Jean Suh founded Washington's first and only Korean-language radio station. Credit: Hugo Kugiya
Federal Way is a city of 90,000 people, bigger than Bellingham and smaller than nine other cities in the state including Vancouver. It is not a celebrated, distinguished or famous city, nor is it a breathtaking one — your basic 20th-century skin of cul-de-sacs laid over a skeleton of arterials.
Stylistically, Federal Way is stuck in the unfortunate decade of the 1980s — too recent to be charming, too long ago to feel current. It is a city that not only still has a Black Angus Steakhouse, but also packs it full on a Friday night.
Some residents call the Federal Way Commons mall (at right) the city's effective downtown. Photo: Shavon McKinstry
The community has produced a curiously high number of Asian-American athletes, like Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno, and Major League Baseball players Hank Conger and Travis Ishikawa, a coincidence perhaps, unrelated to a statistic that sets apart Federal Way from most other Washington towns.
At least 5,000 and as many as 10,000 of Federal Way’s residents are of Korean descent, which is why the place is a destination for anyone who likes Korean food. A virtual Korean-American village of restaurateurs, acupuncturists, cosmetologists, dentists, accountants, printers, owners of pet stores, billiard parlors and karaoke bars is discreetly injected into the commercial landscape.
Unlike the Korean communities of Los Angeles and New York — the cities possess a combined Korean-American population of about 600,000 — the Puget Sound’s Korean community is atomized and scattered in the suburbs rather than concentrated in an urban, “Koreatown” district like L.A.’s Western Avenue, or New York’s 32nd Street.
Of course, virtual is the operative word for any immigrant community — an improvised life, constructed and adapted to resemble the places, routines, passions and avocations left behind somewhere far away. The Korean-American communities of Federal Way, Tacoma, Lynnwood and Everett might not have a physical town square or a main drag, but they do have Jean Suh.
Suh is the irrepressible owner of the first and only Korean-language radio station in the state. Its studios are located in a small office park in Federal Way and it broadcasts 24 hours a day — as KSUH 1450 AM in the south Puget Sound area and as KWYZ 1230 AM in the north. The station reaches an audience (estimated by the station to be about 140,000) from Centralia to Victoria, British Columbia.
“I didn’t start this radio station to make money,” said Suh, her Korean accent still rich and obvious. “It’s a community service. If I wanted to make money, I would have opened a big grocery market. This station, it’s part of my life.”
Suh, 72, is the owner and president of Radio Hankook, as the station is known. The enterprise is almost 17 years old, the culmination of Suh’s life’s work. She is a former radio actress from Seoul, and got into the industry decades ago as a single mother. She still fills in occasionally for broadcast staff, going on air by the name of Han Hae-jin with a voice that sounds several decades younger.
As a radio station serving Korean speakers in the region, the station has advantages and disadvantages other radio stations do not. Its audience is built in and not likely to listen to any other stations. Some, Suh said, typically turn on Radio Hankook in the morning when they start work and leave it on until they go to bed at night.
With a staff of 15, the station airs a mix of talk and music, interviews with local personalities, and seven hours a day of news of Korea and the local Korean-American community. It plays Korean pop music from the 60s and 70s as well as current K-Pop hits.
“Our typical listeners are Korean business owners who might listen 20 hours a day,” she said.
Radio Hankook’s audience though is also getting older and changing. Its younger members are assimilating and have less need for a Korean-language station. Hankook’s listenership depends on older immigrants and Korean students, as well as an extended audience in Korea and elsewhere — listeners with connections to the area who stream the broadcast online.
Continued immigration of Koreans to the area will help the station. So will programming that engages the second generation — people like Suh’s daughter Doris Haan, 38. Haan grew up in Southern California and raised her family in the Seattle area. She speaks nearly fluent Korean, has visited and worked in South Korea numerous times and feels a strong connection to the culture both there and here.
Haan works part time at the station, keeping the books and helping file the compliance documents required by the Federal Communications Commission. Neither she nor her older sister have an interest in running the station when their mother no longer can or wants to.
“I hope someone will always keep the station as a Korean-language station,” Haan said.
As it looks, the station’s future rests in Suh’s hands.
The role of the station, and therefore Suh’s role, in the community is practical and emotional, an ongoing, public conversation in place of a physical community. It is a cultural extension cord to the mother country and a campfire on the frontier.
Millions have made the compromise of immigration. In exchange for, theoretically, a life of more prestige and material wealth, an immigrant agrees to live in relative isolation and relative invisibility. They consent to a daily life of low-level confusion and misunderstanding. They rear children who don’t share their cultural values or, sometimes, even their language.
Suh understands that small things make a difference in an immigrant’s life — a taste of familiar food, a conversation with a countryman, a voice they can understand coming out of a radio.
“I just want to help give people information,” said Suh.
When she was a young woman in South Korea, Suh was an aspiring actress. She was on the verge of a breakthrough in her early 20s, earning a leading role in a Korean radio drama, when her appendix burst. She had to give up the part to an understudy.
Disenchanted, she decided to move to Los Angeles in 1964 to study radio broadcasting. At the time, there were no Korean-language broadcasts of any kind in the U.S. She enrolled at Columbia College Hollywood, a vocational college specializing in electronic media, and worked in a laundry to pay living expenses.
After a year in Los Angeles, she convinced a radio station manager to let her broadcast a 30-minute program of news and music in Korean, once a week. Within a year, the program was lengthened to 60 minutes a week; after two years, the program ran daily for two hours, the only one of its kind on the air.
In 1970, she and two business partners struck a deal to operate an independent, Korean-language station in Los Angeles called Korea Broadcasting of America. The achievement earned her a public commendation from South Korea’s then-President Park Chung-hee, but KBA struggled financially.
Her partners eventually abandoned the business. Suh cobbled together the programming herself, playing records her mother sent her from Korea and reading Korean news she transcribed from listening to short wave broadcasts. As the station’s only on-air talent, she worked every day. After two years, unable to break even financially, she sold the station and turned to other ways to make a living.
Suh started an import business. She managed a recording studio used by Korean musicians who wanted to produce albums in the U.S. She also started a television production company that produced Korean dramas. It would be many years before Suh returned to radio. Meanwhile, the Korean-American population in California grew and so did the Korean-language media around it.
In the summer of 1995, Suh visited Seattle with her family and some coworkers for sightseeing. She fell hard for the area’s natural surroundings and summer weather. To her surprise, she found no Korean-language stations in Seattle. Almost immediately, she set out to create one. Two weeks after the trip, she returned to Seattle to shop for stations.
In October, 1997, Radio Hankook began broadcasting. The station struggled its first three years, selling mostly low -budget, local ads. Eventually the station attracted national and international advertisers like Korean Air, Kia Motors, McDonald’s, Hyundai and Verizon and within five years became modestly profitable.
“The start was very slow, slow, slow,” said Suh, who lives in the Browns Point neighborhood of Tacoma.
She has no regrets over getting out of the Los Angeles market, where the Korean-American community is older and more established. Southern California, she said, is full of Korean immigrants and several radio and television stations.
“Here there is only one station,” Suh said. “No competition.”
Image: Niklas Morberg