Creating New Profession
In June 1926, during the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea, Gyeongseong(경성) Broadcasting Station in Seoul started its test-run broadcast. At the time, the person in charge of broadcasting production and technology was Noh Chang-seong(노창성). When he spoke on air, “This is our trial broadcasting service,” he thought that it would be better if this sentence was delivered through a female voice. From that day, Noh began looking for a woman announcer. He finally discovered the ideal one after a voice test. The name of the female announcer was Yi Ok-gyeong. As the first announcer in Korea, Yi paved the way for women in the country to pursue this new profession.
Studying in Japan Thanks to Forward-Thinking Father
Her father Yi Hak-in(이학인) had passed the state civil service exam during the twilight period of the Joseon Dynasty. Soon after Yi Ok-gyeong was born in Seoul in September, 1901, her father became the director of Incheon Maritime Customs. He later served as an English teacher at Jeryeong(제령) School.
When Japan deprived Korea of its sovereign power in 1910, he temporarily settled in Andong, (which is present-day Dandong) Manchuria, before going to Shanghai.
In Manchuria, Yi worked at the U.K. Customs. He dressed his only daughter Ok-gyeong like a boy. Contrary to the social atmosphere at the time, he believed that women, too, should study. Since there was no middle school for girls in Manchuria, he decided to send his daughter to Japan.
Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia while his daughter was studying in Japan. Yi Ok-gyeong had to return to Incheon. But Yi’s mother wanted her daughter to continue her studies. So she sent her daughter to Incheon Girls’ High School, which was a Japanese school. While preparing to enter Tokyo Medical College before graduating from high school, Yi married Noh Chang-seong, her friend from elementary school.
Korea’s First Announcer
“A few days after the broadcasting station was launched, my husband asked me to help with the broadcasting business. He said he needed a female voice.”
This is what Yi remembered about the backdrop for the beginning of her career as an announcer. Her husband Noh contributed to setting up a broadcasting station in Korea and later took charge of production and technology. At that time, being an announcer was not a profession, and no one was willing to carry out the job. Male employees used to take turns playing the announcer role. But Noh thought that a female voice would be a lot more effective.
After Yi was selected as a female announcer, she was heard on the radio for two and a half hours every night. The radio was regarded as a magic box in those days, and people were amazed to hear a human voice flying through the air. A woman’s voice flowing out of the radio quickly became the talk of the town.
People swarmed to the radio station to see the woman announcer, frequently breaking windows there. Yi was such a popular person that she had to take a rickshaw to and from work to avoid being noticed in public.
Yi thought that her career as an announcer was significant for Korean women overall because one more job would be available for women in a society where women rarely worked outside the home.
But Yi decided to quit her job when she had her second child, Noh Myeong-ja(노명자), who was none other than the famous fashion designer Nora Noh. Noh Chang-seong was the first broadcaster in Korea and Yi Ok-gyeong was the first announcer. Perhaps these pioneers in Korean broadcasting helped to inspire and encourage their daughter’s career in fashion.
Yi had nine children, and decided to give up her career to stay at home to take care of the house. Despite her short career, the first announcer in the country left a distinctive mark in the field of Korean broadcasting at a time when few women pursued a career in society and broadcasting was considered a new sphere.