PICTURE THIS, Philadelphia: You're stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway near Boathouse Row on a powder-blue fall afternoon when your radio scan picks up an unfamiliar station: 1540 on your AM dial.
It's the top of the hour on WNWR, and a strange, bombastic Chinese-language pop song - the Mandarin answer to Adele, perhaps - fades out and it's almost time for the news. First, "This is Weather Report" - one of the station's odd English phrasings - delivered along with the traffic by "your host, Calypso!" who seems to have no last name.
The lead item on the generically named "City News" involves some outdated U.S. politics - comments on the so-called Ferguson effect made six days earlier by Attorney General Loretta Lynch - and the second piece is even more of a head-scratcher: an announcement by the Chinese government of a 15-billion-yuan school-spending program.
"After an executive meeting of the Cabinet, China will set a unified benchmark for public funding between students in rural and urban areas," a newscaster intones.
At this point, you're wondering if you've stumbled into a bizarro world of Beijing propaganda on the licensed U.S. airwaves, a kind of a "Radio Free America" in service of the Chinese Communist Party.
Actually, according to the station's critics, Chinese propaganda is exactly what WNWR and more than a dozen other U.S. stations are doing.
Earlier this month - sparked by a bombshell international report from the Reuters news service - the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission launched investigations into the California company that leases all of the airtime on the daytime 50,000-watt station, which lists an address on Monument Road in Bala Cynwyd.
The probes are looking at whether broadcasts by the West Coast firm - whose majority ownership traces directly to Chinese state-run radio - are an end-run around U.S. ownership rules and even whether that company, G&E Studios of West Covina, Calif., is violating lobbying laws by trying to influence American opinion on behalf of a foreign government.
Phone messages left with G&E Studios seeking comment for this article were not returned. The firm's president, James Su, had confirmed earlier to Reuters that a subsidiary of China's government media owns 60 percent of the firm and that it has a contract to air programming from the regime-promoting China Radio International. Su, a Chinese native who became a U.S. citizen as a teen in 1989, told the news service that listeners "can choose to listen or not listen. I think this is an American value."
Efforts to contact Global Radio LLC - the company that bought the license for 1540-AM in the 1990s and leases air time on WNWR to the Chinese-controlled company for a reported $600,000 a year - were not successful.
Jerry Blavat, Sally Starr
The Chinese-flavored broadcasts are a bizarre turn of events for a once-iconic spot on the Philadelphia radio dial. The various stations that have occupied 1540-AM have hosted local celebrities from the late cowgirl entertainer Sally Starr to the late R&B-radio legend Georgie Woods to rock 'n' roll's Geator with the Heater, Jerry Blavat. The station in its previous incarnations has broadcast everything from country music to Mel Torme.
Blavat, who broadcast his Geator Gold Radio on 1540 in the mid-1990s when it was still known as WPGR, said the station once was coveted for its powerful daytime signal. "That 50,000-watt signal," he recalled this week, "you could get that in the Bahamas - in Nassau it was as clear as a bell!"
Starr hadn't even begun her famous TV show for kids when she started broadcasting in the late 1940s on the station, then called WJMJ, which may or may not - depending on whom you ask - have stood for "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." The station was a '70s success as WRCP - renamed for its owner, greeting-card company Rust Craft - playing country music, before switching to WSNI and WPGR, both of which spun "oldies."
By the 1990s, "oldies" also could have described the majority of AM-radio listeners, as the younger audience defected first to higher-frequency FM and later to satellite radio or other digital options. While some news, talk or sports stations still do OK, other struggling AM stations have sought to lease air time to interested parties such as ethnic programming.
"They have to do something," said Gerry Wilkinson, the history expert for the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers, who said that in the 21st century the AM band is increasingly becoming a dead zone, as the most popular survivors like sports-talk's WIP move to FM and other viable stations think about following suit.
That vacuum creates an opening in which deep-pocketed parties can buy a media platform, as Chinese state media reportedly has done.
In addition to the high-powered Philadelphia station, Reuters reported that stations affiliated with Chinese state-run media are on the air in 33 cities around the globe, with 15 in North America - including WCRW (1190-AM) in Washington, D.C., which points its 50,000-watt signal at the U.S. Capitol.
In listening to months of broadcasts, the news service also found repeated cases of the China-linked stations on U.S. soil relaying the Beijing party line, including a report on hacking of U.S. government computers that failed to mention that China is the suspected hacker, or a one-sided story on a pro-democracy movement in its back yard that said protesters had "failed without the support of the people in Hong Kong."
A Chinese wine report
A random sampling of WNWR programming in Philadelphia this week contained erratic blasts of outdated or China-centric news as well as sports and a lot of pop culture, which ranged from the latest from Nicole Kidman to a report from a Chinese wine fair, linked by loud pop or hip-hop music. Occasionally, the announcers sounded as if speaking English by way of Google Translate.
All of which begs the question: For all of the millions of yuans that Beijing apparently is dropping on its radio propaganda network, does anyone actually listen to this stuff?
It's hard to quantify: WNWR doesn't carry ads and didn't even show up in the most recent radio ratings for the Philadelphia region - but it surely must be a shadow of its glory days of Geator Gold or so-called countrypolitan music.
"Radio will never be the way it was," Blavat, 75, reflected. "There are so many other ways for people to listen to what they want to listen to."
On Twitter: @Will_Bunch