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U.S.-sponsored radio draws pop music fans in Middle East

AMMAN, Jordan—In their efforts to enhance America's popularity in the Arab world, U.S. officials have come up with an idea that's music to Middle Eastern ears.

Lured by the station's unprecedented 50-50 mix of Western and Arabic pop music accompanied by small doses of news, listeners in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and even Iraq are tuning in to Radio Sawa, a new U.S. government-sponsored radio station that broadcasts in Arabic 24 hours a day.

It's now the most listened-to station among pop-music-loving 17- to 28-year olds in Amman, Jordan's capital, according to a recent audience survey. Under-30s are precisely the group that Radio Sawa's creators targeted.

Radio Sawa—Sawa meaning "to come together" in Arabic—plays on nearly every street in Jordan's capital, in cabs and especially in restaurants and stores that cater to the young. The music is the lure; many listeners think the news is biased.

Tariq Daoud, 29, of Amman said he is particularly fond of Celine Dion's music and the mix of American and Arabic songs, but he says he believes only about 75 percent of the news reported.

"I don't believe any news about the Palestinians," Daoud said.

Firas Haddad, 30, who sells cell phones in Amman, said he tries not to listen to the station because he hates America, but he concedes that the station often plays the best selection of Arabic music.

"I never listen to 100 percent of what is said," said Haddad.

Mustafa Harmaneh, chief of research at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, says lots of young Jordanians claim they turn off Radio Sawa when the news begins. "The news is America-centric, but I think it's fair," Harmaneh said. "It's just news flashes," he continued. "If you want in-depth news, you don't listen to Radio Sawa."

Research sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. government agency that oversees Radio Sawa and the Voice of America, found that within six months Radio Sawa's popularity surpassed that of the BBC and local stations such as Amman FM.

Armed with these statistics, BBG Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that Radio Sawa "may be the star of our efforts in the war on terrorism." He added that: "In an age when Arab boycotts of American products are widespread, a U.S. government-run radio station almost overnight has become the most popular voice of its kind in major portions of the Middle East, including Baghdad."

From studios in Washington, Radio Sawa broadcasts to the region via AM transmitters in Cyprus, Djibouti and Kuwait, allowing it to bypass government controls in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is also received in more cooperative countries such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain through FM transmitters in their capitals.

Before Radio Sawa, the only U.S. broadcast presence was the Voice of America's Arabic service, a shortwave broadcast that reached "less than 2 percent" of Middle Eastern listeners, according to BBG member Norman Pattiz.

The BBG rejects charges that Radio Sawa is a propaganda tool. Spokeswoman Joan Mower insisted that its work is "completely separate" from the State Department's public diplomacy program.

When it comes to news, said Pattiz, "Our mission is a journalistic mission."

He believes Radio Sawa's news coverage is effective.

"People are open to listening to our news," Pattiz said. "Will that change how they feel about the U.S.? I don't know. But it gives them more sides than they had before."

Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, agreed on the need for alternative voices. He said Arab government stations "bore people to death," and that "young people are fed up with thought-control from their governments."

He attributed Sawa's success to "cultural schizophrenia," an appetite for American pop culture coupled with rejection of U.S. policies in the Middle East.

"People think highly of America in the sense that it's superior when it comes to everything they enjoy," he said.

"They're very angry at America because it's supporting Israel against Palestinians. Everyone likes Michael Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, but they hate George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RADIOSAWA