June 5, 2006


U.S. Station Seeks Ear of Iran's Youths: Radio Farda Goes Easy on the News, Heavy on Pop Music to Capture Vast Under-30 Audience (David Finkel, 6/05/06, Washington Post)

It is not frivolous, this decision of how best to portray U.S. values and ideals via radio transmission. From surveys of Iranian ex-pats to market tests in Dubai, Radio Farda has been a work in progress since its debut in late 2002. The one constant, for which it has been both lauded and criticized, is that unlike Cold War-era transmissions by the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe that relied primarily on news programming, Farda blends news and music as a way to reach a country where two-thirds of the population is said to be under 30.

"A little bit of entertainment" is how Bert Kleinman, a consultant to Radio Farda, describes the broadcast formula he helped design. "The core of the mission is news and information" -- in a typical hour, 16 1/2 minutes of programming is devoted to news -- but "we were tasked to reach out to the younger generation there. And quite frankly, you just can't do it with news."

So in addition to a 10-member news staff in Washington and a 28-member news staff in Prague, there is Valinejad, whose duties as the person in charge of the non-news include sifting through the 300 or so phone messages a day left by listeners who call in their responses to the interactive feature "What Do You Think?"

"We try in the American tradition to have respectful dialogue," Kleinman says of this feature, which airs twice an hour. An acceptable topic, he says, is, "What should be done to improve the relationship between Iran and the United States?" An unacceptable topic would be, "Should the mullahs be overthrown?"

There are also station promotions that air several times an hour, along with features about health issues (acceptable: "why Vitamin E is good for you," says Kleinman; unacceptable: "boil your water so you don't get bubonic plague").

More than anything else, though, there is music.

"Happy music," Kleinman says.

No hip-hop. No alternative. No rap.

"Adult contemporary," Kleinman says. Music with "a happy beat to it."

"Madonna. Michael Jackson. The Gipsy Kings. Bob Marley," Valinejad says, looking over her playlist. "Abba. Enrique Iglesias. Phil Collins. Celine Dion." [...]

What makes it worth it, Valinejad says, is the idea of sending music into such a place. One thing she remembers from her time in Iran is that love songs weren't allowed, unless they were songs about love of God or Islam. So into Iran goes a Celine Dion ballad and eight or so other songs every hour on a route from Northern Virginia to Munich, then to a transmitting facility in Dubai, and then into a country where the Iranian government tries to jam the signal and there's no way to tell who's listening at any given moment.

There have been attempts to find out. One survey -- done by calling Iranian phone numbers and asking the person on the other end whether he listens to Radio Farda -- put the number of adult listeners per week at 13.6 percent of the adult population. It is only an estimate, though, because how many Iranians will speak honestly with a complete stranger who has telephoned them out of the blue?

Nonetheless, Valinejad is sure they are out there in droves, waiting to hear what song America is sending their way next because if she were in Iran that's what she would be doing, too. "It gives you energy," she says of the music. "It gives you hope. It gives you something to look forward to."

And it gives you what's up next for the people of Iran: Shania Twain, singing, "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!"

Keep beaming that stuff in and the mullahs will surrender.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2006 7:35 AM
Comments for this post are closed.