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Extended Interview: Bert Kleinman

January 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

NEWSHOUR: How do you see Radio Sawa establishing a bridge?

BERT KLEINMAN: In these very polarized times, we tend to look at the world kind of in terms of black and white and do you like us or don’t you like us. The feelings of young Arabs towards the United States are actually mixed. There’s a love-hate relationship. They love a lot about the American spirit, about freedom, about our optimism, about personal accomplishment; and they don’t like our foreign policy at all.

In a climate like that, part of what Radio Sawa is doing is trying to connect with the parts of America that young people in the Middle East love — if you want to create a bridge, to create a connection, to give them something about the United States that they can like.

When you talk to people in the Middle East, you can talk to people who are totally opposed to American policy, and they say, “oh, by the way, I have an uncle in Chicago and I’ve got a cousin wherever.” So the connections with the United States are very, very great. You look on television, you look at how people dress, you hear a lot of the music. Tremendous connections with us. But in the political disagreements, a lot of this gets lost.

If we don’t, as a country and as a people, keep our connection with the young people of the Middle East alive, whenever the smoke clears from whatever it is that’s going to happen, it’s just going to be more smoke.

Everyone in the [Bush] administration has said, particularly after 9/11, that while we needed to be very strong militarily, that the ultimate solution to terrorism had to do with a reaching out and a connecting with people and working on some of the things that caused these bad attitudes, giving people a sense of what America is really about.

And I never cease to be amazed at the goodwill that still exists towards America and American ideals. If you talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — real simple stuff — you’re talking about what most people in the Middle East want, as well as most Americans.

NEWSHOUR: How has some of that played now on Radio Sawa and Sawa Chat?

BERT KLEINMAN: Okay, well, the first thing you have to understand is that a radio station, to be successful, has to establish a direct relationship with its audience. People love the radio stations that are their favorite radio stations, and in that sense it’s very different from television or newspapers or things of that sort.

And so trying to be a good radio station, we do a lot of things to connect with the audience.

Part of it is how we talk to them, how we speak to them. We speak to them with respect. We speak to them giving them credit for intelligence. We speak to them in their own language, and not just Arabic, but the way young people speak. And we give an opportunity for them to speak back to us. We have a slogan on the air that says, “You listen to us, we listen to you.”

We invite people to send us e-mails. And we get thousands and thousands of e-mails. The amazing thing about the e-mails is not that people are requesting songs or whatever, but how they talk to us. They talk to us like buddies. They say, “hey, guys at Radio Sawa, how you doin’? I love you so much..”

Yeah, here’s one — “Hello, Radio Sawa team. I’m from Egypt, male, 21 years old. I want to tell you you’re the best radio in the world I saw in all my life.” He says, “you’re a great cockteel” — he means ‘cocktail,’ I think — “for youth and great news for us. I want to see new and new forever, please.”

Now, one of these are people whose English is not particularly good, but nevertheless who are reaching out to write to us. And if you look, these are actually copies of the e-mails.

This is, “Dear radio staff. Hello, Radio Sawa. I’ve been listening to you for the last two weeks and I love you.”

And the punctuation is wrong, a lot of the spelling is wrong, but that’s not the point. People are willing to lay themselves out there, as you would to a friend.

They come from all walks of life, and all ages. People introduce themselves. And some of them are actually, to me, very, very touching. They come from all over, people of all ages. And it’s extremely touching the way people talk to us.

Here’s a real simple one, it says, “Hi, I want to tell you that Radio Sawa is the best of all and I trust its news and like the songs. May our Lord save America.”

Most of them are not religious, or don’t have religious references. Some people start by saying, ‘As Salaam Alaikum’, which is the way they say “hello” in English.

Most of our e-mails are in English. I would say probably about 60 or 70 percent are in English and the rest are in Arabic. We read every one and we answer every one. And this is one of the things that Mouafac and I do every day. And it’s one of the ways that we keep in close touch with our audience.

This is a very interesting one… This is from Baghdad. We can’t do audience surveys in Baghdad — but anecdotal evidence — many reporters who’ve gone there have told us that everybody listens and you hear it coming out of a lot of taxis.

This says, “I’d like to tell you that in the night 85 percent [of] the Iraqi people are tuning to your station — the students, shops and even most of the taxis. It was really very smart of you to play Arabic and English songs so you can control both style listeners, those of the Arabic and the others of English.”

And we get the point, even though the grammar is not perfect.

NEWSHOUR: And in fact you are the only stream [radio station] in the Arab world that has..

BERT KLEINMAN: We’re the only major radio station in the Arab world that plays a combination of Western and Arabic music together. This is one of the more unusual things about the radio station.

Young people in the Middle East live in two cultures, in a way. They have their past and they have their traditions, some of which are national, some of which are religious; and then they have their present and their future, a lot of which is connected with education, the 21st century, and, in many ways, the West.

All the radio stations in the Middle East are either 100 percent Arabic or 100 percent English. We came to a place where young Arabs live, and that is that their lives is made up of both: “Sawa.”

