ABDALLA F. HASSAN | World Press Review | September 26, 2002
“The newest songs and the latest news” is the catch phrase of Radio Sawa, a commercial-free station that has been broadcasting “the most beautiful” contemporary Arabic and Western pop tunes across the Middle East, 24 hours a day, seven days a week since March 2002. And Arab youth from Beirut to Baghdad are tuning in to hear Jennifer Lopez played back-to-back with Egyptian pop-star Hakim.
The remarkably popular Radio Sawa, which replaced Voice of America’s Arabic service, comes courtesy of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, operated and funded by the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors. The broadcasts are the latest U.S. strategy to counter anti-American sentiment in the Arab world by communicating directly in Arabic with Arab youth—targeting listeners under 30, who comprise more than 60 percent of the region’s population. The mission took on new urgency following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as U.S. Cabinet officials, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, spoke of the need for greater “public diplomacy.”
Young and middle-class, Radwa Mohie would seem to fit Radio Sawa’s target market to a tee. A 16-year-old high school student from a suburb of Cairo, Mohie likes the idea of a 24-hour Western-Arabic music station, but she hasn't been terribly impressed with what she's heard. “They should have newer songs, and the public service announcements do sound a bit silly,” she remarks, adding that the BBC’s Top 20 already offers current Western music hits. Mohie does approve of the style and variety of news, but doesn’t think short newscasts will significantly alter the perception of Arab youth listening to a pop music station.
On the busy streets of downtown Cairo, Summer Said, an 18 year-old English literature major at the University of Cairo, seems more taken with the station: “I like listening to Radio Sawa, because I get to hear new songs. But personally, I prefer John Lennon and oldies.”
The station seeks to know its audience and invites e-mails from listeners. “Listen to us and we will listen to you,” a golden-voiced announcer proclaims sporadically over the station’s frequencies. In addition, Radio Sawa broadcasts news and headlines twice every hour in Arabic—including the occasional review of Hollywood’s latest film releases. Frequent public service announcements advise youth not to drink and drive, and to say no to drugs. One radio spot recounts the tale of a young man who just got a new car, to the envy of all his friends, but when he got hooked on drugs his classy set of wheels was transformed into a mangled wreck.
The station’s mission “is, quite simply, to promote freedom and democracy through the dissemination of accurate, reliable, and credible news and information about America and the world to audiences overseas,” Norman J. Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, chairman of America’s largest radio network, Westwood One, and Radio Sawa’s creator told the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations on June 11.
Pattiz noted, “There’s a media war going on [in the Middle East] and the weapons of that war include disinformation, incitement to violence, hate radio, government censorship, and journalistic self-censorship. And the United States didn’t have a horse in this race.”
Enter Radio Sawa, the American thoroughbred in the race for Arab opinion. Market research-driven and custom-tailored to the tastes of regional audiences, the station will eventually broadcast in five programming streams in different Arabic dialects, directed at the Gulf, Iraq, North Africa, Egypt, Sudan, and the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine). For the moment, though, the station is operating only an Iraq and a pan-Arab stream.
Joan Mower, communications coordinator at the International Broadcasting Bureau, flatly says of Radio Sawa: “We are not a propaganda arm.” This despite the fact that it is generously funded by the U.S. government to the tune of US$35 million for fiscal year 2002, in addition to US$16.4 million for the cost of installing transmitters. Nevertheless, Mower insists, “We are not in the business of making people like us. We are the business of making sure people have enough information to form their own opinions.”
“The news is very short, very simple, very headline. No analysis, no deep coverage,” observes S. A. Schleifer, distinguished lecturer and director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo. “For a limited sector, it could be influential. It could be playing a role that could be beneficial to America.”
The news reports do represent the U.S. government’s perspective. In a June 25 telephone interview with Radio Sawa news director Mouafac Harb, Secretary Powell told his radio audience that the United States is committed to seeing a Palestinian state within three years if necessary steps are taken. Powell’s interview with Radio Sawa came the day after President George W. Bush delivered his Middle East policy speech—broadcast live on the station with simultaneous Arabic translation—calling for the replacement of Yasser Arafat.
Broadly, the mission of Radio Sawa is to win—through music—the hearts and minds of the Middle East’s young generation in an effort to keep them from embracing anti-American ideologies and exalting shadowy figures like Osama bin Laden.
Will it work? “It works among a group that tends to be pro-American culture but might be critical of American politics or swept up by knee-jerk anti-Americanism. It is certainly not going to work for people who are offended by American policy and politics, including American mass culture,” Schleifer concludes. “Within the constituency of middle- and upper-class Arabs, it will probably be effective. Among lower class Arabs, who tend to be sensitive to appeals of Islamic fundamentalism, it won’t be effective.”
Yet Harb, the former Washington bureau chief for the London-based, pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, sees the station’s overwhelming popularity as evidence of its widespread appeal among all classes of Arab society. American mass culture, he says, is a global phenomenon. “No one can say that people are turning away from American pop culture. I am an Arab, and the way you and I live—whether we agree politically or not—is like any American young person. Folks in the Middle East are also very discerning media consumers, ” Harb points out. “The Arab media consumer is more sophisticated than the Arab media organizations.”
“In the not too distant future, we’ll begin broadcasting policy programs, editorials, questions of the day and reviews and critiques of Arab press reports. We’ll try to pinpoint—and refute—misinformation in the state-controlled media,” Pattiz told the Committee on Foreign Relations.
But the alluring, music-oriented style is not likely to shift to more talk. “We will not add anything that is not well-tested in the market,” says Harb, “given the parameters of the mission and the format of the radio station.”
Radio Sawa’s studios are in Washington, D.C., with another broadcast center to open in Dubai’s Media City. The station is found on FM and medium wave frequencies across the Middle East: Jordan, 98.1 FM; Kuwait, 95.7 FM; Dubai, 90.5 FM; Abu Dhabi, 98.7 FM; Qatar, 92.6 FM; Egypt, Levant and Eastern Mediterranean, 981 MW and 1260 MW; Iraq and the Gulf, 1548 MW. Radio Sawa is also available on via Nilesat, Arabsat, the Eutelsat Hotbird, and on the Web in streaming audio at www.radiosawa.com.