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Extended Interview: Norman Pattiz

January 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Where did the name Radio Sawa come from?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Radio Sawa — “Sawa” is the Arabic word for “together.”

TERENCE SMITH: And it’s been on the air since March?

NORMAN PATTIZ: March 23rd.

TERENCE SMITH: How is it going?

NORMAN PATTIZ: It’s going fabulously well. All of the research that we’ve been conducting now since June has indicated significant and continuous up-trends.

The latest research that I just saw before I came in here, from Amman, Jordan, which is an area that’s 60 percent Palestinian, either by ancestry or birth, indicates that 52 percent of our target audience, which is primarily the 15 to 30-year-old audience, 52 percent indicate that Radio Sawa is their favorite radio station.

Over 90 percent indicated that they listened to Radio Sawa within the last week. And what’s most impressive, I think, is that 43 percent indicate that they listen to Radio Sawa mostly for news, and 39 percent — and that’s the last figure I’ll burden you with — indicate that they believe that Radio Sawa has the most reliable and trustworthy news of all the news that they see in the region.

TERENCE SMITH: Where are you broadcasting, and, in round numbers, how many listeners do you have?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, we’re broadcasting throughout the region. We have FM frequencies in Amman, [Jordan] — which covers Amman and the West Bank. We are broadcasting throughout the Persian Gulf, with stations in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, and soon Bahrain.

We’re broadcasting to Iraq. Some of the anecdotal information from the Iraqi press indicates that Radio Sawa is the number one youth station in the market, larger even than Saddam Hussein’s son’s radio station. So we’re thinking of having some tee-shirts printed saying “No. 1 in Baghdad.”

We also broadcast from a powerful medium wave, or AM facilities, out of Cyprus — that covers Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Soon we will be broadcasting out of Djibouti, which will cover the Sudan and Yemen.

And we are also on digital audio satellite, which really blankets the entire region via Nilesat, Arabsat, and Utelsat.

TERENCE SMITH: In a ballpark sense, can you give me a number of listeners?

NORMAN PATTIZ: I can’t give you a number of listeners yet because that research is ongoing right now. But we should have that shortly. But in terms of the entire region, you’re talking about a potential audience of 250 million Arabic-speaking people. And when you take a look and you start extrapolating the kinds of shares that we’re delivering in our target audience, you’re talking about multimillions.

TERENCE SMITH: Multimillions?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Absolutely..[and with a potential for growth].

TERENCE SMITH: What sort of sense of this audience — you spoke of a very young target audience — give me a portrait of the audience, as best you can.

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, we’re talking about an audience that is, generally speaking, under the age of 30. We’re talking about an audience that likes our mix of Western and Arabic pop music. You’re talking about an audience that when we researched the kind of feature programming that they would like to hear on a radio station, they want to hear features about health, they want to hear features about marriage and dating, and the Internet, and finance, and entertainment. They’re pretty much like the under-30 audiences that you would find almost anywhere in the world.

TERENCE SMITH: Of course, there’s a great range of cultural traditions in the areas in which you’re broadcasting — say on the issues of marriage and dating. How do you bridge all that?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, a lot of it is by having dialogue with our listeners. We have a feature which we have begun recently, called “Sawa Chat,” where we let listeners as questions and then we let people in the street answer those questions.

We have a saying on Radio Sawa, which is “You listen to us and we’ll listen to you.”

We’re very different than the way U.S. international broadcasting has been traditionally. We don’t talk at our audience. We want to create dialogue with our audience, and we want our audience to become an integral part of the radio station listening experience — which is how radio is most effective and most valuable wherever it’s broadcast around the globe.

TERENCE SMITH: You identify it as U.S radio?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Absolutely. Very transparent.

TERENCE SMITH: How do you deal with that?

NORMAN PATTIZ: At the bottom of the hour and — I believe, also at the top, but quite certainly at the bottom — we identify ourself as a service of U.S. International broadcasting. And of course all of our newscasts, and we do two newscasts an hour, one at 15 past the hour, another at 45 — of varying lengths, anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes in length — those newscasts are always coming from Washington.

So there’s really no doubt on the part of our listening audience that we are the Americans.

