Jewish Journal

Now Hear This!

Radio entrepreneur spearheads creation of U.S. station beaming programs to Arab world.

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Posted on Jan. 2, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The radio station plays hits by Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, and invites listeners to comment on issues such as what they'd do if they discovered a friend was taking drugs.

It's the type of fare broadcast to young adults from Malibu to Miami. Except the disc jockey is speaking Arabic, and the listeners are in the Middle East.

Welcome to Radio Sawa, the brainchild of Norman J. Pattiz, founder and chairman of the biggest radio network in the United States. Since March of last year, Radio Sawa (which means together in Arabic) has been broadcasting in Arabic around the clock in the Middle East, targeting listeners under 30 years old, who make up 60 percent of the region's population.

Radio Sawa broadcasts a mix of Western and Arabic pop music, interspersed with news updates and analysis, interviews and opinion pieces. Potentially, millions of listeners can access Radio Sawa via AM, FM and shortwave frequencies, as well as on the Internet (www.radiosawa.com) and on digital radio satellite channels.

Pattiz, the founder of Westwood One, helped conceptualize and launch Radio Sawa as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG oversees the government's nonmilitary international broadcasting services, such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

While serving on a committee charged with reviewing the 61 different languages in which programs are broadcast, "it became obvious that what we were doing in the Middle East was insignificant at best," said the 59-year-old Southern California native. Once Pattiz pointed out the deficiency, he soon found himself chairman of the BBG's Middle East Committee.

Returning from a fact-finding mission to the region, he told the U.S. House Committee on International Relations, "We have a vital mission to counter misinformation and messages of hate regarding the United States by broadcasting truthful news and information and by faithfully representing our country's government and culture."

 Polling of young adults in Amman, Jordan, last October appears to indicate that the audience is listening. Forty-three percent of respondents tuned in to Radio Sawa, more than any other station, and 25 percent considered it their top source for news. Both figures were higher than those received for any other station.

"I don't know that we ever expected to get to these kinds of numbers, but we certainly never expected to get to them that quickly," said Pattiz, noting that the percentages have increased since the October poll.

Pattiz acknowledged that Radio Sawa's impact is "less strong" with lower socio-economic groups than with "the more educated and more affluent and those who have more of a connection with Western values. But we have to start someplace," he said.

Pattiz said that by presenting news objectively, Radio Sawa more accurately represents the United States and its culture than other available sources. For example, he noted that Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV station in Qatar, recently aired a two-hour interview of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

"This is who they chose to interview as a representative of the people of the United States of America -- David Duke. If that isn't bone chilling," Pattiz said.

Like news regarding the United States, coverage of other areas, including Israel, is intended to be presented without bias. Radio Sawa's news director is Mouafac Harb, a former Washington bureau chief for the international Arabic daily newspaper, Al Hayat.

According to its Web site, one of Radio Sawa's guiding principles is that "the long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly in Arabic with the peoples of the Middle East by radio." Pattiz echoes this sentiment.

"We're certainly better off communicating with a major part of the world where our efforts have been woefully inadequate," he said. "If they're going to hate us, let them know who they're hating, rather than just blindly following a path that's laid out by their government-controlled media."

The BBG plans to expand on Sawa's success on a number of fronts. Soon, specific regions will receive their own individual programming streams, with news and features of local interest delivered in regional dialects.

A new Farsi-language service, similar to Sawa, started up last month in Iran. Plans are also underway for an Arabic-language satellite television station to provide round-the-clock programming.

Pattiz is no stranger to Middle Eastern politics. As a member of the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that promotes U.S. awareness and involvement in the Middle East peace process, Pattiz has traveled to the region to meet with Israeli and Jordanian leaders and has held a reception at his home for Queen Noor of Jordan.

He also hosts monthly roundtable discussions at which prominent community members meet with Israeli leaders, media representatives and others with insights about the region.

Although his Radio Sawa efforts are performed on behalf of the U.S. government, Pattiz acknowledged that promoting the free flow of information in the Middle East benefits Israel, as well.

On the state level, Pattiz serves on the UC Board of Regents. As a member of the board's Investment Committee, he helps oversee billions of dollars of university investments.

He expects to be part of a task force formed in response to a controversial course description published for a UC Berkeley class, The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance. Pattiz said the task force will "examine how this course description was allowed to be printed in the first place, and look at the larger questions of academic freedom vs. responsibility."

He also serves on the California Commission on Building for the 21st Century, which looks at how the state should address future building and infrastructure needs. Pattiz has served as president of the Broadcast Education Association, trustee of the Museum of Television and Radio, is on the the USC Annenberg School for Communication board and on the advisory board of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy.

At Westwood One, which he founded in 1974 as a one-room operation, Pattiz spends much of his time conceptualizing projects and arranging agreements with artists and recording companies to generate entertainment programs for broadcast. The company has earned a reputation for blockbuster entertainment programming, airing concerts by such megastars as Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.

His professional, political and philanthropic activities keep Pattiz busy, and he said he likes it that way.

"I've got plenty of things to keep me busy," he said. "But they're all things I find incredibly interesting and enjoyable. I'm not complaining about any of it."

Norman J. Pattiz will be the keynote speaker at CommUNITY Kavod on Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. For more information call (714) 755-5555.  

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