Chinese Radio on the Internet: a Platform-Agnostic Option at Last!

15 Mar 2010

In theory, watching Chinese TV seems like a great way to expose oneself to more Mandarin. But somehow I can’t bear to watch most TV programs in China. It’s not that I’m immune to the charms of all forms of Chinese media, though. Strangely, I’ve found that I tend to encounter the most interesting Chinese programs while riding in a taxi late at night. It’s those call-in advice radio shows that taxi drivers like so much. I love those shows!

What’s so great about the call-in shows? Here are some of the reasons I like them:

1. They don’t come across as rehearsed, and if they’re not 100% real, the interactions sure seem spontaneous to me.
2. The callers are from all over China, so there’s a great variety of accents.
3. The language (of the callers, at least) is unpretentious and real.
4. As callers discuss their personal problems, you get some nice snapshots of various Chinese social issues.
5. Many of them are actually very easy to follow; tuning in feels like much less of a listening comprehension exercise than other programs.

Naturally, I don’t want to actually listen to these shows on the radio at their scheduled times, I want to listen to them online when I want to listen to them. So quite a while ago I started hunting for ways to tune into Chinese radio stations online. There are more than a few, but there are serious inconveniences associated with each. The types of shows I wanted were hard to find, and most stations required either Windows Media Player, IE6, or RealPlayer. No good!

Recently, however, I discovered a Chinese website that has gotten it right. It’s radio.BBTV.cn, 上海网络广播电台 (Shanghai Internet Broadcasting Station), an effort of SMG. So what’s so great about this site? Allow me to gush a bit…

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Home Page

First of all, the site uses Flash. This is not a great thing in itself, but in this case the use of Flash means that the site’s functionality is cross-platform and cross-browser, and there is no longer reliance on any one media player file format (WMP, Real, etc.). I’ve tested the site on my Mac using Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. The site works quite well on all of these modern browsers, and I’m fairly confident it works just as well on Windows and IE. This is fantastic to see.

The Channels

Pretty much every page of the site allows you to easily switch between the 11 available “channels”. From the channels page (pictured below), it’s possible to navigate to an individual channel’s page, then into its programming archives. From there it’s possible to access lots of old programming.

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Channels

The site’s channels include:

1. 五星体育(FM94.0)
2. 第一财经(CBN Radio)
3. Love Radio(103.7FM)
4. 戏剧曲艺(AM1197 / FM97.2)
5. 故事广播(FM107.2)
6. 经典947(FM94.7)
7. 动感101(FM101.7)
8. 东方广播电台(city 792)
9. 上海交通台(Traffic 105.7)
10. 东广新闻台(News 90.9)
11. 上海人民广播电台(News 990)

Many of the site’s pages, like the “Radio Guide” page pictured below, use the intuitive slowly moving red line convention to show you the progress of the program currently being broadcast. As an internet user looking for on-demand audio content, this basically just serves to tell you “you can’t listen to anything after this line yet.”

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Radio Guide

I find the best way to find interesting content from the main page is to first click on the black “点击收看” button overlaid on the top right corner of the big photo. That takes you to a more detailed playback screen that looks like this (click on the photo below to see a Flickr page with some of the functionality on the page below annotated):

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Playback

On this page you see the radio station and title of the program at the top. Under that on the right side, you see what looks like a row of calendar pages. You can click on those to go back through the past week of the radio’s archives. Underneath those is that entire day’s programming (note the vertical slide bar on the far right). You can click on any of the shows (provided they have already aired) and then skip around using the Flash player’s slider to find interesting content. Under the day’s content on the right side, you’ll find a row of little icons. Those represent the different stations. This is probably the least intuitive and usable part of the site design, but to switch radio stations on this page, you click on those. Hover your mouse cursor over one to see the Chinese name. Anyway, in this way from this one page it’s possible to immediately listen to a week’s worth of programming content across 11 Shanghai radio stations.

Radio Program Recommendations

One of the call-in programs is called 渠成热线 (“Qu Cheng Hotline”). Qu Cheng is the name of the male host, and 热线 (“hotline”) is the word used for “call-in show” in many of the programs’ titles. This one has a variety of guests and different types of callers, so it can be pretty interesting. For example, I enjoyed listening to the adventures of a girl who had gone to Colombia to study.

