International Community Radio Taiwan (ICRT) General Manager Tim Berge has had the opportunity to both witness and report on the enormous changes that have taken place in Taiwan since he first arrived on the island several decades ago. Ever modest, Berge says that his foray into broadcast journalism was just one of a series of happy accidents. Yet he’s stuck with it as a lifelong career, supplementing his work with a strong dedication to community service through involvement in the European Chamber of Commerce Taiwan’s Better Living Committee and speaking engagements at local universities, among other activities.
Berge connected with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in December to talk about his journey in Taiwan, his love of radio as a medium, and how he’s helped lead ICRT through the evolution in Taiwan’s media landscape over the years.
What initially brought you to Taiwan? What was one thing that really stood out to you about the island at that time?
My first visit to Taiwan was in 1978. I was completing a study abroad program in Chinese language at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that year and during my summer vacation, I went to Taitung and helped out some missionaries that knew my family at a hospital they had opened there.
The first time I actually came to live in Taiwan was after I had completed college. I’d majored in East Asian studies and had learned some Chinese, but studying the language in the U.S. is just not as efficient as being in a Chinese-speaking place. So I spent 1981-82 at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center, brushing up on my Chinese and getting more acquainted with the island. I then went home for a few years and came back in 1988, and I’ve been based here ever since.
Back when I first arrived, Taiwan was still a lot less developed than elsewhere in Asia. When I was in Taitung, you would still see farmers riding ox-drawn carts up and down the streets. The main thing that struck me, however, was just how friendly the people were and how easy it was to get along in Taiwan. The same is true today.
How did you come to be interested in pursuing a career in broadcast journalism? What attracted you to the profession?
I had been working at a friend’s import-export company after settling in Taiwan, but that dried up in the early 1990s. Luckily, I got a lead that ICRT was looking for a new staff member. At the time, Taipei was beginning work on the MRT system and traffic in the city was horrendous, so the station, in collaboration with Ford Lio Ho, had decided to start doing bilingual traffic reports. I applied for and got the job, and that was how I broke into radio.
What I really liked about the industry in those days was just how fun working in radio could be. When I first came to ICRT, back when we had our own studios up in Yangmingshan, it was a very casual environment.
Also, I enjoyed branching out and doing more news because it was such an interesting time back then, as Taiwan was moving from a very closed society to a more open one. Whether it was covering the confrontations happening at the Legislative Yuan or the many street protests, working in radio gave me a lot of exposure to the big things taking place in Taiwan during that time.
Radio is not as popular a medium for news and entertainment as it used to be. How has ICRT approached the changes in listener preferences and habits in the digital age?
ICRT still has a strong brand name, but there is a lot more competition in the marketplace now than when I first started. We’ve therefore had to be creative to keep up. For example, we were the first radio station in Taiwan to offer online streaming, and were one of the first to explore podcasting. We’ve also been adding more Chinese-language content, hosting more events, and doing more to encourage listener participation and involvement.
In recent years, we’ve been collaborating with the government to add more content in support of its Bilingual Nation 2030 initiative. And we are working with video as a medium in addition to radio and podcasts, boosting our presence on YouTube. Some of those videos, such as a series in which we go out and “test” the English of employees at different government offices, have gotten a lot of views.
How has Taipei’s restaurant scene changed over the years you’ve lived in Taiwan? Is there anything you miss about the early days of your time here?
The biggest change is just in the variety of international food available in Taiwan. I remember from my early days that we would go to one of the only Western food places around, a burger restaurant in Taipei’s Dinghao area run by a guy who had worked as a cook with the recently departed U.S. military. These days, the options are a lot more plentiful.
The flipside is that, back then, there was such an abundance of local hole-in-the-wall places that served excellent food from all over China and Taiwan for very low prices. As the original owners have aged and begun to pass away, the second and third generations in the family are unfortunately not as interested in keeping the legacy alive and the restaurants are closing down.
During your involvement in the Better Living Committee, what have been some of the most significant milestones the group has hit in terms of improving the overall environment for foreigners living and working in Taiwan?
One of our major recent accomplishments happened earlier this year. For the last decade or so, we’ve been advocating a change in the numbering format on ARCs and APRCs, aligning them with Taiwan ID numbers so that foreign residents can access the same online services and membership schemes as local citizens. Finally, in January, the government made the switch, and ECCT Chairman Freddie Hoegland and I were the first two to receive the newly numbered cards.
Another breakthrough for us was persuading the government to change the requirement that APRC holders must be present in Taiwan for 183 days out of the year in order to maintain their permanent residency. In the 2017 Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals, that condition was changed, and now permanent residents need only enter once every five years.
However, the new rule doesn’t apply to everyone – those who applied before the law was passed or even some who apply now but under the old system are still excluded. Thankfully, the government is committed to revising the law to include all APRC holders.
So a lot of what we do is helping Taiwan become more competitive in attracting foreign talent. If the government wants Taiwan to be a place that foreigners choose to make their base of operations, it needs to make it easier for them to come and go and to not treat them as an afterthought. Our message is: “Don’t think about it as ‘foreigners’ and ‘Taiwanese,’ but rather as ‘residents’ (including ARC/APRC holders) and ‘non-residents.’”
How would you describe your approach to management? What do you think are your strong points? Any weaknesses?
I would say overall, I’m a rather easygoing person. I like to work with people who are willing to be creative and give ideas, even though at times I have to remind them that we can’t do everything they want to do, whether that be due to cost or time constraints. Still, I encourage them to be forthcoming with their suggestions because they often have very good ideas.
One of my weak points is that I’m not always great at following up. I basically should write everything down because it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and let things fall by the wayside. Sometimes that can create problems and make people feel like I’ve forgotten about stuff. And that’s never good.
What advice do you have for foreigners looking to come to Taiwan for work or study?
I’ve always said that Taiwan is a place where if people know you and trust you, they are usually willing to give you an opportunity. Often in the U.S., it seems that hiring and other decisions are made based on the diploma you have and your background experience, but in Taiwan meeting with people and building that trust is more important in many cases.
Taiwan is a good place to take chances on new things, to feel them out and see where they take you. So be open-minded, meet as many people as you can, and you’ll probably find something that will be a good fit for you.
What are your hobbies? How do you like to get “recharged” after a long week at the station?
I live in the mountains between Beitou and Tamsui and enjoy going jogging in the area every day – with longer jogs on weekends. I like photography, so when I’m out on my runs, I take a lot of photos, especially of places I may not have paid much attention to previously.
I also love just driving around, getting in the car and just seeing where the road takes me. Oftentimes, I find these interesting new places or great scenery. That’s the nice thing about Taiwan – its unique topography means you have quick access to all of these mountain and ocean landscapes.