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Voice of America versus Radio Sawa in the Middle East: A Personal Perspective

Issue 2, Summer 2007

By Laurie Kassman

The VOA has a long history of covering the Middle East both in English and in Arabic.  Picture courtesy of the VOA.

The VOA has a long history of covering the Middle East both in English and in Arabic. Picture courtesy of the VOA.

Comparing Voice Of America (VOA) to Radio Sawa is like comparing apples to oranges.  The US government funds both but that is about where the similarity stops.  Radio Sawa is an Arabic-language pop music radio that broadcasts exclusively to the Middle East.  The Voice of America has a more global reach with many language services sharing the funding. But since VOA English has mostly been silenced in the region and VOA Arabic has lost its voice altogether after Radio Sawa was created in 2002, it is important to show how American public diplomacy broadcasting to the region has changed.  This article highlights the key differences in news approach and content between the channels, and argues that by scrapping VOA in the Middle East, the US has both undercut its own public diplomacy interests and the interests of listeners in the region itself.

Radio Sawa’s “hostile takeover”

In 2002, the VOA Director and two members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the board that oversees VOA, RFE-RL (Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty) and several ‘surrogate’ radios—told the VOA staff of its decision to eliminate VOA’s Arabic service and create Radio Sawa.   They said a new approach was needed to respond to the changing demographics of the Middle East, where more than half the population was under the age of 35.  At the time, BBG member Norm Pattiz said the key to winning the hearts and minds of Arab youth was in winning their ears.  One solution, he said, was to play the top hits from East and West to grab their attention and listening loyalty. 

Before VOA Arabic was shut down, it broadcast a variety of cultural and educational programs with less emphasis on music.  There was general agreement within the service that it was time to revamp programming to appeal to a more youthful listening audience.  Reporters and broadcasters had started brainstorming about new programs.  I remember the Arabic Service reporter in Jerusalem, for example, quickly scouted out potential recording studios in Ramallah for live call-in shows.  Others looked at ways to liven the music.  Much to the chagrin of VOA Arabic staffers, the brainstorming translated into thinking outside VOA and creating a separate radio station with a new cast of characters.   One staffer described it as a “hostile takeover.”

A key argument for creating Radio Sawa was the dwindling audience for VOA Arabic broadcasts, which were distributed mostly via short wave.  Data at the time showed that listeners were turning to medium wave and FM frequencies.  VOA management had drawn up a $15-million plan in 2001 to expand transmission capabilities and lease FM frequencies to boost the VOA presence. But the Arabic service was eliminated before the plan became reality.  Instead, the BBG negotiated for FM and medium wave frequencies to expand Radio Sawa’s reach in the region.

Radio Sawa is a non-VOA brand.  For listeners in the Middle East, Radio Sawa was not clearly identified as a US government radio.  Listeners were surprised that VOA Arabic was off the air.  They couldn’t hear VOA English either because Radio Sawa had usurped the medium wave and FM frequencies VOA English was using to bolster its shortwave feeds to the region.   

During my trips into Baghdad in 2003, Iraqi listeners complained to me they could no longer hear the informative VOA Arabic programs they had grown up with or the Special English programs that one teacher told me she had used for her college students.   Others said they had switched to BBC and Radio Monte Carlo for their English and Arabic broadcasts, thus depriving the US of an effective public diplomacy tool.

The timing of the changeover from VOA Arabic to Radio Sawa could not have been worse for those of us in the field.  It was April 2002 and I was temporarily assigned to the Jerusalem bureau to help cover the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian turmoil.   Tensions were building. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had sent his troops into the West bank.  PLO leader Yasser Arafat was a prisoner in his West Bank compound.  The Palestinian broadcast facilities were knocked off the air and Palestinians were desperately seeking the latest news. 

The phone calls began flooding into the VOA office.  “Where’s VOA?  We can’t get any news, just music.  What’s going on?”  At a time when we normally would have provided reliable, balanced news and analysis about events taking place on their doorsteps, we were feeding them the best of Britney Spears and Eminem 24 hours a day.

Sawa labeled a propaganda tool, not a trusted news source

Commentators and critics of Radio Sawa in the Middle East complained that the short newscasts, sandwiched between pop songs, were focused too heavily on pronouncements out of Washington.  They labeled the station a US propaganda tool. That kind of label is hard to shake and only adds to the mistrust of US words and actions. 

After Radio Sawa began broadcasting, I encountered some political leaders and analysts in the Middle East who were reluctant to be interviewed by me and other VOA correspondents.  They assumed that Radio Sawa had replaced VOA.  They told us they did not want to be tarnish their reputation by associating with a network they perceived to be trivial and biased.

From the start, Radio Sawa has boasted success based on how many were listening rather than who. The music format was novel and attractive but FM stations in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East quickly imitated it. So what difference can Radio Sawa make if few are paying attention to it?

Radio Sawa’s management says the network has increased news and information programming to about seven hours a day, including live coverage of key speeches, news conferences and Congressional hearings from Washington.  News Director Daniel Nassif says the formula is one third news and two-thirds music, with magazine or chat shows usually scheduled for evening hours.  News reports average 35 seconds in length, features about three minutes. Radio Sawa says its discussion shows on the Iraqi stream include “The Free Zone”, which is billed as its “signature program on freedom and democracy issues” in the Middle East.   Some Radio Sawa staffers who had worked for VOA Arabic before acknowledge the station is improving its content but they tell me it is hard to shake its image as a shallow rock ‘n roll station.

Radio Sawa considers itself a serious station, pointing to its dedicated staff in the region and around the world as evidence.  It says it has more than 70 employees on its staff in the Springfield, VA headquarters and its Middle East Program Center in Dubai, UAE.  In addition, the network says it contracts with 90 stringers based in 43 major Middle Eastern, European and international cities. US coverage is supported by stringers  in  Washington DC and Detroit, Michigan.  

But the station has not fulfilled its own goals. When Radio Sawa was created five years ago, the goal was to broadcast in a pan-Arab stream with six dialect streams targeting different areas of the Middle East with more localized news (Egypt/Levant, the Gulf, Iraq Morocco, Jordan/Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Sudan/Yemen).  Radio Sawa management says only the Iraqi dialect stream is operational for now to supplement the pan-Arab broadcast, which is mostly music.

VOA: A very different broadcast outfit

In comparison, VOA is considered a much more authoritative news channel, which performs a valuable public diplomacy role in regions where news is often censored, as in the Arab World. VOA Managing Editor Alex Belida says Middle East stories account for about one third of the daily world news output of VOA’s newsroom. English reports by newsroom writers and correspondents in the field are translated by VOA’s other 44 language services for use in their own programs. When the Arabic Service existed it also drew on the valuable resources of the central newsroom.

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