The new sound of radio

In Radio as a Communication Apparatus, German playwright Bertolt Brecht writes fondly about the radio as a revolutionary medium. “The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life […] if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear.”

Those words resonate today in the minds of many Egyptians, whose belief in radio as a medium that can survive the revolution of imagery has led them to embark on online radio initiatives. Today, radio has reincarnated itself, through the internet, within the dynamic context of new media.

But besides being a form of new media, online radio offers an alternative to the difficult process of acquiring an official wavelength. Egypt’s airwaves have traditionally been limited to government media, with the exception of one private entity: Nile FM. Word has has it that President Hosni Mubarak personally granted Nile FM permission to transmit.

Teet Radio is a reaction to the monopoly on the airwaves. In its update on the Egyptian football victory in the Africa Cup of Nations, the online radio service ran a satirical commentary on Algeria’s loss. The satire, which went as far as declaring the colonization of Algeria by the Republic of Teet, was loaded, among other things, with subtle as well as direct references to neo-colonialism and chauvinist football nationalism. 

Dubbed “the voice of the Egyptian community in Egypt,” Teet mocks the status quo and fights against civil voicelessness by being “speech sponsors.” “When we started this, we adopted a radio-blogging style and treated our online radio as a place to vomit vocally,” says Ibrahim el-Garhi, the mind behind Teet Radio. Coming from a solid radio background, el-Garhi started with the idea of offering free radio training some three years ago. He gathered five trainees who later put their lessons into practice and conceived what is now Teet Radio.

The service consists of a 20-minute segment every week, akin to an audio simulation of The Onion, an American news satire publication. The sound quality is good, the mixing adept, and the presentation skillful, delivered with a witty sense of humor–most of the time. El-Garhi says that in the last two years, no fewer than 12 million visitors tuned in to Teet, which literally means the noise which is played over unwanted speech.

Radio Horytna (Our Freedom) has invested in a more "politically correct" service, while also raising the flag of freedom. Hanging in their studio in downtown Cairo is a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous African-American civil rights leader. At Radio Horytna they treat King as a role model. “We do not censor our content. We just follow the media code of conduct and shy away from sensational issues that can infringe on people’s privacy,” says Mostafa Fathi, chief editor of Radio Horytna. 

“We started in 2007 with the intention of reaching youth easily and creating a new media tool,” says Fathi. “Initially, the idea didn’t make sense to the group of young people that we gathered to train because no one was used to the idea of online radio.” But soon this core team increased  to 35 people working on a variety of programs. Many work on a volunteer basis. Their edge, says Fathi, is their ability to generate breaking news and scoop major corporate media in the process.

A variety of programs mainly target youth audiences. For example, a daily program entitled Youmak Hureyya ("May your day be marked by freedom") discusses the buzz of the city, from politics, to football, to society. Other programs offer tips for young people on how to cook popular meals at home, discuss relationships, explain psychological issues, or read new poetry. Three daily newscasts are delivered in an Arabic that bounces between the classic and the colloquial. The team prides itself on receiving 200,000 hits a day and for being Egypt’s 1000th top site, according to Alexa’s ranking.

A less politicized initiative is Sawt el-Sakia (The Sound of Sakia), which is an extension of the Sawy Cultural Wheel, a cultural space supporting the independent art scene. Since its inception in 2007, Sawt el-Sakia’s programming has been oriented toward culture and openly shies away from politics and religion, according to Mohamed Salem, production manager at the radio station. “Our radio is essentially a cultural reflection of what happens in town,” says Salem.

Programs featured by Sawt el-Sakia include shows on young artists, historic reconstructions and environmental issues, among others. Streaming of events that take place at the Sawy Cultural Center are also a major filler for the radio service. Programs are usually pitched by people who do not necessarily have a radio background and who are in charge of preparing and presenting their ideas for a given season.

“This stems from the Sawy Cultural Center’s tradition of presenting culture from people to people,” says Menna Maassarani, project manager at Sawt el-Sakia. Training and programming exchanges with established radio services like the German Deutsche Welle also take place, giving the initiative added value. According to Maassarani, the site has 5000 visitors per month on average. 

Naila Hamdy, professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo, sees these initiatives as a positive use of the online space, but also as a step toward broader access to traditional radio-wave broadcasting. “The fact is that radio is state owned and it took so long for a private entity to launch its service in 2004. There has always been government control on radio, but it may not last forever. Things have changed. Just like television.”

Until this change happens, the list of online radio initiatives in Egypt extends to include more than 15 programs, many of which display a new level of boldness. They are not like bootleg or pirate radios where sea vessels, among other things, are used to illegally transmit unlicensed radio. But they challenge the persistently faithful marriage between radio and the government.

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