Thursday, December 21, 2006

Radio Sawa and Mary Cheney's Baby

Since its foundation on March 2002, Radio Sawa, a radio network publicly funded by the American Broadcasting Board of Governors and U.S. Congress, has been struggling to influence Arab public opinion. Today, it can be listened to online, or on FM and medium-wave radio in Arab countries ranging from Morocco to Yemen. Radio Sawa has attracted its fair share of criticism. Ali Abunimah, the ideologue-in-chief at the Electronic Intifada website, basically lambasted the station in 2002 for not being more pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli. He also compared it unfavourably with BBC’s Radio Arabic and with France’s Monte Carlo, which he argued had more critical news coverage, a higher level of discourse and discussion, and more audience participation. He also said that the station patronized Arabs, because of its low intellectual content – back then three quarters of its content was supposedly top 40 Arabic and western pop music, while one quarter of the programming consisted of short newscasts.

Nevertheless, Abunimah and Radio Sawa’s other critics have all been forced to concede that the radio station has people in the Arab world listening. The reason that it has become the station of choice in many parts of the Arab world should be obvious: the Middle East is made up mainly of young people who happen to like Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake and the Lebanese and Egyptian divas and crooners who are their counterparts. I imagine that they also enjoy hearing the brief video game and movie reviews, as well as the occasional fitness and health tips delivered by Sawa’s anchors, usually a man and a woman speaking in fashionable Lebanese colloquial. Finally, Sawa’s listeners probably also like the fact that there are no boring commercials that they have to sit through. Frankly, they could not care less about the conclusions of a certain panel of Arab language experts who, after being hired by the US Inspector General’s office to review the Radio Sawa, concluded that
parents would prefer that their teenagers not listen to Radio Sawa because its broadcasts contained such poor Arabic grammar
Since when do teenagers care what their parents think? Radio Sawa is pursuing a clever marketing strategy and, based on my own listening experiences in Arab commuter cabs in the Negev, it is obviously succeeding.

So why is this subtle successor to the Voice of America still coming under fire? One reason is that the Arab nationalists who exalt al-Jazeera will never embrace a broadcaster that has news anchors who don’t call coalition troops “the forces of occupation”, and who don’t describe terrorists killed in action as “having martyred themselves”. They automatically disapprove of Radio Sawa, because it has Israeli reporters who occasionally file reports about Israeli politics in Arabic. In short, they want all news outlets that reach Arab ears to be nationalist-Islamist and to embrace their rhetoric. That is the main reason why these critics belittle Radio Sawa’s news programming and claim that Arab listeners automatically tune out when they hear its supposedly biased news casts.

I don’t claim to know whether Radio Sawa has succeeded at all in influencing Arab public opinion and in improving the way in which young Arabs view the United States. Sawa’s other critics in the US assert that the station has focussed too much on trying to win over the audience and too little on influencing it. These people would like it to be more aggressive about advancing American interests. I actually think that Sawa has taken a good middle road. The station has attracted young listeners through its soft content. The impact of Sawa’s news programming is probably underestimated. While the station wisely refrains from being a propaganda outlet, the insights it provides into American society and the different views it gives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are bound to have some influence. On Wednesday morning (Eastern Standard Time), the online broadcast of Jordanian Radio Sawa transmitted American President Bush’s press conference live (with simultaneous translation). Bush was questioned on everything, from his latest proposals on Iraq to Mary Cheney’s baby and its implication for his view on gay families. It was a powerful demonstration of American democracy and freedom of the press at work. Radio Sawa should stay the course.

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