Radio Ga Ga

Government gets into the Iraqi media game


Radio Sawa plays Shania Twain, Euro hits in Arabic, news you can use, and more. Mouafac Harb, "an energetic 35-year old Lebanese-American," is "one of the principle creative forces behind Radio Sawa," according to the State Department web site, and his effort to build a listenership appears to be pretty successful; Radio Sawa's own marketing arm claims it now reaches reaches 40 percent of its 18-to-30 target audience in the Gulf and the Levant. Radio Sawa is "funded by the U.S. Congress," in the State Department's phrase. Since the U.S. Congress is funded by you, that means you've paid for Radio Sawa: Give it a listen.

I liked Radio Sawa at first, but after a few days of listening, the station is a bit anodyne for my tastes, and its playlist seems to contain only about 12 hours worth of music. I have enough trouble keeping American pop stars, let alone Arab hitmakers, straight in my head; I'd travel several time zones just to get away from the boring tunes of Lebanese chanteuse Najwa Karam.

For Radio Sawa, and for the suite of television programming the State Department is now building up for the Middle East, the sore spot may not be a matter of programming choices but of definition. Yesterday, the BBC introduced the second foreign-produced Arabic radio broadcast into Iraq. Undoubtedly that's welcome news to Britons who have to pay television license fees to keep the Beeb in business. The United States already broadcasts the television show "Iraq and the World" into postwar Iraq, and is planning something far more ambitious: the $30 million Middle East Television Network (METN)—another direct competitor to Al Jazeera—planned to debut this fall. In other words, the next group of media players in the Middle East will be governments.

Norman Pattiz, chairman and founder of Westwood One, is an appointed Governor of the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors, under which all the U.S. broadcasting efforts are taking place. (Sawa, he helpfully explains, means "together" in Arabic.) Pattiz and his team deserve high praise for having gotten such a large project off the ground in such a short period of time.

But the State Department's news and entertainment efforts are set up to address a problem that doesn't exist. It's hardly difficult to find representations of American values and views in the Middle East—those are readily available to anybody with cable or a satellite dish (that translates into 33 percent of households with TVs in the Middle East, according to the Board of Governors). Pattiz's indications that he wants to skew heavily toward entertainment is a well-judged effort to woo Arabs tired of Jazeera's all-war-all-the-time lineup; but if he thinks he's offering anything substantially new to his viewers, he's going to be sorely disappointed. The very best, freest, and most dynamic examples of American TV—MTV, Seinfeld, CNN, The Simpsons—are widely available to METN's target audience already.

If Secretary of State Powell truly harbors ambitions of becoming a media honcho, he might be better advised to limit his role to that of local contractor, hooking up that remaining 67 percent of Arab TV audiences with the equipment they need to receive a better media lineup, and facilitating local content providers who will rise up to fill the market need. So far, few Iraqis have had a chance to evaluate Pattiz's or anybody else's televised offerings, for the very immediate reasons that the country doesn't have enough electricity and that Saddam Hussein outlawed satellite dishes. There is an interesting parallel here with Ron Bailey's comment the other day—that the U.S. has been moving ahead with Iraqi democracy at lightning speed, when what Iraqis need is food, water, and a semblance of civil structure. METN, Radio Sawa and the rest are all part of America's planned democratic revolution in the Middle East; if we want that revolution to be televised, we're better off making sure people have TVs. The market will take care of the rest—despite the best efforts of government employees the world over.