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Crossing Political Divides, One Broadcast at a Time

While the revolt turned civil war rages across Syria, a group of activists are working to broadcast a new kind of revolution on the country’s FM airwaves – Radio al-Kul.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes

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“We wanted to make a radio station to represent all Syrians,” said Jameel Taha, its founder, who uses a false name to protect his family back in Syria.”That’s why we call it al-Kul. It means ‘everybody’.”

The station, which is based in Istanbul but is one of only a handful of opposition media broadcasting inside Syria, can now be heard in six provinces. Its mission is not only to expand its geographic reach, but also to reach Syrians from across the political spectrum.

“At Radio al-Kul we are trying to discuss different points of view – even about the revolution,” says Taha. “Syrian people are not used to things like this. It was always a one-sided opinion and you didn’t hear anything else for 40 years.”

Over the month of Ramadan, Radio al-Kul has been broadcasting special programs, including a reality show “Qalb al-Balad” (In the Heart of the Country) taped inside Syria, and Ramadan religious sermons that seek to avoid political propaganda.

“Qalb al-Balad” currently broadcasts every evening after iftar, when Muslims who observe the holy month of Ramadan break their fast at sunset.

“It’s almost like a reality show,” said Taha, who recorded everything from road trips to conversations with civilians coping with daily life.

Some mosques in opposition-held areas have also begun to broadcast the station’s call to prayer at sunset, followed by religious songs and a lesson by a religious scholar.

“The mosques don’t want to use the regime’s official call to prayer, because it always includes a tirade against the opposition calling them terrorists, so even the religious people and mosques are listening to us at this particular time of day,” Taha said.

“Many Syrians are going to one extreme or the other these days [whether militantly pro-regime or opposition] … so we are talking to religious people and trying to remind them that religion is not about extremism.”

The station also does not shy from criticizing the opposition Syrian National Coalition, with whom it shares office space for free. On air, “we talk about the Coalition – what are they doing right and what are they doing wrong. The same goes for the Free Syrian Army.”

Taha, 30, has received complaints from members of the political opposition about programs that criticize them. “If you want to be in a position [of power], then you have to learn to take criticism,” he said.

Radio al-Kul reaches a wide range of listeners in Syria, from those living in remote villages in rebel-held areas to regime soldiers facing hours of boredom at checkpoints.

“We received some testimonies from guys in the Idlib and Homs suburbs saying that some of the regime soldiers were listening,” Taha said. “Maybe they just don’t have electricity to watch TV or they want to have fun and want alternatives, but either way it is an opportunity to bring them another voice. At one checkpoint they were actually laughing because it was a song making fun of [Bashar al-] Assad.”

The station plays national songs that can be interpreted in different ways. Songs like “Don’t Kill Your Brother” – part of a station campaign against violence – could relate to any faction.

“One guy working with us has a friend who is pro-Assad,” Taha said. “He heard that song and said, ‘Oh look, your terrorists are killing people.’ Then a program came on talking about the regime killing people. So he got confused and turned it off. But at least he listened to it for 10 minutes and it made an impact.”

Taha chose to base the station in Istanbul, not his native Syria, for reasons of personal safety. He left Damascus in November 2012 and immediately started laying out his vision for the identity of the station. Just choosing the name took a month. “We didn’t want a traditional revolutionary name, because our philosophy is about evolution, not revolution,” he said. “Revolution is temporary thing that might finish. We need to evolve society with our ideas.”

In the end, seven of its 10 staffers voted for the name al-Kul. “A 70 percent vote – it looks like Arab democracy,” Taha joked.

The country’s ongoing revolution is a main topic of discussion on the station’s talk shows, but the activist said that the long-term goal is wider in scope. “It is not the end of our path. Our mission starts when we get our freedom.”

Even before the name was chosen, the team had gotten down to the gritty logistical details of building studios. One is for production and news; the other for live shows and broadcasting.

