Gutting VOA and Radio Sawa
Some news reports from the Los Angeles Times and other
newspapers this week have talked about the amazing success of Radio Sawa,
the US government radio network that broadcasts on FM and AM in the Middle
East. It plays music all day, mixing Britney Spears with local Arab pop
stars, sort of like a typical US pop music station. It has two brief news
breaks each hour, of about 7 minutes each, when short headlines are given
rather breathlessly, with all the depth typical of AM pop music stations
in America, only in Arabic.
This service has by all accounts become enormously popular among Arab
young people, reaching as many as 18% of them in some countries of the
Arab East. Its listenership is overwhelmingly in the 15-29 age bracket.
This interesting enterprise is headed by Norman Pattiz, media moghul in
Los Angeles and head of its Westwood One, which runs a similar
broadcasting format. Pattiz, a major Democratic party contributor who has
been involved in Israeli-Jordanian dialogue efforts, was appointed by
President Clinton to the VOA governing board. Pattiz has certainly scored
a success of sorts with his new format and with the millions voted for the
enterprise by the US Congress.
What is not widely recognized is that Pattiz and his supporters have
killed off the Arabic Service of the Voice of America and are now seeking
to kill the VOA Persian Service.
The VOA was a genuine news organization that did independent journalism.
It was always getting into trouble with Congress for doing so. Its
shortwave format was admittedly highly limiting to its audience (only 1%
of Arabs listened to it), but then it could also have been given FM
transmitters if Congress had wanted to pay for it. The VOA did hours and
hours of news, analysis and cultural programming similar to that of the
BBC. Its target audience was not teenagers and young 20s but the movers
and shakers in the Arab world.
Sawa in contrast is listened to almost nobody who actually matters in
decision making in the region. And, its news division is highly
ideologized. Its head, a Lebanese, has boasted that the only time you
will hear Saddam Husayn on Sawa is when he says the words “I surrender.”
This attitude is in stark contrast to that of the VOA professional
Although Sawa promises that it will eventually add more news and analysis
to its programming mix, it is clear that this will be highly biased and
propagandistic and easily perceived as such, and that it will also remain
superficial and a limited part of the service.
I think Sawa is a great idea in and of itself, and I wish it well. But
killing off the VOA and replacing it with Sawa is an absolutely terrible
idea, and inevitably represents an opportunity cost for the US. VOA’s
news division should have been kept independent and given the same
broadcasting facilities as Sawa has. The new face of the US media in the
region is glib, superficial, and as unbalanced in its news coverage as US
government policy is in its diplomacy. With no professional journalistic
enterprise like VOA to offset it, I can only think that it will backfire
The last thing we wanted was for 20% of Arab youth to listen in on the US
being blatantly unfair on an hourly basis.