Wednesday, January 18, 2006

BAGHDAD — It is a recent afternoon in Baghdad, and a Sunni and a Shi’ite sheik are chatting in the modest Baghdad studio of Radio Dijla.

Moufaq Al-Alani, the program’s 63-year-old host, waits patiently for a caller to express his views on terrorism before politely suggesting that parents and teachers teach young people to respect all Iraqis.

Qasem Al-Joubari, the Sunni sheik, says imams should emphasize that killing civilians is never acceptable for a Muslim. His Shi’ite counterpart, Mahdi El-Mohamedoui, says violence reflects poorly on both Islam and Iraq in the eyes of the world.

An engineer, turning and sliding dials on a bulky soundboard, furiously spins his right hand behind a glass partition to signal a commercial break, and a young staffer hurries into the studio with glasses of sweet black tea.

This is talk radio in Iraq.

“Our country has been usurped by a ‘with us or against us’ attitude,” says Mr. Al-Alani, a reporter for 44 years. “This station is giving all Iraqis a chance to express their viewpoints in a nonconfrontational manner. Our audience prefers this; they want peace.”

Radio Dijla is Iraq’s first independent radio station with an all-talk format, and it is a huge hit with the public.

Transmitting up to 90 miles from a two-story villa on a residential side street in western Baghdad, the station receives up to 1,000 telephone calls per day and gets more than 1 million hits per month on its Web site,, said executive manager Kareem Al-Yousif.

Keeping the peace

Ahmed Al-Rikaby, former head of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Media Network and London correspondent for Radio Free Europe, founded the station with a $300,000 grant from an undisclosed Swedish aid group, and first broadcast on April 25, 2004.

Mr. Al-Yousif said the station has been financed solely by advertising since the start and has 12 percent of the advertising market in Baghdad.

Omar Fadhia Al-Azaowey, Radio Dijla’s programming director, said the reason for the station’s success is its impartiality. Its broadcasters avoid using language that any group might find offensive, including such terms as “insurgent,” “terrorist” or “occupier,” and forbids callers to provoke anger.

“We want to bring people together, and make everyone feel welcome no matter who they are and what their viewpoint is,” Mr. Al-Azaowey, who spent four years as a radio and print reporter in Germany, said during an interview at the station.

“We give our listeners a topic to discuss, and then we let them call in and talk without interrupting them, as long as they’re respectful.”

Radio Dijla borrows its name from the Arabic word for the Tigris River, which winds through Iraq and its capital. It airs live from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily at 105.2 FM in Baghdad.

The station offers 23 programs per week, including a variety of political, religious, public-service, technology, legal, sports and entertainment shows, along with programs addressing women’s issues and children’s interests and a mix of traditional and modern music and hourly news updates.

Suhad Rabiat hosts “Service Period,” one of Radio Dijla’s most popular shows, on which she fields callers’ questions and complaints about issues ranging from public utilities to government policies.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Mrs. Rabiat spoke with Saleh Sarham, a Defense Ministry official, about a government initiative to allow officers under dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime to rejoin the military before the end of the month.

“My husband was [a noncommissioned officer] for 20 years, and he can’t get back in,” said a caller identifying herself as Um Asalm (mother of Asalm). “He even paid a bribe.”

“There is no need for bribes as long as he’s less than 45 years old, and his rank was no higher than major,” Mr. Sarham replied before announcing a telephone number that radio listeners could call for more information.

Reaching the powerful

Mrs. Rabiat said politicians and government officials are among her most devoted listeners. “It’s the one place where they can hear what people are truly thinking,” she said.

Fatah Al-Shaikh, a National Assembly member loosely associated with the powerful Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Dijla Radio offers Iraqis a unique and valuable service.

“There are many politicians like me listening, because the station is independent and doesn’t serve any party or group,” Mr. Al-Shaikh said in a telephone interview.

Programs such as “Eve on the Air,” which examines issues facing Iraqi women, and “The Referendum,” a political round table, allow listeners to air their opinions and concerns without fear of judgment or reprisal. Perhaps even most significant, it gives Iraqis a forum for constructive dialogue.

“We like any kind of show that supports unity and brings people together,” said Abu Mohamed, 36, a grocery clerk.

Mr. Al-Yousif, the station manager, said no one has threatened Radio Dijla staff members publicly since the station went on the air nearly 20 months ago.

“The only difficulty we sometimes experience is getting guests safely into the studio,” he said.

Labor of love

Radio Dijla offers streaming Internet broadcasts and has begun transmitting across North America and Europe through one of the German Hotbird satellites. The station is preparing to provide an FM signal throughout Iraq in the coming weeks.

The station is hoping to expand studio and office space and update its equipment, but Mr. Al-Yousif said recurring power cuts account for the station’s biggest monthly expense — $10,000 worth of fuel used to power four generators.

Radio Dijla employs about 100 Iraqis, most of them in their 20s and 30s, including 60 reporters and broadcasters and 40 support staffers. The employees work long hours for no more than $300 per month, a lower-middle-class income by Iraqi standards.

Tuesday’s noon slot is reserved for Khaleel Alrafai, 78, the station’s “Old Storyteller.” The legendary actor of stage, screen, and radio spends an hour spinning yarns and reminiscing about Iraq’s past.

One afternoon, Mr. Alrafai, who rose to fame in a long-ago television serial called “The Trouble Maker,” relates a parable of brotherly love, a timely comment on Iraq’s sectarian strife.

Dressed in a gray wool sport coat over a bright green V-neck sweater with a red paisley scarf rakishly draped over his neck, and a colorful yellow prayer cap on his head, Mr. Alrafai waves his hands while switching between classical and modern Arabic for comic effect before playing an Iraqi folk song on his harmonica.

“I’m running out of breath — I’m tired,” the elderly actor says, signaling the engineer to open the phone lines. “Please help me.”

The harmonica melody provokes a call from a listener inquiring about the Iraqi maqam, a centuries-old music genre. Mr. Alrafai muses about a past when Baghdad’s countless coffee houses featured maqam singers and ensembles during peaceful nights filled with song and dance.

That Baghdad has vanished, but perhaps it will return one day.

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