The U.S. is finally making inroads into young Arab psyches via their ears:
- Results of the latest listeners poll, released last week, caused a ruffle of excitement in the Radio Sawa studios in Washington. After six months of broadcasts, it seems that the station, which is owned by the U.S. government and broadcasts music and news to the Arab world, is now the most popular radio station among young people in Amman, the capital of Jordan. It has pulled ahead of the government FM station and has even earned accolades for its news broadcasts.
On the eve of a possible war with Iraq, directors of Radio Sawa are trumpeting the fact that for the first time ever, the U.S. has managed to penetrate the Arab world. In addition to the survey held in Amman, there is evidence of high listenership in other countries of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Africa.
Western journalists recently visiting Iraq related that Radio Sawa (“friendship” in Arabic) is the favored station among the country’s taxi drivers and successfully competes with the “Voice of Youth” station owned by Uday, the son of Saddam Hussein.
After years in which the U.S. has grappled with the question of how to get its message across to the Arab world, especially to the young, Radio Sawa has hit on a simple formula – lots of Arabic and Western music, combined with punchy, up-to-date news reports.
….”We broadcast any news we think is relevant to our audience in the Middle East or the Gulf,” says Mouaffaq Harb, the station’s news director. Harb, who was until recently the Washington correspondent of the newspaper Al Hayat, repudiates any allegations of propaganda in the news he broadcasts to the Arab audience. “The only consideration is whether it is news or not,” he says, adding that it is not inconceivable that the station might air a Saddam Hussein speech against the U.S. “Not words of incitement – I would look for the news value,” he says. He would also report on West Bank demonstrations in which an American flag is burned “if it has news value.”
Harb says his objective, like that of every news editor, is to present reliable and up-to-date reports. He encourages his reporters to unearth exclusive stories that will be of interest to the listening audience. The Radio Sawa news staff consists of about 150 people, and its reporters may be found throughout the Middle East, the Gulf and the entire world. Incidentally, Harb says his station’s reporter in Israel is the Voice of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent, Yoni Ben-Menachem.
….But not all listeners are pleased. The radio station received numerous complaints when it chose to use the expression “suicide terrorists” instead of the word shahids (martyrs), as is the norm in the Arabic language media. However, station directors feel their audience will have to get used to clean reporting instead of the more emotional language found in current Arabic broadcasting.
I am very pleased to hear that “objective” does not mean pandering: it would be pointless to try to “out-Arab” the Arab media. Even those who listen purely for the music will be influenced at least to the extent of realizing that there is another perspective other than what their official media or Al Jazeera shovels them.