- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

BAGHDAD The pop band REM had reached the climax of its concert. "Thank you," the lead singer, Michael Stipe, bellowed to the fans. "You've been amazing." The crowd screamed, and the tinny radio speakers in the Baghdad taxi duly dissolved in a snowstorm of static.
The driver was tuned to Iraq's most popular radio station, VOI FM, owned by the notorious Uday Hussein Saddam Hussein's elder son and potential successor. The acronym stands for "Voice of Iraq FM" but given its eclectic, Westernized programming, it makes an unlikely national mouthpiece.
In this land of ferocious anti-Western propaganda, VOI unexpectedly pumps out American and British music 24 hours a day, treating consumers to fruit supposedly forbidden by the ruling Ba'ath party. Its disc jockeys speak in English, not Arabic, as do callers to the phone-in programs.
DJs rarely speak between tracks, saving their patter for the competition phone-ins. "Come on, come on, this question is really easy," says one impatiently, as a listener ponders which evergreen rock band is about to go on tour yet again. "The [Rolling] Stones. Call yourself a fan?"
The playlist blends Kate Bush and the controversial white rapper Eminem with middle-of-the-road 1980s American rock. The sole nod to Iraq's more traditional image comes when programming is interrupted, without warning, by the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day.
The station was the inspiration of Mr. Hussein, according to Jawad Ali, the broadcaster who was brought in from Baghdad Radio to run VOI. "Mr. Uday persuaded his father that following the bombing in 1991, he should find a way to lift the people's spirits," he said.
"In 1993, when there were very tight sanctions, most of the equipment was impossible to get hold of, and it was difficult to launch a radio station. But Mr. Uday wanted to cheer the young people up. He wanted a new, lively style of presentation, very different to what Iraqis had seen before."
The belief among ordinary Iraqis is that Mr. Hussein also sees VOI and its sister television station, Youth TV as important tools in his battle to succeed Saddam, boosting his profile with seductive, Westernized programming on the tightly regulated state broadcasting network.
The stations do have their opponents, Mr. Ali admitted. Critics believe that young Iraqis should not be exposed to Youth TV's cocktail of American and European sports, or its Hollywood films complete with sex and violence.
Mr. Hussein, however, apparently feels that Iraqis should be aware of changes in the world. "If you don't let them know anything, in the future they will be shocked by what they see," said Mr. Ali, who will soon hand over his broadcasting role to his deputy to become Iraq's press attache in Jordan.
The stations are partly funded by advertising and partly from "Mr. Uday's budget." They employ about 200 people, but Mr. Ali would not reveal the cost of running these outfits.

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