TERENCE SMITH: Coming in part from this room?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Absolutely. There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s coming from this room. By the same token, we have bureaus and stringers throughout the region. And we like to think that we fulfill our mission. And our mission is quite simply to promote freedom and democracy through the free flow of accurate, reliable, and credible news and information about America in the world audiences overseas.

NORMAN PATTIZ: In so many words, [we want to] be an example of a free press in the American tradition.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any sense of how the listeners regard the news that they hear — whether they consider it straight news or news with a U.S. angle, or propaganda?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, we do. It’s interesting, because this is a music-driven format and we do a lot of music research so we know what our target audience wants to listen to — much like a U.S. radio station would do before its launch.

And a lot of people had been saying, well, your audience will tune in to hear the music, but when the news comes around, they’re going to tune right out.

So when we do our weekly music research, we ask a lot of questions about our news. And when we started asking the question, “What radio station do you listen to most for news,” when we started doing the research many months ago, our target audience indicated Sawa, one percent. Now our target audience is indicating Sawa, 43 percent.

And when we asked the question “What radio station do you think has the most reliable and trustworthy news,” they say Sawa 39 percent, which is 20 points higher than their local radio station, Amman FM in Amman, and probably 30 points higher than the BBC.

So I think we have a pretty good idea that our news is gaining traction among our listeners in the region.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you encountering, or have you encountered, resistance from the government or the other broadcasters in the region?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, we have certainly encountered a great deal of cooperation from many of our moderate Arab government friends. In places where they have given us permission to utilize FM frequencies, that requires the permission of the local government. So in the place where we’re broadcasting on FM, which are now numerous, we’re getting very good cooperation.

In the places where we don’t get the kind of cooperation where we would hope for — in places where there’s just no chance we could get transmission inside the country and in some of the places where we’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been able to get distribution from some of our friends — then we broadcast from outside the region into the region, from places like Cyprus and Djibouti and other places, so that the message gets across.

As far as the competitive media is concerned, I think that the competitive media in some respects is happy to have us there because I think that we give them a level of broadcasting that has not existed in the region and something to shoot for.

TERENCE SMITH: Have you encountered any interference or jamming?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, we have experienced some intermittent jamming in Baghdad, which is probably not surprising and also indicates the impact that we are having in Baghdad. But generally speaking — throughout the region — they don’t have a history of jamming.

You know, as a matter of fact, even Kol Yisrael [Israel’s official radio station], where it’s broadcast throughout the region is generally the number two or three radio station in the market from the local Arab audience — because they’re interested in hearing what the Israelis have to say.

TERENCE SMITH: So now the notion is to turn to television?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Well, television is definitely on our radar screen. There’s no question that the primary medium for delivering news in the region is television.

The success of government-controlled media as well as services like Al-Jazeera certainly indicate that we need to engage in that medium. We think that it’s important for the U.S. to have a satellite television channel so that we can present our views and an image of America from our own lips and from our own perspective, because I can assure you it’s not being presented from that perspective throughout the region.

TERENCE SMITH: And so you are going to Congress, or will be going to the next Congress to get funding?

NORMAN PATTIZ: We are talking with the administration and with Congress right now about finding funding so that we can become operational in next year, in the ’03 budget. And everybody that we have presented this notion to has been very supportive of it.

I haven’t come across anybody, and I’ve been presenting this to just about anybody who will listen, and nobody has said this is not a good idea or it’s something that we shouldn’t do. Budget restraints are certainly a consideration. It’s not in the ’03 budget because we didn’t get this project started quickly enough and the budgeting process started well over a year ago.

But we’re hopeful that we will find the funding to at least get the project started this year and be in the ’04 budget for complete funding by October of next year.

TERENCE SMITH: And in round figures, what would it cost to have a real television presence in the area you’re talking about?

NORMAN PATTIZ: Our first year of full funding would be about $65 million, which would include about $25 million of one-time costs and about $40 million of continuing operational costs.

We look at this as being a pipeline from the United States into the region, and that will be heavily news and information-oriented, which will obviously be produced internally.

But it’s also a method of distributing programming throughout the region from outside producers, from producers that we may subcontract with, and from other sources, that will give them access to a region that is controlled by government media, where they probably haven’t had sufficient access in the past.