Extended Interview: Mouafac Harb
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NEWSHOUR: How would you describe Radio Sawa? What kind of programming does it offer?
MOUAFAC HARB: [It offers] music, [in] Arabic and English, and also news, fast-paced news, objective… I never anticipated the success of the radio the way it is right now.
NEWSHOUR: And to what do you owe that success? Do you think there was a thirst in that area that had gone unrecognized for a long time?
MOUAFAC HARB: Yeah, I think there was a big hole in the market and we isolated that hole and we decided to appeal for the younger audience in the Arab world, that no one else is doing it.
And when you know that 65 percent of the Arab population is under the age of 25, that would be, commercially speaking, the right way to go.
But the success of the radio was really beyond our expectations.
NEWSHOUR: From a news perspective, are they a cynical, skeptical crowd in terms of what they feel that you’re feeding them?
Do they ask questions? To the extent that you’re getting feedback through your data, are they worried about news being filtered or spun? What kind of sense do you get?
MOUAFAC HARB: There is something unique about the Middle East. People do not trust anything they hear on radio or television, for one good reason, because most media outlets in the Arab world today are state-run and state-sponsored. As we used to joke, they don’t cover, they cover up things.
And we have a new radio station in the Middle East, Arabic language radio station. So it was expected that people would be skeptical about the objectivity of the news, and especially when they know who’s behind this radio station. But by time, people are more and more finding out that this radio is providing accurate information. And it’s just a matter of track record.
NEWSHOUR: What sorts of questions do the average, particularly young people ask?
MOUAFAC HARB: People question the intentions, because they think any government funding a radio station has bad intentions, because this is coming from the uniqueness of that part of the world, because people don’t trust their governments, which means they don’t trust the media outlets funded by these governments.
So they question the intentions of the radio station. Why the U.S. is funding this radio station? There must be something they need after that. And, it will take time for our people to get used that — our agenda is very clear.
We’re a very transparent project, we believe in free flow of information. And that’s the best way, we believe as journalists, we have a journalistic mission, that this is the best way to serve democracy and American interests.
NEWSHOUR: Do you use the term “suicide bombers,” which clearly, in some places is considered a loaded term?
MOUAFAC HARB: Correct. We use terms widely used by respectable media organizations and news organizations, and people compare it to what they hear in the Arab world. We de-emotionalize the news. We do not take sides in reporting the news. We separate between news and opinion, which is something [that] also may sound like Journalism 101. But again, we’re dealing with the Middle East.
People cannot see the difference between news and opinion. So what we’re trying to introduce here is the difference between news and opinion. So we describe events the way they happen. And we believe if you call it martyrdom or whatever, you’re taking a side. And we report the news, hard news.
And sometimes people complaint because this is not how it sounds on Al-Jazeera or on Abu Dhabi TV… We’re not injecting, we’re not editorializing the news. We just report the news the way it is.
NEWSHOUR: What is the overall opportunity here, or mission? You can in fact kind of train a whole generation of news consumers to what true news is about, is that part of it?
MOUAFAC HARB: I think this is one of the achievements of Radio Sawa right now. We are introducing to this market news reporting the way haven’t heard in the past. And I think this would help lead to a richer media scene in the Arab world.
We’re training Arab journalists to do it that way, the American broadcasting techniques, and people are perceiving it.
NEWSHOUR: Are there any changes or tweaks you’ve made over time, and why — as you’ve gotten more feedback from your particular audience?
MOUAFAC HARB: It’s so rewarding to see that the vision that we [originally] had is playing well right now. We’re adding more information, more news, more interactivity with the people, and within the same format, the youth format, radio for the younger generation. We’re adding something called “Sawa Chat.”
And we just adapt to the market. But at the same time keeping in mind the format. We don’t want to break the format, because people like the format. Anything that we add, we test in the market. We adapt to the market. We adapt to the market needs. And in times of crisis and interest in news, we expand the news coverage, and this is because we believe this is what people need right now. They want more information, and the format is flexible enough that it allows us to do that.
NEWSHOUR: What about pending war in Iraq, if a war to actually happen? What is the challenge for you in that particular situation?
MOUAFAC HARB: We’re competing. What’s so good about Radio Sawa is that it’s definitely part of U.S. international broadcasts, but at the same time, we have the private sector mentality. I will treat any event like any newsroom.
I want to bring the news before anyone else. It’s a challenging event, the one you can cover before anyone else. And it’s more challenging for us because it’s in the Middle East in case it happens and we need to be able to be a reliable source of information. And we want to be listened to, we want to win the ratings, and we will direct our resources in this direction.