Controversial SoKor pundit kicked off radio
SEOUL – A hero to some. A foul-mouthed conspiracy theorist to others. South Korea’s most controversial talk show host had his hit program taken off air, so now he has taken his massive following to YouTube.
Since 2016, Kim Ou-joon’s show “News Factory” had aired early mornings on state-funded Seoul radio station TBS, hosting everyone from politicians to classical music stars as the “unashamedly biased” presenter bashed his bete noire: conservatives.
It was the top-rated radio show in the South Korean capital for five years, according to market research data, and Kim became one of the country’s highest-paid pundits.
More of a political “influencer” than a journalist, Kim occupies the same kind of space as American late-night television hosts, such as Jon Stewart—using lewd humor to dissect South Korean news, in a nakedly partisan, occasionally offensive manner.
So when a conservative administration took power in May last year, things got a little more difficult.
He has since been sued for defamation more than a dozen times, and when attempts to pressure TBS to remove his show failed, Seoul’s conservative-run city government pulled funding.
Officially, the state money was removed to allow the broadcaster to go private. But during the process, Seoul’s mayor warned darkly that TBS was going in the “wrong direction” and seemed “politically biased.”
“They cut the entire budget of the broadcaster in order to get rid of a program they didn’t like,” Kim, who cuts an unusually rumpled-looking figure in stylishly well-groomed South Korea, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
So he quit.
Kim moved his show last month to YouTube—same name, same format, same time—where it attracted 1.2 million subscribers in its first month, becoming one of the most profitable South Korean channels on the platform, thanks to donations.
YouTube data shows Kim now attracts some 200,000 listeners at any one time, while TBS’s overall ratings have plunged since he was ousted, according to industry figures.
The video-sharing giant is in many ways a more natural fit than terrestrial radio for Kim, who shot to public recognition in 2011 with a podcast called “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep,” lampooning former conservative President Lee Myung-bak.
Kim and his cohosts’ expletive-laden conversations about South Korean politics proved a hit, especially with younger listeners. He was then able to leverage his success into his TBS deal in 2016.
His rise coincided with well-documented disenchantment with legacy media in South Korea, which ranked 40 out of 46 countries in a 2022 poll on public trust in journalism by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University.
“The real power of the media lies in what they choose not to report,” Kim said.
He claims that conservative-leaning media gloss over wrongdoing by members of the ruling People Power Party, which frustrates some readers.
In contrast, he believes the open admission of his political preferences—he is a cheerleader for the opposition Democratic Party—means his listeners can trust him.
“I am biased, but my process is fair,” he said.
But his critics say Kim has promoted outlandish conspiracy theories, from insinuating the 2012 presidential election was rigged to hinting #MeToo victims might be used to target liberal politicians.
Kim “has a tendency to link something he does not understand directly to a conspiracy or manipulation,” Choi Seung-ho, former CEO of major broadcaster MBC, has said of the presenter.
Emeritus journalism professor Kang Jun-man at Jeonbuk National University wrote that Kim had spread “inaccurate facts and over-the-top analysis” to act as a propaganda service for the opposition.
Kim says he welcomes criticism.
“The difference between me and the mainstream conservative press is that I believe those who criticize me have as much right to speak as I do,” he said. “But Korean conservative politicians think those who are critical should lose their right to speak.”
South Korea ranks just behind the United States in the Global Press Freedom Index, but local groups have recently warned of narrowing space for independent media under conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Criticizing the pulling of TBS’s funding, local nonprofit Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media said it was “unprecedented since the military government era to see an attempt to bring down an entire station because of one disliked program.”