May, 2007. In April 2002, the U.S. Government launched an audacious new Arabic language radio station aimed at the countries of the Middle East and
A predominantly pop music service designed to appeal to youth, Sawa was established at the behest of American commercial media mogul Norman Pattiz who, until his resignation at the end of 2006, was a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent
Mr. Tomlinson has publicly described his friend and colleague Mr. Pattiz as "the father of Radio Sawa." After the station was launched, Mr. Pattiz described it in a public forum in ecstatic terms: "It sounded so different and it was so appealing—because it really sounds like a Western contemporary music station, a pop station."
Like any successful big-time business executive, Mr. Pattiz commissioned a survey and "a lot of advance research" before embarking on the costly, large-scale project of a 24/7 Arabic language radio station. The Middle East survey results, according to him, showed three things: (a) "over 60 percent of the population ... is under the age of 30," (b) "the indigenous media, especially radio ... everything was pretty dull and pretty drab, and it sounded like government radio," and (c) "people were interested in something that didn't sound like government radio." Mr. Pattiz decided that this was what businessmen call "the hole in the marketplace." In order to fill this "hole" with his product, Radio Sawa, he needed ample sources of cash and the most modern broadcast facilities to reach the audience with a clear signal. The new station cost the American taxpayer $34 million in its first year. He secured clear FM transmission to most Arab countries and a powerful medium wave to the rest. The VOA's Arabic Service cost the U.S. Government less than $5 million annually and transmitted its programs on a limited medium wave and a few short waves at the time it was replaced by Sawa.
Mr. Pattiz described his new station's mission as "... reporting the news straight up and letting the listeners ...decide for themselves." He said that in addition to Sawa's journalistic mission, it aspires to be "an example of a free press in the American tradition." He added: "We generally play an Arabic pop song followed by a Western pop song. And then we'll have news, five to ten minutes in length, twice an hour, with headlines at the top and bottom of the hour."
Sawa's constant on-air slogan boasts about "the loveliest tunes and the latest news." It never identifies itself as an American station or where it broadcasts from. Its round-the-clock airtime is divided into roughly 20 percent news and 80 percent pop music. Everything the listener hears other than the music is called The World Now. This rubric encompasses the presentation of hard news, light news, bromide and topical features and interviews, sports and so forth. The only exception is a daily 30-minute news program called Iraq and the World, half of which is rerun an hour later. No news-related material ever interrupts, or is incorporated within, the music portion—no matter how urgent the breaking news. Sawa does not carry discrete, identifiable "programs" with distinct titles, individual star talent and performers, music themes and thematic focus. No news "bulletins" are heard alerting listeners to momentous world events.
Unlike its plethora of field reporters and stringers, the station's studio readers, anchor persons and host announcers are never identified by name. This anonymity applies to the readers of widely scattered promos outside the news portions, plugging for Sawa, its website and (since February 2004) its sister TV channel Alhurra.
Contrary to Mr. Pattiz's claim, Sawa never carries heads at the top and bottom of the hour. It provides news only twice every hour, usually five minutes every quarter after the hour and a minute or two of headlines every quarter before the hour. The five-minute segments are variously called "newscast" or "full newscast" or "detailed newscast." The headlines are always presented as "summary." The full-length news may occasionally run up to 10, 15 or even 30 minutes, as in the exceptional case of the daily "
All "full newscasts" begin with three to four headlines, which sometimes pose a
confusing problem for listeners: the first headline may not necessarily be a reference to the first item in the body of the newscast, or an opening head is interrogatively formulated in a misleading and tabloidish style that does not accurately or fully reflect the substance of the news item itself. Another news-related inconsistency has to do with repeating the main headlines or the lead head at the conclusion of newscasts, and how to close a news program. Sawa's newsreaders seem to follow their own whims in this regard. In fact, some readers do not even close before the studio engineer plays the usual taped lead-out, "We relay the event to you in sound so you can form a complete picture." The headline news always ends with a prerecorded exhortation: "Stay in touch with the world—(through) The World Now." At times even these lead-outs are skipped before moving on to the pop songs.
A more serious problem that plagues Sawa's news handling goes to the core of evaluating priorities and exercising professional judgment regarding the relative significance of world events. Most and sometimes all news stories in one newscast are jettisoned in favor of another set of items in the next news presentation an hour later. This is done with shocking disregard for news value or breaking news. Rarely does a listener hear major stories repeated from hour to hour after proper updating or rewriting to freshen up the next program. Such a cavalier approach to news material distorts the overall picture of world happenings for the vast majority of listeners who normally zero in on specific time slots instead of staying glued to a station all day. Sawa's practice also reflects ignorance of what should constitute a day's major news leads. There are always major news developments that require coverage in more than just one newscast.