“Sawa” means “together.” So we play Western and Arabic together. And so we represent a synthesis that resonates very, very closely with people. And that’s one reason why they emotionally react very well to our radio station. Our combination of Western and Arabic music is unique in the Arab world. And part of what it does is it expresses the place where young Arabs live, and that is partially in a Western sensibility and partially in a traditional Arabic sensibility. We play one Arabic, one Western, one Arabic, one Western, one Arabic, one Western. And we have promos on the air which sell the fact that we play the best Western and the best Arabic music together. As you can hear, the Western and the Arabic do in fact go together. We get a lot of people sending us e-mails who say, “I’m an American and I don’t understand any Arabic music. I happen to love listening to your radio station.”

Before we actually did this, we researched it and we tested it and we found that there was a huge hole in the market across the Middle East, where people wanted to hear the two together, but nobody was doing it. We found out that at weddings people were doing it, in discos people were doing it, in their homes they were doing it. Just that nobody was doing it on the radio.

This format would not have been possible five or ten years ago because Western and Arabic music were too separate.

But Western music, particularly pop and dance, has moved in more of a Latino direction, Latino-Spanish direction, with artists such as Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez. And Arabic music has moved a lot in the Greek and Latin direction as well.

NEWSHOUR: What is Sawa Chat?

BERT KLEINMAN: Sawa Chat [involves] questions that we get people on the street to answer.

NEWSHOUR: So, a question is thrown out and then you get responses from the street?

BERT KLEINMAN: Right. We don’t put the question on the radio.

Sawa Chat is an interactive feature that is designed to promote free discussion and the idea that young people can and should express themselves and express different opinions together. It’s not political, it’s social. And so we ask questions such as, “Do you think women make good bosses?”; “If a friend of yours was taking drugs, what would you do?”.

Some are lighter, like “What was your favorite vacation”; or “What was the worst nightmare you ever had”; “Did you ever cheat in school”; “Do your parents understand you?”

We go out on the streets of the Middle East in various big cities. Interviewers go out and they actually talk to people, and we tape-record their reactions. And then we put them together in montages and we run this feature once an hour, 24 hours a day. Each day we have a different question.

One of the things that young people in the Middle East love to do is to express themselves and express their opinion.

And this gives people the American value that it’s important to be able to express your opinion. We don’t do it in a heavy political sense, but we do it in a sense, actually, that’s probably closer to many of the concerns of the people, and that’s socially — [about] relationships and things of that sort.

NEWSHOUR: Has any [foreign] government taken an official stance on Radio Sawa?

BERT KLEINMAN: Radio Sawa has licenses from most of the places where we broadcast. We couldn’t broadcast on FM unless the governments gave us licenses.

NEWSHOUR: Is it fair to say that it was hard to get those licenses, or surprisingly not?

BERT KLEINMAN: I think that, if you would ask the average person, gee, can the United States government get licenses in ten Arab countries, or however many, to broadcast? They would say that’s impossible. So I would say that it required diplomacy.

But if they didn’t want to give us the licenses, they wouldn’t. We have licenses in Jordan, in Kuwait, in Bahrain, in Qatar, in United Arab Emirates.

NEWSHOUR: And the [licenses] were denied in…?

BERT KLEINMAN: Well, you know, there are countries where we don’t have licenses. I’m not involved in the political thing.

I mean, clearly, Saddam Hussein is not going to give us a license to broadcast from Baghdad.

NEWSHOUR: How do you decide which songs to play?

BERT KLEINMAN: We have the ratings [of the songs, which are in English and Arabic] in terms of the total rank — how familiar the songs are, how many people love the song, how many people like it, how many people hate it, and how many people are tired of it.

And we go and look at different songs and compare them with one another. And this is literally how we decide what to play and when to play it. And when people get tired of a song — like 43 percent of the people are sick and tired of “From Sarah With Love” by Sarah Connor — we don’t play it. It’s as simple as that.

BERT KLEINMAN: You ask people what do you want to hear? It’s so simple. You don’t guess. You go out, you ask people what they want to hear, and you do it. And then, amazingly, they tune in. [The] interesting thing is, we tend to think of the Middle East as one place, and there’s a tremendous musical difference between the different places.

NEWSHOUR: Which one is the most Westernized?

BERT KLEINMAN: Jordan, by far. And if you would go there, you would get the same feeling — even though politically Jordan may very well be the most anti-American. We do research in Amman, Cairo, and Kuwait.

And Kuwait, of course, has a big pro-American slant because of Iraq. Cairo, Egypt, is not really culturally close to America, but in Jordan you have the passion of the Palestinian issue. The majority of Jordanians are Palestinian. This is what makes our success in Amman so staggering.

I was there last summer doing focus groups. We were doing focus groups on political and news and other kinds of issues. I mean, if you go out in the street and you start to talk to young people in Amman, Jordan, about American foreign policy and about some of our high officials, you’re going to get endless dislike at best. They have a pro-American government, but as far as American policy in the Middle East is concerned — particularly as it relates to Israel — in Jordan it’s over the top in terms of their dislike.

The only place in my experience where you would find any support for what we’re doing in Iraq among the average people would be Kuwait, because they’ve been invaded by Iraq.

NEWSHOUR: Isn’t Jordan a good example of a bigger chasm between the government and the governed?

BERT KLEINMAN: Every state in the Middle East is. They’re not democracies. …

Jordan happens to be example of a country where the government, in particular the king and the queen, are certainly, I would think, a lot more pro-American and closer to America than an elected government would be.