More difficult to follow but also interesting show is 家住上海 (“At Home in Shanghai”), a call-in show where the two hosts, a patient man and a not-so-patient young woman with a nice voice, attempt to answer callers’ questions about real estate and property rights in Shanghai. I was a bit surprised that this topic has both the volume of calls and sufficient audience to support a daily show.

If you’re looking for Shanghainese, do not go to the one called 阿拉上海人 (“We Shanghainese”); the shows I listened to were all mostly Mandarin with only occasional comments in Shanghainese. Instead, tune into 闲话上海滩. Of course, Shanghainese shows are not the only place you’re liable to hear Shanghainese; I was listening to a medical advice show, and one of the callers spoke only Shanghainese, while the hosts replied in Mandarin.

I’m actually still looking for good call-in shows, but this is a lot of audio material to wade through! I like the ones that are about general advice, psychology, and relationships, but it’s a lot easier to find shows on more specific topics like real estate, health, or legal matters. If you find anything particularly good, please share it in the comments.

Downloading the Content

I have so far been unsuccessful in my attempts to download the audio content. I expect that Total Recorder for PC or Audio Hijack Pro for Mac will do the job, but I have neither of these programs.

The DownloadHelper extension for Firefox lets you download a file called 0.flv from the site, but it turns up empty every time.

If you’ve got a solution for a relatively easy way to download any of this content, I’d love to hear it!

TV?

Finally, the BBTV site features a “TV / Radio” toggle in its header. Oddly, when I switch over to “TV,” I get the error message below:

SMG BBTV Radio Online: Sorry, no TV for you!

It reads, “We’re very sorry, our website is currently only open to the Shanghai region.” I don’t know where they think I am; I get this message even though I’m not using a VPN or a proxy of any kind. Maybe it’s not available yet?

Anyway, there is tons of great content available on the SMG radio.BBTV.cn site. I’m going to be exploring it for quite some time, and would appreciate recommendations from you readers. Also, do you know other (cross-browser, cross-platform) Chinese radio websites as good as this one? Please let me know in the comments!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. John, this is great! I’ve searched for good radio sites from time to time but have been completely stymied by not just the usual clutter and pop-up ads and “requires IE or special software” kind of crap, but by sites that actually have recorded programs but don’t consistently work.

    And I absolutely agree with the radio-better-than-tv stance. Having bought a car recently and thus spent a lot more time in traffic jams than I used to, I can vouch for the greatness of call-in radio. I recorded a matchmaking show the other day that I hope to post sometime where folks call in with descriptions of their sons / daughters / brothers / sisters. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t fake the stuff they come up with.

  2. This is fantastic. I could sometimes get the Baidu radio to work in Safari, but not often. I’m listening to 渠成热线 right now… Very good stuff. Thanks for writing it up!

  3. I’m quite annoyed that although all the photos displayed fine over the weekend (no VPN/proxy), now none of them do. Is this a new block of a Flickr farm? Can anyone see the photos?

    • John,

      Only the first picture didn’t display properly for me, the rest did. I am in Chicago area.

      • Thanks! Looks like the first one didn’t display because I tried using Flickr’s “replace this photo” function to see if it would add the new photo to an unblocked server. No dice, plus it turns out I had to replace the original photo with a new URL.

  4. Good find! I’m excited to check these out! As far as the pics, I can see all but the first one. (I’m in Xi’an)

  5. These look really interesting!

    I used to download/subscribe to local radio shows to listen to Chinese (real Chinese) on iTunes but man, once your Chinese gets good enough that you can actually understand the callers, it’s mind numbingly inane ‘content’. That was a while back when all the Xinjiang riots were happening, and you’re getting calls from Old Wang about the Geopolitical Ramifications of American intervention, etc (they were annoyed that Americans were disapproving of Chinese action, etc). It gets old fast when the Host says,

    Wang “10 minute rant about US govt”
    Host “Sorry, what’s your point”
    Wang “5 minute rant repeating the same thing”
    Host “Sorry sir, if you don’t have an actual point, I’ve got to let you go”
    Wang “Thank you”
    Host “Thanks for calling”

    You can get VOA (Voice of America) stuff from the US, but then its Right wing propoganda and religious fanatics (seriously, hearing Glenn Beck dubbed in Chinese as a soundbite’ is insulting)

    I actually found a great source of content, not American or Chinese. It’s a German Broadcaster called Deutsche Welle. You can subscribe to daily news feeds on iTunes in excellent Chinese (they’re not germans, of course). It’s great Chinese and its actually intelligent, so you won’t get sick of it after 2 days.

