Not Your Parents’ VOA

By Ian Derk

The Voice of America is a news station broadcast around the world in different languages. After the first broadcast into Nazi Germany in 1942, Voice of America claimed to broadcast “the truth.” Corey Pein describes the station as similar to “a midsize NPR affiliate” in tone. Its mission is to stimulate debate about particular issues related to America in the region. News unavailable through the state-run broadcasts of certain nations is available by short-wave radio. Broadcasts can also be streamed through the Internet and downloaded for later use. Among the over 40 languages available for Voice of America broadcasts, Arabic is not an option.

Voice of America axed its Arabic station in 2002 in favor of Radio Sawa. From an Arabic word for “togetherness,” the station attempts to bridge the cultural gap between the Middle East and the U.S. Unlike old Voice of America stations, programming has fewer news programs and more entertainment. The Voice of America was a station devoted to news with occasional entertainment pieces. Radio Sawa, by contrast, contains more music than news. Music is a mix of Arabic and American pop music. American audiences will recognize the appearance of contemporary artists like Pink, Beyoncé, and Snoop Dogg. Arabic music has some different sounds than American music, like accordions, but is not afraid of the power ballad with soaring guitar solo. If you are lucky, you might catch some reggaetone (a mixture of dancehall and hip hop broadcast mostly in Spanish). Radio Sawa has a music-friendly mix, playing 75% music and 25% news. The station claims to have a large audience in the Middle East, particularly among young listeners. Ratings are high and listener penetration numbers are close to the numbers of Al Jazeera viewers.

Radio Sawa has been assaulted for several reasons. Some critics claim the emphasis on pop music is ceding the war of ideas by not engaging terrorists directly. Jordanian journalists claim the radio station is “fun but irrelevant.” An Iraqi journalist wanted more dialogue with the station rather than being talked at by American broadcasters. Commonly, the criticism focuses on the lack of credible policy discussion on the network. Journalists, government, and other people want more direct information and less pop.

Principles

Unlike criticism of the U.S. government-sponsored satellite channel Al-Hurra, the criticism against Radio Sawa is about a lack of substance. Detractors are afraid that the radio station will not broadcast the policy-promotion pieces required by Voice of America stations. Pine notes that Voice of America has been accused of being a propaganda wing of American foreign policy for several decades. While Radio Sawa promoters report high ratings, the ideological influence of the station is unclear, making its impact difficult to gauge.

Criticisms against Radio Sawa resemble those faced by Voice of America in the early 1950’s. Congress claimed that the success of Voice of America was unproven and demanded the program demonstrate results. At the time, Congress believed the major problem with the network was signal jamming by the Soviet Union. The metaphor of a “war of words” dominated the conversation about the usefulness of the Voice of America. Until the end of the Cold War, it was impossible to determine the audience for Voice of America, let alone the impact. The falling Iron Curtain demonstrated that Voice of America programming was popular and promoted a positive view of America.

Post-Cold War versions of Voice of America were touched by new priorities. President Bush decided to broadcast more programming in Persian, Urdu, and Pashto to reflect the immediate needs in the Global War on Terror. As funds for these broadcasts increased, the language most drastically cut was English. A private contracting group working in Iraq was caught planting pro-American stories in Iraqi media at great expense, something that might have been done more cheaply and ethically via Radio Sawa.

Analysis

One reason the Voice of America Arabic was changed to Radio Sawa was a lack of audience. The pre-9/11 Voice of America Arabic station has an audience of around 1.6 million viewers, whereas Radio Sawa’s is estimated at nearly 35 million. By comparison, Voice of America claims to have an audience of 100 million but has a larger broadcasting area and more languages. In any communication situation, finding an audience is critical, and even if Voice of America Arabic gave more substantive broadcasts, Radio Sawa has the numbers. In terms of gaining an audience, Radio Sawa accomplishes its objective.

Radio Sawa is also successful because it limits the “war of ideas” metaphor as part of American policy. It recognizes the importance of Arabic popular culture rather than simply broadcasting American pop songs. Arabic culture is recognized as important to Arabic youth and the idea of cultural imperialism is minimized by the inclusion of other types of music. Voice of America operated under a transmission model of communication. Radio Sawa approaches communication from a cultural perspective rather than straight transmission. By exposing Arab youth to American culture in small doses, Radio Sawa avoids the attempts at direct persuasion used by the Voice of America, which are less effective in the current struggle with terrorism.

The most salient criticism against the network is the inability to reach Arabic speaking Muslims in the U.S. Radio Sawa, like Voice of America, is legally prohibited from broadcasting within the U.S. Though broadcasts are available on the Internet, the concept of cultural exchange would gain more ground if there was an Arabic station widely available in this country. If the U.S. government wants to promote the value of Radio Sawa, along with Voice of America, it should consider amending laws to allow broadcast within the U.S.

Further Reading

  • Browne, D. R. (1998). Voice of america. History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia, 681-681.
  • Clark, A. M., & Christie, T. B. (2005). Winning hearts: A framework for understanding the use of facilitative communication in U.S. international radio broadcasting in the middle east. Journal of Radio Studies, 12(2), 270-285.
  • Lindahl, R. (1983). Analyses of international propaganda broadcasts. Communication Research, 10(3), 375-402.
  • Lubove, S. (2004). Britney does the mideast. Forbes, 174(2), 62-63.