June 4, 2002







Radio 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. international broadcasting."

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 website.

- Eric Meyerson

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