    • Do you have a link to that Deutsche Welle? Sounds interesting.

      • You can just do a Search for the Podcast directory in iTunes, do a quick search and subscribe for free and you choose from a wide range of languages for a 30-50 mins news update downloaded daily. 🙂

        I turn it on during my daily Chinese Character practice. 🙂

    • I agree the VOA broadcasts are pretty tedious. Local broadcast radio tends to be a little more interesting, though.

      Another good podcast is the BBC’s 中国丛谈 (sorry, on my iPhone, don’t have the link available). It’s interesting and well-produced.

    • 顶!(Ding!) for Deutsche Welle and Voice Of America. They’re great resources.

  6. Awesome!
    I’ve been wanting something like this for a long time, but have done little about it. The call-in shows are definitely my favorite, but I also really like the story telling ones. (although, they’re much harder to follow)

  7. Great! 🙂

    I have been watching movies and a little TV but they hardly ever speak “real language”. I’ll make sure I check out some of the radio shows.. I’m not sure if my level is high enough to understand much of it yet but I can switch it on and leave it running in the background while I do other things.. get used to more sounds.

    Much easier than trying to overhear conversations on the train. I’m surprised often by how softly Chinese people speak to each other.. 🙂 So this will be good to give a go at least.

  8. I haven’t tried to listen to the stuff you’ve just described, but just thought I’d leave a message to say that I absolutely agree with your opening statements. I try to watch Chinese language TV but find it so boring. Ben Ross blogs a bit about drama shows he watches and I try to follow them but they don’t do it for me.

    I always used to love listening to radio shows in taxis. I’d love it when people would call in with legal questions. “Umm… I ran into a guy on my way home… he rolled forward and hit someone else… do I have to pay for both of them?” was one of the more memorable conversations.

    It also struck me how unpretentious people were when calling up. Great, authentic stuff.

    Now i’m off to try and get internet radio to work, I shall leave a msg here if I have any problems!

  9. The TV section of the site is working fine for me (in Australia), though not fast enough to be able to watch anything properly. The radio is great!

  10. Awesome! I also love these call-in shows. That might help to improve my telephone listening skills, because they seem to lack behind. I’m always scared to have phone calls with people from China. 🙂

  11. Awesome idea. I loved listening to phone-ins when learning Indonesian. They really reflect parts of the language you don’t hear with pre-set listening examples. I particularly like it when you get someone phoning in with a political preference that doesn’t fit with the TV show / government’s ideals and watching the presenter squirm to make it fit in.

  12. I highly recommend Wan Feng 万峰 ‘s Eden Mailbox 伊甸园信箱 programme on Zhejiang Culture and Arts station 浙江人民广播电台文艺台. I think he’s still doing it, and while a go a found a place you could listen live online, but I just listen to mp3s of his old shows downloaded from emule. There are also plenty of clips from the radio show on youtube, youku etc.

  13. Thanks John! This is a great find! Oh, and I 討厭死了 Chinese TV as well.

  14. Elephunk Says: March 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    I download radio podcasts from SBS Mandarin radio station in Australia. It can be quite interesting hearing the different stories from Chinese immigrants in Oz and their takes on western life. Theres also quite a range of subjects covered from health care, to sportspeople profiles, etc – so its a good workout for your Chinese vocab

  15. […] website. It broadcasts Shanghai radio on the internet. I don’t have anything to add really. Here’s his post, and here’s the […]

  16. svenaldo Says: March 16, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    hey John,,

    Excelent find!!

    Any guidance on which channel/show tends to play the lastest music that is popular in china?

    • Not a CCTV PR Hack Says: March 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm

      I’ll also hop aboard the love train and thank John for bringing this site to our attention. But am I the only person who kind of, sorta, likes Chinese TV? I mean, they’re no “Deadwood” or “The Wire”, but shows likes 真爱诺言,and 爱情公寓 are enjoyable in a cheesy, “90210”-like way.

      And if you happen to find yourself teaching English to a bunch of 6-year-old Chinese children, nothing can impress them more than listing all of the characters from 喜洋洋 off the top of your head. 🙂

      • You are not alone in liking Chinese TV! You’re right, it’s got nothing life-changing going on, but I think it’s all fun. I do find 爱情公寓 really funny, but the speed of the dialogue and the amount of pop culture references makes it very difficult to follow a good deal of the time. I find the super melodramatic Taiwanese idol dramas much easier to understand (I’m currently working my way through 命中注定我爱你 because there’s a lot more pausing for crying and whatnot. I also admit to thinking the Chinese show 魔幻手机 is pretty funny, especially if you are familiar with 西游记.

