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Busan Lifers: Sean O’Malley

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BUSAN, South Korea –You might not see them at the pub every night, but somehow when they do walk in, everyone seems to know them. There was a time when they might have been regulars, but now they are too busy with families, projects, multiple jobs, and enjoying their access to a side of the city most newcomers don’t experience. Many of these “lifers” have become legal residents, and some can even vote on local affairs. They often have compelling stories and plenty of anecdotes that may have gone untold – until now.

Sean O’Malley is one of those very expats. O’Malley was best known, until recently, as the longest running host at Busan’s 90.5 eFM. When he left, his fans had good reason to lament the station’s ground-breaking on-air talent hanging up his mic. After two years and nearly 600 shows, O’Malley, who has been here in Busan on and off for more than 20 years, decided to return to his studies, but plans to remain in Busan because, as he says, it’s his “home.” He leaves a legacy of tell-it-like-it-is international news analysis and humor that is tough to find – in any language.

“See the World,” an English talk show now under the helm of American, Jay Williams, focused on international events, tech, arts, sports, and anything that interested the host, his long-time co-host and friend, Busan Haps founder, Bobby McGill, and show producer, Na Il-an. For expats, the show was a refuge since virtually no English language radio programming based in Busan targeted native speakers.

“I listened because Sean chose topics that I would be talking about with my friends back home,” says Chicago native Glenn Scott, 31, a teacher at Gimhae Foreign Language High School. “There’s no struggling with the language or cultural nuances. It’s really familiar territory that makes me feel more at home.”

O’Malley’s first stepped foot on the peninsula as an undergraduate student on a nine-month, eight-country study abroad program. After returning home, he got a master’s degree in international relations and returned to Korea eight years ago to teach and focus his studies on Asian culture, politics and language.

Though untrained in broadcast journalism, the station hired O’Malley, a lecturer in the Division of International Studies at Dongseo University, when he showed up at the station just days before its launch in 2009 to offer some consulting. Given his unique voice and point of view, his colleagues at the station agree – he is a gifted host.

“He sounded like someone with years of experience in radio,” says Petra Jung, host of the morning drive show on eFM. "He's a walking encyclopedia – a wellspring of knowledge. What’s best is that ordinarily you’d expect someone with his intelligence to be stuck-up, but he impressed me with his warm and sensitive disposition.”

However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, the now veteran host recalls.

“The first shows were terrible,” says O’Malley. “There was no preparation before the first week on air and I didn’t know what I was doing. But, the first few months were fascinating because I could really do or say anything. My goal was to provide the kind of critiques of world events that one would expect in the West and to introduce Busan to expats.”

Before long, the station attempted to alter the content – much to the dismay of O’Malley and some of his guests and fans. Talk show hosts in Korea are limited by the strict supervision of monitors who decide what is appropriate or possibly offensive for the audience – a reality that even Arirang’s “Heart to Heart” host acknowledged during a show with O’Malley in April of 2009.

“The only difficulties I faced were the constraints on what we could talk about,” says O’Malley.  “But, I never strayed from focusing on native speakers, which I think made it more authentic.”

Luckily for the listeners, his producer went to bat for him countless times to protect the integrity of the original concept. Unlike other shows on eFM, “See the World” was unscripted, meaning greater spontaneity and a risk of alarming the monitors.

“We were the black sheep of eFM,” says O’Malley. “It’s much more natural to speak without a script and I think it leads to more interesting and conversational shows.”

While his days on the radio are over for now, he plans to continue teaching at Dongseo under B.R. Myers, a respected expert on North Korean Studies, until he finds the right Ph.D program to continue his own studies. He may stay longer because he wants to be active in the community.

"Busan is my home now," O'Malley says definitively. "It really is dynamic, and I truly enjoy being here. What troubles me is that lately one has to make an effort – especially in Seoul – to have a truly Korean experience."

You may not recognize him on the street, but if you hear his voice in a cafe or bookstore, you're sure to have an engaging conversation with a man who has discussed and thought about all aspects of life in Korea.

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