- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

A first-time listener to Radio Farda might mistake it for an eclectic pop music station that broadcasts such artists as Madonna, Shania Twain and Britney Spears.

But those who continue to listen will hear a news anchor delivering reports on Iran’s enrichment of uranium, the Saddam Hussein verdict and the 100th birthday of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

Since its beginning in 2002, the U.S.-funded station, which beams a 24-hour mix of pop music and news into Iran from Northern Virginia, has been criticized for playing too much music and not enough hard news.

The reviews from Iranians are mixed, too.

“I don’t care about its news,” said Hoda Soleimani, an English-language student at Tehran University. “It’s only good to enjoy its music.”

But those behind the mostly Persian-language station make no apologies for Radio Farda’s broader fare, and they want to increase the station’s $7 million budget as the Bush administration pushes for democracy in Iran.

It’s all about knowing your audience, said station consultant Bert Kleinman, who dubs Radio Farda’s approach “smart broadcasting.” In Iran, two-thirds of the population is thought to be younger than 30.

“I don’t care where you go in the world, if you want to reach younger people, this is how you do it,” he said.

So anybody tuning in to Radio Farda with an AM or shortwave radio, or via satellite or the Internet, will hear a lot of music by popular American artists and a mix of Persian singers such as Googoosh, Siavash Ghomayshi and Ebi.

“A lot of the music is banned in Iran, so this is the only place to hear it,” said producer Sara Valinejad.

When the station started, about 1,000 songs were tested among Iranians who had moved out of the country.

From her office in Springfield, Miss Valinejad keeps the playlist fresh by monitoring the latest songs played on Los Angeles-based satellite video channels serving Iran, then adding them to the mix.

She also sifts through hundreds of daily phone messages from callers, which become the basis of a call-in program titled “What Do You Think.”

“If you say something about the government in Iran, you end up in prison,” said Miss Valinejad, 31, who left Iran for the United States about 11 years ago. “But this show gives the message that you’re free, you can express yourself.”

Music and other features take up nearly three-fourths of a typical hour of programming. The idea is to hook listeners and keep them around for the news, which is Radio Farda’s most important mission, said officials at Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, which jointly operate the station.

Each day, an editorial staff of 10 in Washington and 28 in the Czech Republic scan wire services and newspapers for stories, then translate and adapt them for broadcast in Iran, said Behruz Nikzat, Radio Farda’s Washington news director.

Their mission, he said, is to put together unbiased newscasts like those on the radio or evening news in the U.S.

For instance, a report by Iran’s state-run news outlets on nuclear enrichment likely would mention only that it is being done for peaceful purposes, said Joyce Davis, Radio Farda’s manager in Prague.

Mrs. Davis said Radio Farda would give listeners a more balanced perspective, including the worldwide concern that the enrichment program could be used to make weapons.

That approach does not go far enough for some critics.

Kenneth R. Timmerman, executive director of Bethesda-based Foundation for Democracy in Iran, wants Radio Farda closed. He said the money should be used for more news, especially programming that educates Iranians about the corruption and brutality of their leaders.

“They’re not putting out the quantity or quality of news that would be helpful in encouraging democracy,” he said.

A report in July on Persian-language broadcasting prepared by an Iranian specialist at the Defense Department echoes those views. It states Radio Farda provides little analysis of the news and “rarely takes a stance that could risk antagonizing the Islamic Republic.”

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