Afghanistan's first private radio station takes to the air waves

by AFP/Mike Patterson, Jun 17, 2003 | Destinations: Afghanistan / Kabul

KABUL, June 15, 2003 - From a house in one of Kabul's relatively unscathed districts, Afghanistan's first commercial radio station is taking the city by storm with a mix of music and chat by male and female DJs that would have had the Taliban summoning the religious police.

Surrounded by posters of Western and Indian pop stars and footballers, Massouda Zalmai, 18, and her co-host Abdul Azim, 23, present Radio Arman FM's lunchtime show with a mix of friendly banter, gossip about rising Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi and more serious discussions on the dangers of smoking, interspersed with music.

Radio Arman ("Hope") FM 98.1 went on air April 16 as Afghanistan's first ever private radio station, serving up a mix of entertainment, information and education for the capital's millions. The station broadcasts Afghan, Indian, Tajik, Uzbek and Western music 24 hours a day, with bilingual DJs using Dari and Pashtu, Afghanistan's two main languages.

Arman FM's format of music, gossip and chat has long been the staple of radio stations elsewhere, but the presenters' informal approach and use of colloquial Dari has drawn criticism from some listeners unused to hearing young men and women chat together on air even 19 months after the toppling of the puritanical Taliban. Others among those who aired their views on state-run TV last week have accused the fledgling radio station of being unprofessional in recruiting young presenters with little or no training. And initially there were even complaints about the girls' laughing on air.

Arman FM director Saad Mohseni shrugs off the criticism, saying the response from listeners has been overwhelmingly positive since the station started broadcasting two months ago. The station receives 500 letters and 2,000 calls a day -- "if the phones are working" -- of which less than five percent are critical, says Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian former stockbroker who set up the station with financial help from his two brothers and assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

"The most interesting thing was that the majority of Afghans who are illiterate wanted the colloquial banter rather than the more formal way that presenters nowadays talk on the radio," he says, referring to a survey carried out by the station. "And that's why we made the decision, which has a lot of people up in arms, including some of the intellectual snobs, that we're ruining the Afghan culture, which we're not.

Of the presenters, Mohseni says he prefers to recruit people with no preconceived ideas, "real Afghans who had lived through the trauma in Afghanistan and who could empathise with the other three million (Kabul) Afghans out there."

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, who banned music and most forms of entertainment as "un-Islamic", Afghanistan has allowed private radio stations but Arman FM is the first to take advantage of the new freedom.

"It's the first step towards the democratisation of Afghanistan," says Mohseni. "We felt that the public had been deprived of entertainment for such a long time and the Afghans have a zest for music and joking and story-telling," says Mohseni.

"We felt there was a real opportunity, not just to provide entertainment but also to inform the public of the day-to-day everyday issues, whether it's education or cleaning the city."

While the station tackles a lot of matters of public interest, it has so far avoided the thorny issue of politics. "I think it's important for us to avoid politics because we don't want to be seen as aligned to any individual," he says.

While Arman FM claims an audience covering all ages, the station is targeting the 15-35 age group. "This is the generation you can change and they're the people who're going to make a difference to the future of Afghanistan," says Mohseni, pointing out that they also tend to have more disposable income than their parents, an important consideration for a commercial station which is looking for sponsors.

"We are actually in the middle of concluding our negotiations with two pretty large entities that essentially will make the station cash-flow positive," he says. "The station is not going to make us a fortune, not just yet, but it's important for us to be involved in this because I think it makes a hell of a difference."

Like many other overseas Afghans, Mohseni says he left Australia to return to Afghanistan because he feels this really is the last chance for the war-ravaged country after more than two decades of conflict. "A lot of people who were reluctant to come in 1991-92 (after the Soviet withdrawal) have come back in 2001 for that reason, because we know this is the last chance," he says. "When you have two brothers and one is sick you tend more to your sick brother than your healthy brother so it's the same thing. We love both countries but we feel that Afghanistan needs us a lot more than Australia does."

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