Free Middle East?
When the war on terrorism began, the United States knew it could not
achieve victory through bombs and troops alone. It would also need to
win over the minds of the world.
This necessity raised the question: How do you reach people who are
young, poor and illiterate? The attempt at an answer: radio.
On March 22, the U.S. government-sponsored Middle East Radio Network
(MERN) hit the airwaves under the brand "Radio Sawa" (sawa
means "together" in Arabic). The FM station broadcasts in
the relatively U.S.-friendly cities of Kuwait City, Kuwait and Amman,
Jordan, as well as signals on three satellite media providers.
The network offers music ranging from Iraqi rock stars to Sting, plus
news, opinion, interviews, entertainment, weather, and other sounds
designed to attract the ears of children, teenagers and young adults
in the region. Announcers will speak in five Arabic dialects, and Radio
Sawa management is currently trying to gain access to FM frequencies
in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who have been reluctant to permit a U.S.
government voice to come through those countries' most accessible
media channel. Eventually, the network hopes to broadcast throughout
the entire region.
The real motivation behind Middle East Radio Network is a desire to
influence a young and largely illiterate population that gets all its
news from radio or television, much of which is fiercely anti-American.
Two-thirds of Arabs are 25 or younger, and according to a Cairo-based
television journalism professor quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle,
60 percent of them cannot read, only eight percent consume print media
and less than four percent use the Internet. But radio and television
reach everyone, and the images and stories from those outlets have been
a major force in stoking public rage against the United States.
The network is part of a $245 million program authorized by Congress
to give America a counterpoint in Middle Eastern broadcast media. While
the network promises "reliable news," Radio Sawa offers little
doubt as to its point of view. President Bush, at Voice of America's
60th anniversary ceremony in February, praised Radio Sawaas "an
opportunity to better understand American principles and American actions."
The network itself will not try to hide its roots. Director Gary Thatcher
told PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, "The buzz is already out
that we're going to try something clandestine or hide who we are.
We're not. We're going to clearly identify that this is U.S.
While strictly a government project, the network does have some Hollywood
flash - it was started by media mogul Norman Pattiz, who founded
America's largest radio network, Westwood One (now a part of Viacom).
Voice of America Director Robert Reilly told the Washington Times in
April that Pattiz's fervor got the station off the ground in record
time for a Washington-based endeavor.
Now that American voices live on Middle Eastern airwaves, will Radio
Sawa give the United States the emotional firepower to achieve victory
in the hearts of Arab youth?
To hear an English-language sample, visit NewsHour's
- Eric Meyerson
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