Ali Abunimah discusses Radio Sawa on the BBC World Service

Radio Sawa’s website at “Sawa”, in Arabic, means “togetherness” (EI).



FREDERICK DOVE (OUTLOOK HOST): Radio Sawa was launched a few months ago and says its rapidly attracting listeners in the Middle East with its mix of pop music and news. Sawa means together, and the station, broadcast from Washington, funded by the U.S. Congress, but said to be editorially independent, is aimed at reducing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, particularly among the young. In Jordan’s capital, Amman, Radio Sawa can be heard on FM. Our reporter, Saad Hattar, has been gauging local reaction.

SAAD HATTAR (BBC REPORTER): We have Samir, Dina, and Sahar, ages between 22, 20 and 35. We want to talk about the new radio station in town, talk of the town, which is Sawa. I will start by asking Samir whether he listens to this station.

SAMIR: I listen to the music, bas I turn to another station once the news starts.

HATTAR: Why do you do that?

SAMIR: Because its like listening to Israeli radio. Its biased. I feel like its propaganda to serve the Israelis and the others…(UNINTELLIGIBLE)

HATTAR: Dina, do you want to talk about your impression regarding this station?

DINA: I have the same to say basically, because when you listen to what they say on the news, like they say Arab extremists, or Palestinian extremists, that is not fair at all. Basically they’re like, you know, a mouthpiece for the Americans. And I think sort of they’re brainwashing Jordanians, I think Syrians, whoever, you know is listening to these people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I’ve been listening to Radio Sawa since the first day it start launching to Jordan and I like to listen actually to the music.

HATTAR: Nisreen, what part of the radio you like to listen to mostly?

NISREEN: I think the songs, because they are so much updated and they have the mixture of the Arabic and foreign songs as well. But I think its biased somehow because maybe its sponsored by the USA or funded by them. Sometimes the news are shallow, not accurate.

HATTAR: And, Elias, I’m asking you how do you rank Sawa as opposed to other FMs now being launched in Amman, like BBC and MBC FM and Monte Carlo?

ELIAS: Well, sir, if we’re talking about entertainments, songs and music, Sawa is number one. But if we’re talking about news and media, the material they are providing is very cheap and they should be more balanced. I think, I think there is one thing they can do to improve their news department. They have to live among Arabs and with Arabs to hear their problems. We don’t need advices and we don’t need their point of view. When you are launching a news, you have to tell news, not sending message to people.

FREDERICK DOVE (OUTLOOK HOST): Mixed reception for Radio Sawa in Amman. Joining us now from Washington is Joan Mauer (ph.), Radio Sawa’s communications director. Joan, what do you make of those criticisms we’ve just heard?

JOAN MAUER (RADIO SAWA COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR): Well, you know, I’m in Washington as you know, and we’ve heavily researched our station in that we have researchers in the field. We had researchers before we set it up and we constantly are testing the music and testing the news, and we’ve found that we’ve had an amazing reception. I’d like to point out though that Radio Sawa is hardly a full-blown operation at this point. It’s in its infancy. We are in the process of opening up an office in Dubai and most of the station’s, much of the station’s programming will be based out of Dubai. That will start later on in the year. So I think its a little bit unfair to say that, to judge us right now, because we’re hardly under way.

DOVE: You say its early days.

MAUER: Exactly.

DOVE: Is it connected with September 11th last year?

MAUER: Not really. We had actually, some time before September 11, the Broadcasting Board of Governors had determined that we really needed to have some presence in the Middle East. We had Voice of America Arabic. That had a very small listenership and so we decided to launch a radio station that would have some broader appeal to mainly younger people. And like the BBC World Service, as you know you are completely government funded, as we are, and we pride ourselves actually on having balanced, accurate and fair news, as I’m sure you do. So, we’ve been thrilled by the reception. We hear often that people are getting their news from Radio Sawa. We had a report yesterday in the Washington Post from Baghdad. We’re listened to heavily in Baghdad right now. We don’t know if we’re number one because we haven’t done audience research surveys and we won’t do any official audience research until we’re up and running which will only be after Dubai is open.

DOVE: What is Sawa’s official mission statement, as they like to say nowadays?

MAUER: Sawa’s mission statement is to present accurate, fair, balanced, comprehensive news about the United States and the world.

DOVE: And make friends for the United States in the process?