        I do have trouble finding anything to watch on TV when I’m just flipping channels, though. It all seems to be war dramas, and I just don’t enjoy those. I usually end up watching MTV China, and it’s fun to listen to them gossip about Chinese celebrities, and I end up being horribly ashamed at how many of them I am familiar with.

      • benjicaine Says: March 22, 2010 at 12:40 pm

        I’m quite a fan of all those endless wuxia action dramas all over Chinese television. I find the dialogue rather difficult to follow due to all the old-fashioned words and corresponding hanzi, but there’s just something about the combination of cool costumes, people flying, and kung-fu that keeps me coming back. Such a visual treat, even when it’s on a low budget.

  17. Using a network sniffer, the actual URLs for the content are regular http files, which look like http://cnsy01fll001cdn.smgbb.tv/channels/1620/0.flv/1269001800000,1269003600000 . So, your Firefox tool came close, but was probably missing the ending part. Those two numbers are probably the start and end times. They show up in the URL, so you could construct the URL manually, and then use wget or another tool to download the flv file.

    Another way- on Windows, FLVs get cached in temporary files in Local Settings\Temp, but are locked and can’t be copied, and disappear when moving off the page. You can use backup/restore to copy the file, or I’ve had some luck with ddcopy, which can circumvent the file lock.

  18. Imtiaz Ahsan Says: March 27, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Hi John, why don’t you try Audacity to record the audio? It’s free software, and cross-platform. Just choose “Wave Out Mix” from the input selector at the right, and press the record button.

  19. Hi John,

    Great article and great online station. I found a way to record the audio using Audacity and Soundflower. Below are the links. Hope this helps.

    For Linux and Windows users:
    http://audacity.sourceforge.net/help/faq?s=recording&i=streaming

    For Mac users:
    http://cycling74.com/products/soundflower/

  20. I got frustrated at all those crappy websites too, but realised that as most radio channels do have mms/http live streams, I could use a program like VLC or mplayer to record the programs I wanted off the (virtual) air.

    So after a little Linux script learning, I have a system that automatically grabs 10 or so programs a day from radio stations in the PRC, HK and Taiwan, converts them into whatever format I want, and then tags them with their names and dates.

    I use an always-on server (a VPS from linode.com — also useful for getting round that idiotic PRC firewall) to do this, so I don’t have to leave my own computer on all the time.

    Thanks to everyone for the show recommendations. My current favorites include: 北京新闻’s 新闻天天谈 (new discussion), 北京新闻’s 教育面对面 (education discussion), 北京体育’s 今夜私语时 (sex & relationship advice), 北京教学’s lectures (very dry, but sometimes interesting), 中国之声’s 小喇叭 (a fun programme for preschoolers), 文艺之声’s 广播故事会 and 黄金剧场 (stories and radioplays). 香港電台普通話台 and 中國廣播新聞網 (Taiwan) can be interesting too…

  21. I’ve been listening to some Henan stations on this website:
    http://en.9bowang.com/
    Looks like they have stations from all over China. Works on Firefox and Safari.

  22. Forgive me for plugging my own site.. but we run a Chinese community radio station in London. It’s quite unique in that it doesn’t pursue any political or religious agenda. It’s run by volunteers, mostly students, and some of the content is really good, some of the shows wouldn’t be allowed to be broadcast in China, as people are free to say what they want. So if you are looking for something to practise your listening skills, give it a try! It’s London Chinese Radio….enjoy!

  23. Peter,

    Are you still doing the New Sounds of China podcast?

    • Hi Dean,

      We are just recording a new series, first one should be out in a week or two. Great line up too, should be better than the last series..

      Peter

  24. Is it just me, or does it always seem that two radio broadcasts are playing at the same time in these recordings? The main one is louder, but there’s another one droning on in the background. So annoying.

  25. Thank you John for the update. Actually I was looking for the updated “mms://…” addresses for the SMG stations. I find it easier because I can memorize my prefered links and start listening only with the MediaPlayer.

    What happened with the lady that when to Colombia (my country, though now in Canada)?

  26. Are these stations only in Shanghaieses? I’m in Jilin Province, so Shanghaiese would not be that useful for me

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