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No small talk: Korea's new communication arena

2011/12/23 | 338 views |  | Permalink | Source

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A new kind of concert has captured audiences in Korea, but there is no music to be found on its stages. Save for a microphone and the readiness to ask and answer important questions, the main act requires few props or effects. These "talk concerts" build not on well-strung melodies or upbeat dance numbers, but on the conversation that plays out on stage and in the audience.

On the evening of November 23, Samsung Electronics Vice President Lee Don Ju stood on such a stage at Konkuk University, where he addressed an auditorium full of students on the topic of dreams. The campus was the latest stop for the 2011 Passion Talks, the countrywide talk concert tour hosted by Samsung and Naver.

Across town at the Seoul Catholic Youth Center, actress Kim Yeo-jin sat in front of a similar crowd for the Youth Concerts 2.0, wasting no time before inviting audience members and guest speakers to take part in a discussion on the issue of irregular employment. Earlier that day, students at Daejeon University had welcomed National Assembly member Park Geun-hye for her first campus lecture in four years. After sharing stories about her career and her personal life, complete with old photographs projected on screen, Park concluded her presentation by answering questions from the audience. On November 24, the following day, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik fielded questions from university students at Gachon University during an hour-long question and answer session.

These scenes, which unfolded over the span of a few days in late November, are part of a growing trend that has emerged in the public calling for greater communication between Korea's leaders and the country's various demographic groups, especially young people. In addition to politicians and businessmen, actors, comedians, and other would-be mentors have become participants at "talk concerts", seeking to engage with their constituents and their fans through casual but purposeful conversation.

Unlike conventional concerts, which are fixtures of the entertainment or music industry, the newly conceived talk concerts rarely follow scripts or production designs. They invite various speakers to take part in unforced, spontaneous dialogue on pertinent issues with one another and with audience members as well. The key idea in these concerts is exchange: namely, the exchange of ideas and opinions, sometimes in order to come up with practical solutions for a pressing social problem, and at other times, to simply establish a sense of solidarity and mutual understanding.

The popular appeal of the talk concert scheme traces back to the success of the first Youth Concerts, put on by Ahn Chul-soo, the then dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at Seoul National University, and Andong Shinsegye Clinic Director Park Kyung-chul, who toured the country together for three years to engage with young people in different cities. The success of their tour inspired several similar projects, including Youth Concerts 2.0, previously hosted by comedian Kim Je-dong.

This second run of the popular lecture series began in June, and has since drawn over 50,000 people to its venues. This was higher even than the number of fans who attended the concert tour by Park Jung Hyun of MBC's "I am a Singer!" fame, by approximately 10,000 people.

The mass appeal of the talk concert format also stems from the prevalence of social media and networking platforms. Samsung's Passion Talks, which consisted of twelve different events amassing over 20,000 people in total, invited concert attendees to post feedback about their experience on an official blog site. At these and other events, concertgoers used Twitter, Facebook, and their personal blogs to give live updates and commentary on the unfolding events. Their online presence not only helped create a sense of cohesion among those present but also hastened and expanded the spread of messages and responses to these messages arising at each event.

The popularity of the talk concert model, focusing on a give-and-take of opinions rather than just a lecture or scripted program where those below the stage are fed lines and reactions from those above, has also spread to broadcasting. Academics, entertainers, and other leaders in arts and culture are trying their hand at renewing the medium of a good old conversation.

On November 12, KBS launched a new program, Do Dream, inviting guests such as the Wondergirls, "Superstar K" winner Heo Gak, and recently, and actor Park Shin-yang, to act as mentors for the 20- to 30-year-olds who form the show's live audience and target viewership. The four MCs of the program include a novelist, a play producer, a famous TV personality, and a singer, all of whom offer their own commentary and chime in to discuss the issues and problems shared by the guests.

SBS also began recording its talk concert series, Knowledge Sharing Concert: I Love Humanity, on November 30, inviting best-selling authors in the humanities to share their insights. The four-part series featured Professor Kim Nan-do of Seoul National University among its guest lecturers. MBC also recently teamed up with talk show veteran Joo Byung-jin for Joo Byung-jin's Talk Concert, which seeks to revive a bygone kind of talk show, engaging guests in meaningful conversation in front of a large audience.

While it remains to be seen whether the made-for-TV versions of the talk concerts will enjoy the same success, the continued spread of the talk concert trend can be seen as a testament to the potential for offline connectivity and relationships created by online social networking.

In the political arena, talk concerts have been adopted with great enthusiasm. Various politicianshave added their own variation of the format, holding "book" concerts to coincide with the release dates of their self-authored books. Participation in the events has also become a party-wide affair, with the Yeouido Research Institute, a think tank of the Grand National Party, organizing a six-event run of the College Student Dream Talks program. On the other side of the political spectrum, Chung Do-young, the highest level official of the Democratic Party recently appeared as a guest at Youth Concerts 2.0.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor held the Concert to Change the World in June 2011, which has since been followed by concerts discussing urban planning and urban agriculture, employment, and other similar issues.

Cheong Wa Dae also hosted its own version of a talk concert for its employees and their families on December 14, inviting monk Beop Ryun, known as a mentor to Professor Ahn, as a guest speaker.

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