China's Oprah: Yang Lan

Businesswoman and talk-show host Yang Lan is considered China's Oprah. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lan about her media empire and the changing roles of women and media in China.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll tell you about Blogalicious. That's another event going on this weekend here in the U.S. That one's aimed at making the blogosphere look more like America, with much more color and gender diversity. That's later.

But first, 200 million viewers. That's how many people China's Yang Lan reaches every month. She's known as China's Oprah Winfrey for the massive, massive media empire she has built, and that's why she happened to be in Washington this week.

She was invited to Fortune magazine's invitation-only Most Powerful Women Summit, along with CEOs, politicians and religious leaders. With Yang Lan in Washington, we wanted to take the opportunity to introduce you to one of China's most famous women.

She is the co-founder and chair of the Sun Media Group and host of the television program "One on One." And in that capacity, she has interviewed such high-profile guests as Hillary Clinton and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Here she is putting Kobe Bryant through some tough questioning during the 2008 Olympics.

(Soundbite of television program, "One On One")

Ms. YANG LAN (Co-Founder, Sun Media Group; Host, "Yang Lan One on One"): Since 2002, the U.S. team hasn't been performing very well on the international stage, and sometimes, people even say the Dream Team is now a nightmare team.

Of course, there's certain exaggeration in this, but what does that mean to the current American team? Are you ready to win back the respect and honor of the American team?

Mr. KOBE BRYANT (Basketball Player): I hope so. I hope so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And now I get to turn the tables and interview Yang Lan, and thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for coming.

Ms. LAN: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: How sick are you of the Oprah Winfrey comparison?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAN: Well, I like her a lot, and I also respect her work and contribution to the society. And most of all, it's the inspiration for young women, you know, to realize their dreams, whatever it is.

MARTIN: Do most people in China know who Oprah Winfrey is? Does that comparison have any meaning trans-nationally?

Ms. LAN: Well, for those who have exposures to Western media, yes, but not the majority of the population.

MARTIN: They would say she's the American Yang Lan, right?

Ms. LAN: Could be, yeah.

MARTIN: In fact, we were talking before, as we were just getting settled, about this Most Powerful Women label. And I would like to ask: What do you think about that label, being described in that way?

Ms. LAN: Well, I'm not very comfortable about the power thing because power used to describe the more, you know, male chauvinism kind of value system.

I think nowadays, women are breaking the borders or the boundaries and also trying to give a new interpretation in terms of impact you can have to the society.

It's not about the manner of the scalability or the massiveness of how many people you employ or how much money you can decide on, but rather it's the new thinking that you can bring to other women or to the society as a whole.

MARTIN: What impact do you think that your programming has had on China? And I just want to mention that for people who are not aware, one of the things you're known for is in innovating a style of programming that was quite new in China and also was quite new in its time in the U.S.

I mean, they actually were developed along parallel tracks, an idea of programming that was directed at women, that took them seriously both as people who think and as people who consume and who have a central role in the culture. So I would like to ask, what role do you think your programming has had?

Ms. LAN: Well, I've been basically doing two shows. One is "Yang Lan One on One," which is 10 years old now. I've interviewed more than 600 movers and shapers across the world, in politics, business, arts, culture and society.

My other show, "Her Village," is a weekly women's talk show. It's a combination of Oprah Winfrey's show with "The View," because I have two other partners, two hostesses, much younger, and one of them is a Korean girl. Of course, we have celebrity guests, too, but also we have ordinary women coming in to share their stories.

So we help to bring to the light different lifestyles and different life stories of women and try to connect with them and also express our own views.

MARTIN: How has that been received? And you mentioned the diversity, the ethnic diversity, which has not always been programming in many countries, inviting people of different ethnic backgrounds to share their views on an equal footing. And I wonder how that's been received.

Ms. LAN: It has been received very well because the Korean girl, as I introduced her, she has been living in China for a long time. She is engaged to an American guy who is in the marketing business for sports in China.

And he proposed on the show to her, which made my other partner, the other hostess, cry because she just broke away from her former relationship. So it was very emotional and a lot of drama in it. But it was happy.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, though. There is a way in which the we've talked about all the change in China over the last sort of two decades, sort of the opening up of so many restrictions. I do have to ask, though, as one person in the media to another: Are you really free to say what you want to say, to cover what you want to cover?

Ms. LAN: We still have some regulations, censorships. But another fact is that the Internet has provided a great public arena. And for the last few years, we see more and more often that public opinions will drive public policies and drive the government to be more transparent and open. So we see the progress of freedom of speech.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with talk show host and media entrepreneur, Yang Lan. She's here in Washington, at a summit for the world's most powerful women. It's hosted by Fortune magazine.

One of the other things you share in common with Oprah Winfrey is that you were one of the ambassadors for Beijing's bid for the Olympics. Of course, it turned out a little better for you than it did for Chicago, but we won't dwell on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAN: But we failed the first time in 1993.

MARTIN: It still hurts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you mentioned that your other program, "One on One," You brought America to China, in many ways, with, you know, interviews with people like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates...

Ms. LAN: Jimmy Carter.

MARTIN: Jimmy Carter.

Ms. LAN: George Bush the senior.

MARTIN: And Kobe Bryant. Which of these tend to be more interesting to your guests? And does it ever surprise you what it is that people respond to and what they don't?

Ms. LAN: Well, people want to know, you know, these political figures or celebrities' personal life and also their journeys to what they are today.

Well, I was invited to Kennebunkport to visit George Bush the Senior's home, and he and Barbara showed me around their old house.

MARTIN: Now, I have to say that I covered that administration for four years, and I was never invited to that house. So I'll try to contain my envy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But thank you, continue. Is it nice?

Ms. LAN: It was very nice. And they were very cordial. And so because he served as a representative to Beijing a long time ago, and also, he was known as the ambassador on bicycle because he bicycled around Beijing at that time, the Chinese audience certainly relates to that kind of memory and like to know a part of their, you know, personal lives.

MARTIN: If you and I were to get together again in five years you're still very young. I mean, five by mogul standards, I mean, you know, it's particularly, I mean, you've been at this for quite a long time.

And I'm wondering, if you and I were to get together in five years, what do you think we'll be talking about?

Ms. LAN: Well, we'll be talking about women. I'm very curious to witness the historic transformation of Chinese women. You know, for example, my grandmother, who passed away last year at the age of 98, was born in the year of 1911.

And when she was growing up, her generation was still to bound feet. And the girls were illiterate totally and were kind of supporting roles in the family to their husbands and their children.

And then my mother became the first college student in the whole family, as a girl. And we look at the way we have been through. It's like compressed history within the past century. And I'm very curious to find out the transformation of this generation of Chinese women and see what they can achieve, not just in China but also, you know, across the borders.

MARTIN: Yang Lan is chair of the Sun Media Group and host of the Chinese television programs "One on One" and "Her Village." And she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios while on a visit to Washington. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. LAN: Thank you, Michel. Thank you everyone.

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