A Little U.S. Pop-aganda for Arabs
At New VOA Radio Station, Music Is Light and So Is the News
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 26, 2002; Page A24
AMMAN, Jordan -- After 30 years with the Voice of America and more than seven as an Arabic language correspondent in the Middle East, Mahmoud Zawawi has had to ditch the VOA's documentary style for brief news flashes. In his new gig, he dispenses with full-length interviews, forgets about in-depth reports on U.S. politics and economics and scraps the film reviews that were his passion.
In the name of reaching Arab youth with a product that will not be associated with heavy subjects, such as the U.S. war on terrorism or violence in neighboring Israel, the United States has gone pop with its outreach radio. It has switched to the FM band and replaced the VOA's Arabic language service with a new station, Radio Sawa, that mixes the latest Arabic tunes with light American rock for 50 minutes every hour.
The little bit of news sprinkled in with the rest of the broadcast would be depressing to the VOA veteran except for one thing: People are finally listening, at least here in Jordan.
"Most of my friends never heard my voice until three months ago," when the new service began, Zawawi said. "It is catching on like fire. Very relaxing. Quick pace. A little news."
Planning for Radio Sawa was underway before the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. It was prompted mostly by the VOA Arabic service's sparse audience, a group Zawawi said was limited to "elites" -- political officials, academics, journalists and a handful of others. The station broadcast on an AM signal from Greece, and reception varied throughout the region and with the weather.
But since Sept. 11 the project has taken on a new dimension as the United States has tried to strengthen diplomacy in the Middle East and burnish an image that, for many, has become associated less with democracy and free speech than with the airplanes and helicopters deployed by the Israeli military.
Neither is the United States alone. In recent months virtually all key players in the Middle East dispute have intensified efforts to spread their point of view in other languages. The programs include a $22.5 million Arab League fund to produce English and Hebrew programming.
Hebrew radio and television broadcasts are being aimed at Israel from all directions. Egypt is broadcasting two hours of Hebrew television each day via its Nilesat satellite. Iran recently inaugurated the "Voice of David" radio broadcast, meant to provide its view of the news to Jewish listeners throughout the Middle East, and particularly in Israel. Syria added 15 minutes of Hebrew news to its daily satellite television programming, hoping, as the presenter said on the first night, "to reveal the truth to the Israelis."
The Shiite fundamentalist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon, which operates the Al-Manar television station, often includes Hebrew propaganda in what station executives characterize as an attempt to demoralize Israeli citizens.
Israel has responded in kind. Last month it launched an Arab language satellite station that Israeli official Raanan Cohen said would be a "counterbalance to the sea of venomous propaganda surrounding us."
Whether anybody listens is another matter.
Egypt may have the most experience. Its Hebrew radio show, "Voice of Cairo," began in 1954. The director of Hebrew broadcasting, Hassan Ali Hassan, said he has only anecdotal evidence that the radio and the new television broadcasts are well received. But he said demographic studies and audience data are not needed to justify the effort. If the technology is there, he said, any country that does not take advantage of it is foolish.
"Every country has a message to distribute. It should be part of every country's policy to explain and clarify, or else its message will be held back," he said.
In an environment focused on regional troubles, Radio Sawa, which means "together" in Arabic, may hold the most promise for building an audience. Non-ideological, not even identifiably American, it is designed as entertainment rather than public posture, although news content may expand over time, Zawawi said. With U.S. taxpayer support, it can run its music -- programmed by a staff in Washington -- commercial-free.
Radio Sawa was given quick approval to establish local FM transmitters in the countries most trusting of the United States, Jordan and Kuwait, and airs there 24 hours a day. It has also been approved in the United Arab Emirates and is expected to win approval in Bahrain and Qatar, Persian Gulf countries where the United States has a large military presence.
The core of the Arab world, however, remains out of reach.
Egypt, with 70 million people the most populous Arab country, keeps broadcasting under state control and is finicky about content. Syria and Iraq for political reasons are not likely candidates for the Radio Sawa chain, while Saudi Arabia for cultural reasons is also not expected to comply.
While those countries can receive a few hours daily of Radio Sawa programming, sent via the old AM signal from Greece, it is unlikely to make the impact that has been felt in just three months in Jordan.
Located at FM-98.2, the broadcast is routinely heard in taxis, coffee shops, hair salons and other public spots, Jordanians say. Sipping a frozen lemonade with friends in downtown Amman, Ahmad Sharabati, 18, was quick to show a visitor how he had programmed Radio Sawa into his mobile phone, so he could listen through the ear piece.
Reliable audience data are unavailable. But Sharabati and a group of recent college graduates -- an age group in the Arab world that often talks about boycotting American products -- said the station quickly became their favorite. The Arab music is up to date, he said, and alternates with American tunes, mostly light pop and ballads, that cater to Arab tastes.
"Everyone in Amman is listening," he said. "One English song. One Arab song. Some news. It has got everything. It has nothing to do with being American."