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Mideast responds to pop

U.S.-backed Radio Sawa, which wraps music around news in Arabic-speaking lands, is scoring big ratings.

September 26, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

The plan to enlist Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the fight to win the hearts and minds of young Middle Easterners is apparently working, according to survey figures released Thursday from Radio Sawa, the U.S. government-funded Arabic-language radio service.

Since it launched in March 2002, Sawa has become No. 1 or No. 2 station in the countries where it's broadcast, according to research figures released Thursday by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also oversees the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

Officials with Sawa (Arabic for "together") says its mission is to deliver timely and accurate news while using Western and Arabic pop music to attract listeners.

"It's hard to remind people that we're not the Pentagon, and we do business in a very different way," said Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of the Broadcasting Board's Middle East committee and founder of L.A.-based Westwood One, one of the country's largest radio networks. Sawa is "helping beef up the image of the United States as a society and a culture in the areas it's broadcast."

At a joint news conference in Washington and at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, Pattiz and other Broadcasting Board executives released figures from an ACNielsen survey of 5,737 Middle Easterners in July and August, evenly split between males and females 15 and older.

When asked their personal inclinations about the United States, 39.3% of Sawa listeners replied "very or somewhat favorable," compared to 27.3% of the general population. In addition, 73% of its weekly listeners said they considered Sawa a reliable source of news and information.

"The people in the Middle East are very media-savvy. They know when they're being provided reliable, credible news," Pattiz said.

The survey showed that Sawa averages a 42% share of the audience ages 15 to 29 in the countries where it's broadcast, in a market the Broadcasting Board called the most skeptical and anti-American in the world.

Pattiz said reaching the young listeners is important because "70% of the region is under the age of 30.... It's the future of the region."

Pattiz described the music format as something akin to the adult contemporary music on KOST-FM (103.5) but said Sawa is more like the full-service stations of 20 or more years ago, offering not only music but also 20 minutes of news and information per hour.

The Broadcasting Board also plans to launch a satellite TV station at the end of December. Pattiz said 12 to 15 hours of the daily programming will be devoted to news and information, with the rest including children's shows and offerings similar to what U.S. viewers find on public television.

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