Taha – the station’s audio engineer, who was trained in music hub Los Angeles – recruited male and female news anchors, a DJ, a sound technician, scriptwriters and journalists to gather the news. All of them are professionals in their field, and all are Syrian.

“Our presenters, Mohamed Barodi and “Slava” (not her real name), were working before in Syria,” Taha said. “Mohamed said he couldn’t continue any more with Syrian national television, and we invited him. Slava is a famous radio presenter with six years of experience. We brought her from Egypt because she left Syria when the revolution started.”

Then they focused on a musical station identity that would appeal to a wide range of Syrians. “We made some music jingles based on the national anthem. The Syrian national anthem means something to every Syrian, whether they are with the opposition or with Assad,” Taha said. “You work on the subconscious – something that gathers Syrians.”

In April 2013, live from Istanbul, the station went on air.

Staying On-Air in the Heart of the Capital

The act of broadcasting an independent radio station into Syria is no small task, especially when it comes to the capital – which is, for the most part, under tight government control.

Radio al-Kul is one of the projects of the Syria Media Action Revolution Team (SMART), which seeks to empower opposition activists by providing satellite connections, servers, VPNs and other technical gear to help activists develop radio, magazines and other publications. The SMART team controls the FM transmitters in Syria. The initiative is supported in part by the Association de Soutien aux Medias Libres (ASML), a French organization that funds independent Syrian media outlets.

“It is a collaboration between Radio al-Kul and SMART,” Taha said. “We produce [content] and they broadcast it.”

Radio al-Kul currently broadcasts on 99.8 FM in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo and the central province of Hama, where antennae located in large swaths of rebel-held territory allow the station the freedom to stream 24/7. Broadcasting in Homs province has struggled, with the signal from Hama reaching the northern suburbs of the provincial capital sporadically.

Al-Kul is also broadcasting under the regime’s nose in the heavily fortified capital and its suburbs, albeit only for a limited time each day on 103.2 FM. “You can be driving in your car and listening to an opposition radio in Damascus.”

In order to pinpoint the exact location of the signal, the government would need to triangulate its location, which is a time-consuming process. “I don’t think the regime has enough time to trace things like this anymore,” Taha said. “They have bigger things to do.”

Beyond Politics

Radio al-Kul is among some 12 opposition media stations, most of which broadcast strictly on the Internet. Only a few, like al-Kul, have been able to take their message to the FM airwaves.

Taha considers Souriali online radio and Radio Rozana to be the biggest competitors for al-Kul. “Souriali does talk shows, comedy shows, all on a high cultural level … Even the terminology they’re using is to reach educated people outside of Syria. But now they are focused more on inside Syria,” he said.

Souriali has recently begun to take their programming to Syria in partnership with a small station called Alwan FM in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Another competitor is Rozana, which is news-focused and will have reporters stationed across the country (though it hasn’t yet started transmitting). “It’s a huge network of almost 100 people working for them. They have a reporter or two in each city, and they are working professionally with business cards, Internet and satellite.”

Its founder said Radio al-Kul is distinguished by the variety of news and cultural programs the station offers its listeners, by the five-hour original programming cycle and by its anchors, all of whom bring at least three years of professional experience.

Much of the programming goes beyond politics or the revolution. The station offers a range of shows, from sports to comedy, to bring Syrian viewers together.

“We have a small sketch called ‘Let’s Not Talk Politics’ to [educate] about politics in a fun way. What are your rights – to demonstrate, elect or vote,” Taha said. He is especially proud of a geography and history program that teaches Syrians about the different regions of their country – how did the city of Deraa get its name? What are Syrian wedding traditions?

A show directed at children features tips on how to study on their own, in case their school has been destroyed. Psychological experts give advice to those children who have lost a parent in the conflict. (The program also addresses parents, offering tips on how to care for sons and daughters who have faced psychological trauma.)

“The big vision is to have Radio al-Kul keep evolving society and help reduce any countermeasures that might happen [if] the regime falls.”

