Amid Iraq's violence, a radio station gives people hope

Jaffar al-Zubaidi directs a program on Sumer FM, Iraq's most popular independent radio station in Baghdad, Iraq on October 28, 2008. (Corinne Reilly/MCT)
Jaffar al-Zubaidi directs a program on Sumer FM, Iraq's most popular independent radio station in Baghdad, Iraq on October 28, 2008. (Corinne Reilly/MCT) Corinne Reilly / MCT

BAGHDAD — Inside a spacious studio with purple and yellow walls, Hana Abdulkadhim, a well-known Iraqi radio host, is preparing to take her first call of the day. A few minutes into Good Afternoon with Hana, the switchboard is already flooded with listeners eager to chime in on the day's topic.

"This afternoon we're talking about circumstances in your life that caused you to lose something or someone you love," Hana says. "Were you able to overcome the situation, or were you defeated?"

A woman named Samma is on the line. "I lost my closest friend when she left our neighborhood," Samma says.

Hana asks if her friend was forced to flee.

Samma says yes. "Before, we had lots of time together. But now it's too far to reach her. We talk on the phone but it's not the same," she explains. "The circumstances defeated us."

Hana tells her caller not to give up on the friendship. "I'm going to play a song for you, sweetheart," she says.

This is Sumer FM, Iraq's most popular independent radio station. It broadcasts from a state-of-the-art, brightly decorated studio in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, and its signal reaches every corner of the country.

"It doesn't look like Iraq in here, does it?" the station's manager, Ammar Naji, says with a smile.

In a city overwhelmed by the complexities and uncertainties of war, Sumer FM is one thing its listeners can count on. Launched by a Lebanese businessman in November 2004, the station has stayed on the air every day since, even through Baghdad's most violent months.

A year ago, it was so dangerous here that many Iraqis were afraid to even leave their homes, and the cost of living in Baghdad has skyrocketed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But staying in and listening to the radio has remained safe and cheap.

Even when the electricity is out, as it still is for large portions of the day here, the radios stay on.

"No matter what's going on, we can give people something to enjoy, something to take their minds off everything else," says Jaffar al Zubaidi, Sumer's program director. "And we don't take money from any parties. We are for all Iraqis," regardless of politics, ethnicity, religion or sect.

Named for one of the earliest known civilizations in the world, Sumer employs 14 people, half of them on-air talent. All of its revenue comes from advertisement sales.

About half the time the station plays popular Arab and Iraqi music. The rest of its programming is filled with news, variety shows and talk.

Most of the station's discussion topics come from listeners. The goal is to give Iraqis a venue to vent their frustrations, Zubaidi says. The U.S. occupation, the constant power outages, the violence, the traffic jams and the long lines at security checkpoints are among the topics that draw the most callers, he says.

"We let people talk about their suffering so they don't feel like they are the only ones," Zubaidi says. "And we try to stop the suffering, too, by exposing the issues."

Recently a listener called to complain about how the government suddenly stopped paying his pension.

"We heard that same problem from many callers, so we made it the topic one day," Zubaidi explains. "And we invited (an official from) the pension directory to come on the show and hear the suffering."

Hani Haroon, a 29-year-old unemployed Baghdad resident, started listening to Sumer FM three years ago. "It is different from other stations," Haroon says. "They talk about the real issues that Iraqis care about. We need that. It gives people hope."

Haroon calls the station often, but gets through only once in a while. "It's hard because so many people want to be heard," he said. Sumer takes about 11,000 listener phone calls each month.

Though the station has continued to operate in spite of the violence, it hasn't been immune to it. In 2006 one of Sumer's employees was shot and killed by a sniper as he drove home from work. Another was kidnapped the year before.

Sumer's sister television station, Sumaria TV, has also lost several employees. The contemporary office complex they share is surrounded by tall metal gates and blast walls. It's guarded by men with assault rifles.

"Yes, we worry about violence," says Naji, the station manager. "But that doesn't mean life stops."

Even at the height of violence, Sumer was expanding. A little over a year ago, the station began broadcasting on satellite radio.

"I think Iraqis love our station because it is so close to the people," says Abdulwahd Mohsen, who hosts two shows on Sumer, a talk program called Talk of the Night and a music program called Immortal Tunes, which features classic Arabic songs.

"There is no divide between the station and the listeners," Mohsen says. "They know we are truly here for them, and that is rare here."

(Corinne Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy Special Correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this story.)

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