Although on rare occasions a listener would hear a flawless, impeccable, rich and seamless newscast with a perfect lineup, ample voice actualities and anchor confidence, the more prevalent practice gives listeners a messy picture of thematic and topical chaos. Related items on one event can be separated by several unrelated items. Big news developments on tragic events can be used as closers and, conversely, a light routine item or a local insignificant item may be given a prominent place in a newscast. Almost any news development can be used by Sawa as a lead. On a day full of important news, Sawa leads one newscast with a Jordanian government announcement that
Let's now turn our attention to a major news story of global significance that has preoccupied the world media for more than four years—the invasion and occupation of
When American and British forces launched their air and ground offensives in the spring of 2003, practically the whole world was calling this pre-emptive military action an “invasion” of a sovereign nation. Yet the word “invasion” disappeared from Sawa's lexicon. When
A few months into the occupation,
Eventually, as the situation in
Sound and Music
Sawa uses an impressive number of voices on the air, both male and female, as studio talent and field reporters. The professional quality of their delivery and their mastery of broadcast language, however, are very uneven, ranging from the highly effective and convincing to the very poor, from the smooth and natural to the awkward and halting, from the authoritative and pleasant to the pompous and pretentious. The impact of these voices on and receptivity by the listeners, therefore, vary widely and depend to a large extent on matching each to the reading assignment he or she is given. Aside from field reporters, performers are kept anonymous and the gifted stars among them are not optimally utilized as a tool to build up faithful fans of specific program features.
Music is used thematically by Sawa to identify the news. The theme for newscasts is satisfactory and utilitarian but somewhat pedestrian and, after a few weeks of listening, becomes tiresome to the ear. The theme for the summaries is annoying, distracting and overdramatic. It is held for the length of the summary and the level is brought up deafeningly between individual headlines. Some music stingers are also used in a post-modern video game digital-age fashion to accompany echo chamber promos or sloganeering catch phrases. The latter include such things as, "You listen to us, we listen to you," or, "From the ocean to the gulf, we are Sawa (i.e., together)." At times the station mentions its website or a telephone number or a few sound bites from listeners in praise of Sawa or expressing opinions on some innocuous or provocative subject.
There is minimal use of the sophisticated craft of radio production to enhance program impact. Rarely does a listener feel truly moved by a smooth forward flow of broadcast material. Nor does one always feel comfortable with the timing and placement of recorded inserts and promos. The station seems to have difficulty matching style to substance, harmonizing sound with words, utilizing a production device to enhance the effect of a program on a target audience living in non-Anglo-Saxon cultural environment.
This is a programming area that consumes about 80 percent of Sawa's airtime. It should logically deserve a commensurate level of attention, talent and resources. Yet after listening to endless hours of alternating Arabic and so-called "Western" pop songs, and trying to deduce some coherent, professional whole, we discover what a neglected, drifting wasteland all this airtime is. Some egregious weaknesses are: The music portions have no detectable character, personality or identity. The hourly segmentations cannot even be properly described as "programs" because they lack beginning and end that define the nature and flavor of the contents. Nobody is in charge, and there is no star quality talent who might act as a guide to the listeners through the various component parts. Almost none of the artists and songs are identified. No informative narrative is ever provided to enlighten us about the types of songs played, the dates of issuance, the extent of their popularity and other distinguishing facts. Talk interruptions come without artful, smooth transition flow or thematic unity. In the transition from one song to the next, there is more often than not a definite jarring clash in rhythm, melody, tone, lyrical connotation, voice quality and vocal range. Clocking groups of songs in any music period seems to receive little attention from producers and programmers. As a result, when time comes for The World Now and the last song has to be faded for the news introduction cartridge, the ending is frequently mishandled by cutting off in the middle of unfinished lyrics.
Illusion and Reality
The founders of Sawa were convinced from the outset that, in order for their new broadcasting project to accomplish a successful reach to Arab audiences by "marrying the mission to the market," they needed to separate the station from the Voice of America. The latter's mandate was too strict and broad for them. The VOA was required to adhere to its Charter, enacted into law decades earlier, whose operative paragraphs are:
(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
(2) VOA will represent
(3) VOA will present the policies of the
To be sure, Sawa officials continued in their promotional material to pay lip service to their commitment "to broadcasting accurate, timely and relevant news about the Middle East, the world and the United States, to the highest standards of journalism, as well as the free marketplace of ideas, respect for the intelligence and culture of its audiences, and a style that is upbeat, modern and forward-looking." But their real objective was to attract the Arab World's "youthful population" with pop songs and keep them tuned to the station. In terms of current affairs content, Sawa has never attempted to focus adequately on anything but parochial backyard Arab news which marginalizes major American and world developments.
Pop is a major successful commercial enterprise that targets a wide youthful common denominator, but it alone cannot present the picture of
News of the non-Arab world almost always plays second fiddle on Sawa's airtime. The station has literally scores of news reporters in Arab capitals, especially in Iraq, but only one part-time reporter in the United States who provides reportage from the State Department or at times from The White House (but never from Congress). Sure, Arab news is of utmost importance and a big draw, and must be accorded prominent play. However, significant events (economic, cultural, scientific as well as political) always take place in
The true nature of Radio Sawa's broadcast content and performance remains a mystery to the legislative and executive branches of government in
"The father of Radio Sawa," Mr. Norman Pattiz, years ago came to the conclusion that Arab hostility and dislike of
Five years after a steady diet of Sawa pabulum,
This is perhaps the best testimony to the abject failure of Mr. Pattiz's grand design.
Sam Hilmy is a veteran Middle East broadcasting Specialist and long-time observer of Arab-American affairs. He was for almost 35 years associated with the Voice of