Some of the most valued segments are those that offer practical, real-time advice about where snipers are hiding in neighborhoods, which bakeries are open, what roads are filled with explosives, and where to find gas and bread. This has prompted more and more listeners to submit tips via the Internet.

“People inside care about this news more than [they care about] Ban Ki Moon and Moaz al-Khatib,” Taha said. “They just want to live, or sometimes they just want to have fun. You don’t have to talk politics or revolution all the time.”

Going Live Under Bombs

Most contact with listeners is through a Facebook page and website, though few Syrians have internet access. It’s a daily challenge for the team. Taha hopes to secure funding for satellite phones, which he could distribute to various towns as a call-in point for listeners on the ground. He has also made trips into war-torn Syria to record content. On one, he sprained an ankle as he escaped an aerial bombardment in Saraqeb, a rebel-held city in the northwest.

“Saraqeb is in a really bad situation,” he said. “One of the days there were almost 20 barrel bombs from MIG fighter planes … The worst thing is that the bombing is happening during the maghrib (sunset prayer). These guys wait for people to gather and then they bomb the city. But other than looking up at the sky for planes, Ramadan goes on. Activists give workshops. There are so many civil society movements, initiatives on education, women’s issues. It’s very good. After iftar, life goes on until dawn.”

Taha also interviewed Syrian activist Manhal Barish about the activities in the city and Polish journalist Martin Suder about his reasons for reporting in Syria. Only two days later, Barish was badly beaten, and Suder was kidnapped by masked gunmen.

Many activists suspect the al-Qaida-aligned Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria may be lashing out with kidnappings in the face of increasing criticism of its motives in Syria, which go far beyond toppling the Assad regime.

“I met some of those guys in Raqqa. They don’t like the other side to be heard. They even told me, ‘Our battle with you has not yet begun,” he said. “I said ‘I haven’t done anything bad to you,’ but they say, ‘You’re not an Islamist, so you’re not with us’.”

When the news of the recent attack and kidnapping reached Taha, Radio al-Kul sped up editing to release the interview to the public the next day.

“We wanted to show that these are good people and this is how they were treated – you let them get beat up and kidnapped in your city.” When we asked Martin, ‘Why are you risking your life for people you don’t know?’ he said, ‘I can’t be selfish. There are people in the world who need help’.”

Kidnappings of journalists and media activists are on the rise. In the past week, two reporters from Orient TV – a Syrian opposition channel operating out of Dubai – and one reporter from the Dubai-based al-Aan TV were also kidnapped, according to Taha. “The worst part is most of those people were never kidnapped by the Assad regime, and now they’re being kidnapped by people ‘within the revolution’,” said Taha.

Radio al-Kul is pushing for the Polish journalist’s release and for the attackers to be apprehended and brought to justice. While free media in Syria is facing pressure from both the regime and opposition groups, stations continue to crop up across the country, and similar stations are determined to expand.

“You have a lot of small radio stations with just a five- or six-mile radius popping up recently. And it’s great. This is free media – everyone gets to talk and express themselves,” said Taha. One of those up-and-coming stations is Nassaim Souriya in the opposition-held province of Raqqa.

Radio al-Kul recently started broadcasting there, and most of the embattled province of Homs. The latter is currently under siege by Assad forces looking to retake the few remaining rebel enclaves.

Larger media outlets are catching on; Dubai’s al-Aan TV, which broadcasts its radio station into Syria via satellite, has allotted a segment for al-Kul’s programs.

“They’re using NileSat [a popular Egyptian satellite network] to upload their radio, so the recipients don’t need Internet – just a dish and a receiver, so millions can listen,” Taha said.

The next step for his station is to expand to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and the northeast Kurdish-majority province of Hasakeh, for which he will launch several shows in Kurdish.

“We are trying to blend cultures together by translating Kurdish songs into Arabic and Arabic into Kurdish. There will be a cooking show with a translator as well,” Taha said. “This is why we’re called al-Kul. Nobody represents everybody. The message is: Don’t be afraid. We lived 5,000 years together. This period [of war] is something temporary.”

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