Here’s this week’s Media Mix about Rokusuke Ei and Kyosen Ohashi, both of whom died in July. The column is mainly about their pacifist leanings owing to the fact that they lived through the war, but in terms of their impact as broadcasters, an interview with veteran announcer Hiroshi Kume, also part of that cited Asahi Shimbun tribute series to Ei, was particularly enlightening.
Kume was hired by TBS as an announcer in 1967, and was later assigned to Ei’s radio show, “Doyo Wide,” which was broadcast live every Saturday from 9 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. Kume was a field reporter, providing dispatches from the street. He got on well with Ei, who vouched for him and helped him get jobs within the company as an emcee for various variety shows. His big break was “The Best Ten,” a music program that made him a star. Then, in 1985, after becoming an independent contractor, he started his ground-breaking stint as the host of “News Station” on TV Asahi. Whether you appreciate Kume’s motor-mouthed, opinionated interview style, “News Station” revolutionized Japanese TV news by injecting the personalities of its reporters and news readers into the mix. Kume said he got the idea from “11 PM,” Ohashi’s equally ground-breaking late night talk show that premiered in the 1960s and lasted through the end of the 80s.
But while “11 PM” and “News Station” (which morphed into TV Asahi’s current “Hodo Station”) definitely made lasting impressions, they were and remain to this day anomalies. Most people would say it has to do with the on-air personalities revealing their own feelings about the stories they’re reporting, but it actually has more to do with a fundamental approach to professionalism. In the interview, Kume admitted that “News Station stuck to the idea of appearances as much as it did content,” meaning that the reason he was encouraged to make himself the center of the show rather than the news was to give “News Station” an image, but it wouldn’t have worked if Kume wasn’t an accomplished raconteur, meaning that he understood the stuff he was talking about enough that he didn’t have to read from scripts and could ad lib with confidence when guests or circumstances went off message; and these were skills he learned from working with Ei and watching Ohashi. Late in the interview, Kume laments the fact that his example didn’t make as much of an impact as he’d hoped it would. “These days, you can tell that news programs are scared of making mistakes,” he says. “They just read. Announcers and reporters don’t choose their own words. TV is a mirror of society. Everybody is restrained.”
NHK, of course, is the main culprit, and as long as it is considered the standard for broadcast news in Japan, broadcast news will always be polite and boring. Ei and Ohashi got into broadcasting for mainly egotistical reasons: They wanted to “make waves,” as Kume pointed out, and that meant pushing agenda and exerting their own strong personalities on viewers and listeners. If today’s broadcasters seem beholden to the authorities, it’s not just for economic and political reasons. It also has to do with a lack of skills. If you’re afraid to make mistakes, then you’re much easier to control.