Happy Radio has been on the air for over 35 years, and is receiving a fresh new sound and direction under the management of a long-time radio and media experts. On our recent visit to the Happy Radio Chiang Mai 98.5 studio, we sat down with radio personality and disc jockey Steve Johnston to talk about the station and the future of radio in northern Thailand. Together with his partner Sirikorn “Nim” Sonsee, the creative duo make up Saucy Media, the media company that manages the station.
“What was your favourite radio station growing up?” Johnston asked me on arrival at his station. Without hesitation, I quickly rattled off the frequency and name from my youth, recalling sweltering Midwest summer afternoons spent listening to Alanis Morissette and No Doubt perfectly phrase my teenage discontent. He went on to underscore an important point: we might forget what we had for lunch yesterday, but we always remember the frequency of our favourite radio station. Partly, it is the emotional connection with the content, and also hearing the frequency and station name over and over between songs, at commercial breaks, and around news spots — but the fact is undeniable: radio becomes a part of our lives. Happy Radio 98.5 FM is no exception. Between the upbeat songs and varied programming, community engagement, Happy Radio now under new management, is embarking on a fresh new era of English language radio in Northern Thailand.
As the only English-language FM-frequency radio station in northern Thailand, Happy Radio fills a unique and growing niche in Thailand’s media scene. It reaches a diverse audience and its programming reflects that. That’s also a formidable challenge. How do you select programming for all of northern Thailand? Very creatively, and with a lot of experience. Nim and Johnston have been in radio, media and marketing for over 30 years, and that depth of experience shows through on the deft curation of a rich auditory experience on-air, and their innovative approach to the managing the station. This month, the station will start producing a live late-night show with FAT93 in Chiang Rai to air from 10.30pm until 12.30am Mondays to Thursdays. Also in the works is a live evening show playing music by and interviewing local musicians, to run Monday to Thursday, 7.30-10pm.
The programming has a distinct feel, rooted in its balanced content, between broadness and hyper-locality, and diversity of music and programming unified in its positive sensibility. Songs range from contemporary hits to classic rock gems and everywhere in between. International news via a BBC satellite feed, and local news from Chiang Mai Citylife, is played throughout the day. Happy Radio also features three hosted radio shows, including the live morning show with Johnston, a live drive-time show, and the Asia Top 40 countdown with Dom Lau.
But radio is more than programming: radio is really about relationship. When you’re in your car at the Raumchock Junction or the Nimmanhaemin-Huay Kaew-Superhighway intersection (aka “the eternal red light”), Happy Radio is there to help the time pass faster and make the jerk drivers cutting you off a little more tolerable. In radio, Johnston explains, “You become people’s friend.” The radio’s website also features short community-interest videos that they produce for the benefit of listeners — all on top of their dizzying schedules running a radio station, media company, and a food business.
It’s no secret that, in the age of the Internet, nearly all forms of media are facing major challenges to adapt and redefine themselves. Starting up a radio station in this environment, is no easy endeavour. Running a radio station today also means maintaining a website, creating fresh content for the web and social media, and streaming the full day’s broadcast live on the internet. It’s not just about being live on the airwaves anymore; any modern disc jockey must simultaneously be live in cyberspace. Radio, it seems, is now so much more than it used to be. And forward-thinkers like Nim and Johnston are leading that wave in Chiang Mai.
Lucky for music lovers here, it’s not just sound and altruism driving Saucy Media and Happy Radio. Nim and Johnston are up to the task. Before coming to Chiang Mai, Johnston ran radio stations and media ventures in multiple countries, including four in Thailand: in Phuket, Pattaya, Bangkok, and Hua Hin. Nim has broad experience in marketing and managing, her various ventures ranging from fashion to food, including the small-batch, niche fish sauce company Mum Mum.
Maybe it’s just us Gen Ys, but there’s something evocative about the memory of hovering over a multifunction radio, waiting for your favorite song to play so you can quickly press the record button and mint another tune on your mixtape. But even if you’re from a younger generation, you probably have a favorite song you’ve listened to so many times, you know all the words by heart. And there’s a good chance that song means something to you. Radio, and the content that comprises it, is a deeply personal medium, woven through the fabric of our day as we go about our lives. Happy Radio Chiang Mai 98.5 is fast becoming a bright thread in the life of our city. Under Nim and Johnston’s vision and leadership, the future of English-language radio in Northern Thailand looks decidedly…happy.