Thursday, October 10, 2002
Tehran, Iran A U.S.-funded radio station is preparing to reach out to young Iranians with music and a message: Stay tuned to America and its values.
The broadcasts, scheduled to begin early next year, are another attempt by Washington to use youth-oriented media to bolster America's sagging image in the Middle East.
The concept ï¿½ round-the-clock, multi-lingual pop music and news ï¿½ debuted March 23 with the Arabic-language Radio Sawa, which replaced the more stodgy public affairs programming on the Voice of America's Arabic service.
Surveys indicate a growing audience for Radio Sawa ï¿½ or "Radio Together" in Arabic. The music features American favorites such as Jennifer Lopez and the Back Street Boys along with Arab pop stars from Egypt, Lebanon and other countries.
One poll in Amman, Jordan, in late September found Sawa's news was favored by at least a third of radio listeners aged 17 to 28, according to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S.-backed international broadcasts.
"These surveys inspired us to try the same idea in Iran," said board member Norman Pattiz, founder and chairman of Westwood One Inc., the largest U.S. radio network.
The challenges and potential in Iran are clearly evident.
Iran's powerful clerics have relentlessly vilified America ï¿½ the "Great Satan" ï¿½ since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Chants of "Death to America" still resonate with some groups, particularly the deeply religious classes convinced that the United States is an enemy of their faith.
But many younger Iranians don't feel so threatened. American culture ï¿½ fashion, music, political freedoms ï¿½ is absorbed via the Internet, clandestinely imported Western magazines and satellite television channels from the large U.S-Iranian community.
On Sept. 10, the Voice of America began its own youth-oriented satellite TV broadcasts to Iran called "Next Chapter."
The potential audience is huge. About half of Iran's citizens were born after the revolution. They have no memory of its seminal events: the collapse of the U.S.-backed monarchy and the 444-day hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy that severed diplomatic relations.
Last month, a poll by an Iranian government-run research group found nearly 75 percent of respondents favored improved ties with the United States. A court then closed the polling firm.
"This is who we are after ï¿½ the people who are open-minded about America," Pattiz said. "We want them to learn about the America we know, not the America that is represented to them in the government-controlled media."
The new station will have offices in Washington and in Prague, Czech Republic. It still doesn't have a name and its broadcasting plan ï¿½ including details like where its news and music will emanate from ï¿½ has not been completed.
Pattiz said the new station will abandon "old-style propaganda" methods such as ringing praises for democracy and the free market as a global cure-all. The news bulletins ï¿½ with an American focus ï¿½ will attempt to showcase the breadth of American freedoms and pluralism.
"We want to be an example of the freedom of the press in the American tradition," Pattiz said.
It may be a hard sell. The "axis of evil" label President Bush gave Iran, Iraq and North Korea had far-reaching consequences in Iran.
Reformist leaders, including President Mohammad Khatami, interpreted it as an arrogant rebuff to their attempts to expand contacts.
"The long history of U.S. action against Iran has left its mark on the mind of almost all Iranians," said Reza Sekini, a 31-year-old student who occasionally listens to the Voice of America's Farsi service, which began broadcasting in 1979.
"I won't listen to the voice of Satan," insisted 38-year-old Reza Khodakaram. "Americans have never wanted anything good for us."
But the new broadcasts could find a niche. The appetite for foreign news reports is high these days following the closure of many newspapers that sought to challenge the clerics' vast powers.
The Voice of America appears far behind the tastes of young Iranians as restrictions on music ease. The new station for Iran is expected to use the same programming format of Radio Sawa, a mix of Western and local bands.
"If the new station wants to win listeners, it has to come up with a musical revolution," said Mirnaser Porsofi, a retired health ministry employee.