, created VoKo as a 30-minute program in English in 1999. The following year, VoKo grew to 60 minutes and added a Korean translation to its segments in order to cater to the immigrant population.
"Even though the community is small, we have to serve them," says Dianna Chon, VoKo's Korean-language host and a native of South Korea where she worked as a voice actress in radio, commercials and for broadcasters KBS and MBC before moving to Canada.
"They miss the language. We help serve them and satisfy their emotions."
The content includes a week's review of the top stories on the Korean Peninsula, weather and exchange rates, a "where to go" travel segment, film reviews, Korean community announcements, culture and sports news and a calendar of events happening in Montreal.
Another segment is a "book story," which provides a synopsis of Korean and international bestsellers in the country. All items are first delivered in English, followed by a Korean version. Korean music, from traditional ballads to K-pop, is played throughout.
With more Canadians becoming familiar with South Korea through increasing business ties, the Korean diaspora, teaching English abroad and travel, VoKo has had to shift the way it approaches its content.
"When I first came to Montreal as a student, people would ask me if I was from North or South Korea," says Hong, who completed her master's in media and communications studies at Université du Québec à Montréal and is married to a Québécois man. "I don't know how many people listen to VoKo, but more and more people know about Korea -- they've gone and come back."
"The question you'd ask someone attending a movie festival 10 years ago was, 'Can you name a Korean movie?' Now it's, 'what movie do you like most from director so-and-so,'" she adds.
The global impact of the Korean wave, or hallyu, has permeated VoKo. Accustomed to solely playing traditional Korean ballad music in its early years, songs by Girls' Generation, Sistar, f(x), SHINee, Big Bang, CNBlue and Super Junior are regular fixtures, paying homage to K-pop's international success.
"K-pop is present in both China and the United States," says host Chon. "People like it, so we play that kind of music."
VoKo is broadcast on CKUT, a community-based station geared toward espousing voices often overlooked in the mainstream media. It's commercial free and derives much of its funding from McGill University and through fundraising. VoKo in turn depends on funding from traditionally major sponsors like the Korean Consulate in Montreal, the Korean Association of Montreal, Korean business groups and small businesses like restaurants.
VoKo, like all programs on CKUT, is entirely volunteer-run, particularly from those looking to gain experience in broadcast and journalism or those with a genuine interest in Korea.
"I was asked by the previous English host if I wanted to replace her," said Ravi Kalsi, the show's current English host. "I was also addicted to K-pop, and so my interest in South Korea naturally evolved." Kalsi, who has applied to a program by the South Korean education ministry to teach English in a rural area, hopes to be in South Korea by July.
Not all locally produced Korean broadcast programs have fared so well in Canada, bowing under the pressure to increase audience size and raise advertising dollars.
Montreal is home to a relatively small population of 6,000 Koreans: approximately 5,000 immigrants and 1,000 students, according to the Korean Consulate in Montreal. Given the predominance of the French language in Quebec, many Koreans and other international students from Asia flock to the Canada's other major cities. With so few Koreans in Quebec, Télé Corée, a television broadcast service introducing Korean culture to Canadians, went off the air in the province over a decade ago.
According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, there are at least 50,000 Korean immigrants living in Toronto, Canada's largest city, with the number rising significantly when including the surrounding region.
ut a large Korean community wasn't enough to keep Toronto Radio Korea alive, and it folded earlier this year due to financial troubles brought on by a poor weekend time slot. Toronto Radio Korea has now migrated to an entirely online platform.
VoKo, ostensibly the only bilingual radio broadcast of its kind in Canada, survives because, being community radio, it doesn't face commercial pressure.
Given that producing VoKo doesn't reap any monetary reward and all scripts are crafted during her spare time, why does Hong feel the need to continue?
"I feel like it's my baby. I started this, I created this. But it's also homework for me. I do this because I don't want to forget my language. I speak French so much. I'm forgetting Korean words. I love Canadian and Québécois culture, but I don't want to lose my identity, my Korean identity.
For more information, go to www.neoasie.com/voko.html.