The Middle East Radio Network (MERN), a unique, U.S. government-sponsored Arabic language broadcasting service, goes on the air across the region Friday, March 22, 2002, in the initial phase of a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service.
“Now, listeners across the Middle East will have an opportunity to get their news, information and entertainment in a whole new format,” said Norman J. Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG oversees all U.S., non-military, international broadcasting and spearheaded creation of the service. “They’ll also be able to learn the truth about America and what it stands for,” Pattiz said.
When it debuts first on FM radio stations in Amman, Jordan (FM 98.1), and Kuwait City, Kuwait (FM 95.7), MERN will be called Radio Sawa, which means “together” in Arabic. MERN, a pilot project of the Voice of America, will also be available to millions of listeners through the digital radio satellite channels of Nilesat, Arabsat and Eutelsat Hotbird.
Marc Nathanson, chairman of the BBG, said MERN is an example of how the board “is focused on making sure that U.S. international broadcasting does the best job possible reaching people whose sources of news are often biased and anti-American.”
Pattiz, head of the BBG’s Middle East committee and a driving force behind MERN, called Friday’s startup “Phase One.” He added: “We’ll be rolling this out in phases, starting with music and news promotions.” News programs will begin airing a few weeks after the launch.
MERN, aimed at Arab listeners under age 30, will broadcast news, analysis, interviews, opinion pieces, roundtables, sports, weather, music and features on a variety of political and social issues in five regional Arabic dialects targeted to Jordan and the Palestinian areas, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and the Gulf states. MERN is expected to be fully operational by late summer 2002.
President George W. Bush praised MERN at a February 25, 2002 ceremony celebrating VOA’s 60th anniversary. “The Voice of America’s new Middle East Radio Network will offer music, reliable news, and information in Arabic, and an opportunity to better understand American principles and American actions,” Bush said. The President cited Pattiz, who is the chairman of the Westwood One radio network, for his “perseverance and dedication” to the MERN project.
MERN will be distributed by medium wave (AM) and FM, the most popular bands in the Middle East, as well as by satellite and the Internet. Besides Jordan and Kuwait, the U.S. Government has signed rebroadcast agreements on FM frequencies in Doha, Qatar; Manama, Bahrain; and Abu Dhabi and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Negotiations are under way in several other countries to obtain frequencies.
MERN staff, journalists, producers, and technicians will be based in Washington, D.C. and in Dubai, using a state-of-the-art broadcasting facility.
Mouafac Harb, a leading journalist in the Arab world, has been hired as MERN’s news director. A former Washington bureau chief for the London-based newspaper, Al Hayat, Harb also worked for Newsweek magazine. Earlier, Harb was general manager of radio and television at the National Broadcasting Network of Lebanon.
Harb, who will run the news division, said MERN was committed to producing “objective, fair and balanced” news.
The BBG received from Congress approximately $35 million for MERN in fiscal year 2002, including $16.4 million for one-time capital costs for transmitters.
“Broadcasting services such as MERN are the best high-yield, low-cost weapon in our arsenal. They are the most cost-effective way of reaching the outside world,” said Tom Korologos, a BBG member.