Can American Pop Ease Mideast Hatreds?

Hamad Abdul doesn't care that Radio Sawa is owned and operated by the U.S. government. He's also unconcerned that it's the Voice of America's new propaganda arm. The 25-year-old student at Amman University has only one complaint about Sawa: "I wish they would play more Shakira," he says, referring to the popular American pop diva. "You only hear her songs maybe once an hour. I wish every other song was a Shakira song."

Chalk up one more satisfied listener of the seemingly innocuous but potentially important new station called Radio Sawa. Launched shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it has a considerably different goal than traditional Voice of America outlets such as Radio Free Europe. Rather than force-feed American news and opinion to listeners, Radio Sawa plays music.

In particular, pop music. One Western pop song followed by one Arabic pop song. At the top of each hour is a five-minute news break with quick-hit headlines and little editorial elaboration. Then it's back to the music.


  It's a pro-American soft sell, and for such a simple concept it's working amazingly well -- if audience acceptance is any measure of success. Right now, Radio Sawa is available in only a few Arab cities, such as Amman, Cairo, and Baghdad (which receives it from transmitters in the Northern Kurdish enclave). But according to Sawa's own research, it holds as much as 75% of the demographic it aims to reach: 17- to 34-year-olds. Independent media research is nonexistent in the Arab world, but conversations with cab drivers and Gen-X'ers in Amman suggest that 75% could even be a low estimate.

If so, Sawa could be a honey-sweet solution to what, for America, is an ugly problem -- the developing world's bulge of unhappy, militant youths. The phenomenon doesn't exist in Japan, the U.S., or Europe, where the younger generation is proportionally sized if not smaller than the population of middle-age or senior citizens. The average third-world country, by contrast, suffers from spiraling birth rates due to poverty, lack of education, and the lowly status of women.

The situation is especially acute in the Arab world: Some 65% of Egypt's population is younger than 34, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's International Database. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have an even larger ratio of youths to elders.


  The youth bulge is the primary ingredient in the stew that produces Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism -- representing, as it does, millions of poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised people who have run out of options to better themselves. They have little to be proud of except for a lost legacy of greatness. And to make matters worse, their totalitarian governments urge them to look anywhere but inside their own countries for the source of their problems. Could a better environment for recruiting suicide bombers be imagined?

Enter Radio Sawa, with siren songs from the likes of Britney Spears and Eminem (the bleeped versions, of course). It doesn't try to make pro-American converts of the Arab world's younger generation. Rather, it wants to turn them into media consumers who'll choose their radio and TV stations based on content, not politics. The theory is that it's the first shot in a pro-Western revolution.

While that strategy sounds like a stretch, Radio Sawa at least has its audience's ear. Already, Amman FM, previously the leading Jordanian pop radio station, has had to change its programming from a heavy dose of news and talk to become more of a mainstream music station. It still can't keep up with Sawa, though. Amman FM has "too many request shows," says Ziad El Jamra, 25, a bank teller in Amman, referring to the endless radio shows that consist mostly of conversations between the deejay and a caller. "And when they do play music, it's the music my parents want me to listen to, not what I want to hear."


  Few listeners are bothered by the fact that Radio Sawa is owned by the U.S. government. "What radio station isn't owned by a government?" asks Yousef Eqtait, a 25-year-old information-systems student who stopped by an Amman McDonald's to cram for an exam.

To American ears, that's a strange rhetorical question. But to an Arab, it makes perfect sense. Most of the Arab world has no such thing as a private radio station. The government even owns pop outlets such as Amman FM. And all the competition is government-owned, too -- including the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, and Radio Sawa.

Even Sawa's news broadcasts don't raise the ire of local youth. Partly that's because the station goes to great lengths to avoid politicizing the news: It presents only quick, snappy headlines, rather than in-depth reports. But it's also because the audience is far more intent on listening to the music than on hearing the news.


  The broadcasts' most controversial aspect, from the Arab audience's viewpoint, is that news reports use the term "suicide bomber" instead of "martyr" to describe Palestinians who blow themselves up in the midst of Israeli civilians. But even that doesn't faze the Sawa audience. "I'm old enough to decide for myself how to interpret the news," says Hebra Hassan, a 22-year-old student at Amman University. "Besides, the news is on for just a few minutes. Then the songs start again."

Sawa's biggest test will be whether it can retain its audience -- and start to influence it. If it can, it might just succeed in turning what poet Nizar Qabbani called "the children of the stones" into the Arab world's version of the MTV Generation. Call it the Sawa Generation.

By Sam Jaffe in Israel

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE