TERENCE SMITH: Tell us about the Middle East Radio Network, what it's going to be.
GARY THATCHER: It's an attempt to communicate with a new generation of Arab youth. The majority population in virtually every Arab country is under the age of 30. We think it's important to speak to the majority, so what we hope is a rich mix of views, of policy programming, explaining who we are and what we're all about, and music, music because it drives an audience, attracts them. It's something unlike [what] we've done before in any language, and it's an effort basically to broaden our appeal to the coming generation in the Arab world.
TERENCE SMITH: You mean the U.S. government is going to be hip?
GARY THATCHER: We're going to try.
TERENCE SMITH: Will you label this a U.S. Government radio network?
GARY THATCHER: Yes. The buzz is already out that we're going to try something clandestine or hide who we are. We're not. We're going to clearly identify that this is U.S. International Broadcasting. However, our intent is not to identify ourselves as the Voice of America. We want to get a name that signifies something to the people in the Arab world, something that has a bit of verve and that's catchy.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a danger that as soon as you identify yourself as a product of the United States government that you will be labeled and considered propaganda?
GARY THATCHER: Oh, sure, there's always that danger. I mean it's quite clear that some people would not like these broadcasts to go on at all because we do intend to tackle sensitive subjects. We intend to talk about things that perhaps are unwelcome in some areas, but clearly we will address those issues. And, sure, people will denounce it as propaganda and say it's a pack of lies. In fact that's already started. But we believe that you have to be judged by what you put on the air and how honest you are, and part of that honesty requires full disclosure. These broadcasts are paid [for] by the United States of America as a public service to the people in the Arab world.
TERENCE SMITH: I'm really talking not just about being denounced, but an issue of credibility, whether people are going to believe what they hear on this network.
GARY THATCHER: It's important to us that we provide a straight yardstick by which domestic media can be judged. We believe that the whole side of the story isn't being told in the Middle East, mainly because state-controlled media engages in self-censorship and sometimes follows government policy vis-a-vis the reporting of specific issues. We hope to provide a standard by which others can be judged, and the only way that standard can work is if we are professional, accurate, unbiased and as fair as possible. Nobody that I know in any way associated with this project is engaged in propaganda, nor would they [be].
TERENCE SMITH: Where are you going to broadcast and what's the size of the audience?
GARY THATCHER: I can't tell you the exact figures of the potential because the exact transmitter network isn't tied down yet, but it's clearly in the millions and the only area that we won't be broadcasting to initially is North Africa, and we hope to plug that hole in the near eventual.
TERENCE SMITH: Give it to me geographically, from what country to what country?
GARY THATCHER: Roughly from Egypt to Oman, the heart of the Middle East and all the way across to the Persian Gulf.
TERENCE SMITH: And radio rather than television, why?
GARY THATCHER: Well, initially the research shows, curiously enough, that young people in the Middle East don't have a regular listening habit, but they use CDs and they use cassettes, and that's the way they hear the music. We want to acclimate them to something that's been a part of generations of Americans, and that is, listen to the radio to hear your favorite songs, your favorite personalities, the news analysis, all of those things. That's the first issue. We want to get it right and regular because that's what we've traditionally done. But the hope is clearly to expand into television. We have space in Dubai Media City prepared for television studios. We have satellite bandwidth, all the technology ready to go. Clearly at some point we'd like to be on the air with more and more programming on television.
TERENCE SMITH: And the Internet as well?
GARY THATCHER: This will be accompanied by an Internet site which basically helps sort of promote interactivity. That is, we intend to have a question of the day where we ask people on the air, "What do you think about this?" And then we record their comments, and we use that in the program about what you think about various topics, and then you put the questions on the Web site. People can interact there, comment on it. The whole notion is to stress that we value what you're saying, you're important, this is interactive, this is not the United States preaching.
TERENCE SMITH: Does this compete or conflict with the Voice of America in that region?
GARY THATCHER: No. The plan is eventually that the Voice of America Arabic Service, which currently broadcasts, will be phased out, and the Middle East Radio Network will take over that entire mission.
TERENCE SMITH: Over what period of time?
GARY THATCHER: Well, all I can tell you is within this fiscal year, which ends in September.
TERENCE SMITH: That soon?
GARY THATCHER: We're on a fast track.
TERENCE SMITH: What is the number of people involved so far? The annual cost?
GARY THATCHER: Cost is about $30 million a year. The number of people would be in excess of 100. The exact numbers are still being tied down, but in excess of 100.
TERENCE SMITH: And a regional broadcasting center in Dubai?
GARY THATCHER: Regional broadcasting center in Dubai. We already have bureaus in Amman, Cairo and Jerusalem, and those bureaus will be used to feed to this. And of course, there's Washington.
TERENCE SMITH: How do you figure out what is appealing to and the right mix for an under-25 audience in the Arab world?
GARY THATCHER: Research, research, research. We have researchers going into the field, carrying laptop computers with music samples on the laptops, and asking people, "Would you listen to some of this music?" Then putting down what they like, what they don't like, coming up with a matrix that says, "If you like this, then you'll probably like this." Highly researched. The same sort of thing that American companies do to find the market niche, to find out whether there's an audience to support them and advertise. We're doing exactly the same thing, all the way down to focus groups, qualitative surveys, quantitative surveys, music listening exercises, all to define the audience and make sure we're appealing to them.
TERENCE SMITH: Hollywood goes to the Mideast.
GARY THATCHER: Well, you could say Hollywood goes to the Middle East. But you could also say that Washington goes to the Middle East. The importance here is to engage. The importance is to say this is the society that produced this broadcast, in all of its varied hues, stripes. Sometimes we disagree about things. Sometimes we have vicious arguments among ourselves about the right thing to do, but we're trying to do the right thing. It’s important that that message get out.
TERENCE SMITH: How will a journalist, doing a news piece for this broadcast, sign off? What will it say?
GARY THATCHER: That's a good question because the exact name of this is still being researched. We want to have a name that has resonance in Arabic and that also means something in English. We want to test those names. We've already started testing in the market. We want to find out what plays the best, what makes the most sense, and that's still being researched right now.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have a leading candidate?
GARY THATCHER: I can't tell you what it is, but we do have a leading candidate, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: An Arabic phrase that will convey something?
GARY THATCHER: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: And won't have the name "United States" in it?
GARY THATCHER: Not the name, no, but we will clearly identify who we are, "This is United States of America Broadcasting." The sort of prototype name, if you will, is al-Jazeera [an Arabic-language, network based in Qatar]. In Arabic it means "the peninsula." It means something deeply resonant to the Arab audience. We want to come up with a name that also says something about who we are and why it's important to have this connection. So we're looking.
TERENCE SMITH: Would you say this is one of the more ambitious and innovative broadcasting efforts that this government has engaged in in a long time?
GARY THATCHER: I like to think so. With all due respect to the past, it was a lot easier in the old days when you had so-called denied territory, places where you couldn't hear western radio, western broadcasting, western media at all. So it was a lot easier to hopscotch over the Iron Curtain, say, with radio broadcasting. But now many, many places in the world have a wide variety of media. In order to compete in that multiplicity of voices, you clearly have to have a signal that's strong, and you have to have content that's appealing, and that's what we're trying to do. So in that sense it is very ambitious.
TERENCE SMITH: Voice of America has never had good penetration in the Arabic-speaking world, 2 percent or less. Do you have a projected goal there?
GARY THATCHER: We guaranteed Congress that we will at least double the audience, which is, we hope, easily achievable, and we have hopes to go a lot higher. And the market research that we've done is borne out by the ground true figure. There's going to be a huge potential. Almost every Arab state, over 50 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and we intend to have a must-listen-to full-service radio station that is your source for news, information. If we could give the traffic and weather, we would. We can't give the weather because most of the time it's always sunny.