U.S. aims pop music at Arab world

Uncle Sam gets hip with a new radio station that mixes pop music with Arabic newscasts. Some question its chance of success.

In the Arab world, Uncle Sam is often viewed as a meddling tyrant or arrogant superpower.

Now, with the help of Madonna, ‘N Sync and Britney Spears, he has developed a more engaging persona: Top 40 disc jockey. Since its inception in March, millions of young Arabs from Cairo to Baghdad have been tuning in to Radio Sawa, a 24-hour station that offers a lively mix of pop music and Arabic-language newscasts.

Replacing the Voice of America’s stodgy Arabic service, the station is an intriguing but controversial move by the U.S. government to reach more listeners - especially young ones - in a crucial region where U.S. foreign policy is widely viewed with anger and suspicion.

So far, Radio Sawa seems to be a hit.

“Hi!,” e-mailed a listener from Alexandria, Egypt. “I respect your station so much. I love it. I spend all night listening to u.”

“I like to tell you that in the night 85 percent of the Iraqi people are tuning in to your station - students, the shops and even most of the taxis,” said a fan in Baghdad.

Not everyone is impressed.

“Radio Sawa has undoubtedly attracted an audience of young Arabs who like the music it plays,” said Andy Sennitt in an editorial for Radio Netherlands. “The problem is, most of them don’t appear to be too interested in the news and information component of the broadcasts. There are exceptions - Iraqis are said to take them seriously, but when you are constantly being told your country is about to be attacked, it’s only natural that you want to find out why.

“I have to say I don’t see how Radio Sawa, as presently constructed, is going to help the U.S. cause. Young people throughout the world have a healthy dose of skepticism, while the expectations of (Radio Sawa’s backers) seem naive in the extreme. But it wouldn’t be the first time.”

The driving force behind Radio Sawa - it means “Radio Together” in Arabic - was Norman J. Pattiz, a U.S. broadcast executive and member of the Voice of America’s governing board. On a visit to the Middle East in early 2001, Pattiz discovered that the VOA reached only 2 percent of the potential audience and had little appeal to listeners in Saudi Arabia and other countries where most of the population is under 30.

“It was presented in a way we’ve been doing it for 50 years,” Pattiz said. “It was seven hours a day of Arabic-language news and information programmed in a one-size-fits-all approach to the entire region. There was about an hour of fresh news in that seven hours - it was pretty much repeating the same news over and over again, and it was skewed toward an older audience.”

The idea of targeting the under-30 set with pop music and five-minute newscasts was hatched well before Sept. 11. But the terrorist attacks - and the sudden prominence of the Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera - prompted Congress to approve $35-million to get Radio Sawa on the air faster than expected.

Unlike the VOA Arabic Service, whose signal strength was limited because it broadcast via shortwave, Radio Sawa uses shortwave, FM and AM to reach places the VOA couldn’t. Kuwait and several other countries allow the station to transmit over their airwaves: Saudi Arabia “is a tougher nut to crack,” Pattiz says, but programming still reaches young Saudis from transmitters elsewhere.

Although the music is a big draw, Pattiz says listeners also tune in for more substantive fare. Each week, researchers ask 100 people in Jordan and other markets what station they turn to for news. In early July, only 1 percent of 15- to 30-year-olds said they listened to Radio Sawa newscasts; by mid August the figure had jumped to 18 percent.

“I think we’re presenting fair, balanced and credible news in the region,” Pattiz said. “I think they were very skeptical and thought we were going to provide them with propaganda, and that’s not what we do. It’s not unusual to hear that the German government is against our policy in Iraq, for example.”

But critics say Radio Sawa fails to address the major problem the United States faces in the Middle East: that most Arabs don’t like the U.S. posture toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“People don’t hate the United States, but they very clearly oppose U.S. policies,” said Ali Abunimah, a media analyst and vice president of the Arab-American Action Network.

“They’d like to see those policies changed, and no amount of spin is going to make them feel those policies are good. There’s nothing that can be done to convince any significant number of people in the Arab world that a U.S. war against Iraq would be a good thing or that U.S. support for Israel is a good thing. It’s beyond that - it can’t be done with a radio station.”

On a recent visit to Jordan, Abunimah spent a day comparing newscasts on Radio Sawa and the BBC, long one of the most respected sources of information in the Middle East. In general, he found, the BBC gave more coverage to Palestinian issues, including a report - not mentioned on Sawa - of a 125 percent increase in child malnutrition in areas reoccupied by Israel last spring.

Meanwhile, Abunimah said, “Sawa seemed to be concerned with damage control for the U.S. campaign against Iraq, prominently featuring denials by unnamed Israeli officials that Israel was trying to goad the U.S. into attacking Baghdad.”

Abunimah said he enjoyed the mix of Western and Arabic songs on Radio Sawa, but wonders if that too doesn’t represent a misguided effort.

“This sort of approach simply confirms the impression that U.S. society is very shallow and just trying to attract people with music and things that are just sort of frivolous,” he said.

“I like the music, but I would question if this is a good use of U.S. taxpayer money. It’s definitely succeeded in attracting an audience but for what purpose? The United States government is not a D.J. - what is the point of getting popularity for playing pop records?”

Still, Radio Sawa says it is doing so well and growing so fast that it’s had a hard time recruiting enough staff.

“We took all the VOA Arabic people and retrained them and they’re good, but it takes a lot of people because we want good journalists,” said Joan Mower, a spokeswoman. Although its news operation is now based in Washington, the station plans to add a program center in Dubai by the end of the year.

And while Radio Sawa doesn’t want to be seen as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government, it may need to make its American roots a bit clearer.

“Keep up the good work, guys,” e-mailed a listener in Kuwait. “P.S: I have a question. What is the nationality of this station, and who is the owner?”