MAUER: Well, you know, we’re a radio station, like BBC World Service, we’re a news operation. Certainly, you know, is BBC World Service part of the foreign office? Is that your mission? I wouldn’t say its our mission. We are their to gain listenership and present accurate news. Many of our criticisms, or many of the criticisms we’ve have been from, one of the papers complained that we refused to call suicide bombers martyrs and we were spread dissension by calling them suicide bombers. Well that’s an editorial decision that we made, and we will continue to call them suicide bombers and not martyrs. We take that criticism.

DOVE: Also joining us now from Chicago is Ali Abunimah, vice president of the Arab American Action Network and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website. Ali, what’s your assessment of Radio Sawa?

ALI ABUNIMAH (ELECTRONIC INTIFADA): Well, I just came back from a month in Amman and spoke to a lot of people about it. The reaction I got was pretty similar to what we heard in the package there. I think it would be a mistake to compare Radio Sawa to the BBC either in terms of its content or its mission. It’s not the BBC, and I think the complaints about its content go far deeper than the example which we heard about martyrs or suicide bombers. I did a piece at analyzing the content on one particular day and comparing it with some of the BBC coverage. I think, though, you know, if the purpose is just to provide accurate and objective coverage, then I would say what’s the point of it? Why duplicate what the BBC and Radio Monte Carlo are doing. I hope that Ms. Mauer isn’t doing an adequate job with accurate and objective news. And why provide pop music for people…?

DOVE: But clearly the pop music seems to be very popular from what we’ve heard.

ABUNIMAH: Of course it is, but my argument would be, and speaking not just as representative of Arab communities but as a US taxpayer, its not the job of the US government to provide entertainment for people in the Middle East. I don’t think that’s a good use of money. What I do think is desperately needed in the Middle East and the Arab world in particular is for people to have a deeper understanding of the complexity of American society, of American policy-making processes, an understanding of how Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and other communities live and interact in the United States, and Radio Sawa doesn’t do any of that.

DOVE: How would you like to see those elements represented, in terms of speech programs, and so on?

ABUNIMAH: Absolutely, more speech programs, including young people. I think young people are a very important voice, a very important part of the Middle East. But what we get is fifty five minutes of this incessant, head-thumping pop, which I like too some of the time, and five minutes of very shallow news which is as we can hear very carefully tested, very highly produced, very anonymous and very generic with no local content whatsoever and comes across as something very highly packaged. It’s also very furtive. They don’t tell you during the newscasts, you know they don’t say This is Washington, like the BBC says This is London…


MAUER: No that’s not, could I interrupt here?

DOVE: Let me go back to Joan, Joan

MAUER: Ali, first off I’d love for you to come and visit Radio Sawa in Washington. I’d love to give you a tour. And I’m also please urging you not to judge us currently. As I said, we really, we’re only about staffed. We’ve got plans to hire many more people. We’re having our, our center will be in the Dubai Media Center. And one of the goals of Radio Sawa is to become much more interactive with its audience. Its also to present a much better picture of the United States and its communities and we’ll do that partly through our radio and our interactive programs and through our website.

DOVE: Are you saying there will be more speech rather than just music?

MAUER: Well, there’s going to be a lot more, I don’t know whether we’re going to have talk programs, but we’re going to have call-ins, we’re going to have round tables, we’re going to have a feature called I want to know in which we raise issues. Yeah, we’re going to have all kinds of things, and as I say I’m just begging people not to judge us. We haven’t even officially launched Radio Sawa. To be honest with you Radio Sawa sort of got ahead of us. We didn’t, we planned the station, and this is typical in commercial radio, and in all radio, where you layer in programs. We call it the wedding cake approach where you add programs as you go.


DOVE: So basically what you’re saying is watch this space.

We’ don’t even have a logo yet for Radio Sawa. We’re only three months old and we’ve been just overwhelmed by the success of it frankly and we’re moving now to add programs, to add people, to add staff and again I’d urge Ali and any of your listeners if they’d like to come to Washington and I’d love to show them the newsroom, how we work, how we operate. We’re all staffed by Arab Americans, so please come and visit me and let me give you a tour.

And watch this space in radio terms. Joan Mauer in Washington and Ali Abunimah in Chicago, thank you both.


The above is an EI transcript of the Outlook programme, BBC World Service, 24 September 2002.