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Britney Spears vs. Al-Jazeera: An inadequate weapon
Xiaoxia Gong, Ph.D.
12/1/2003

In the battle for the Arab minds and hearts, the United States has employed a new weapon: music radio. Radio Sawa (“together” in Arab) and Radio Farda (“tomorrow” in Persian) have brought the American commercial music radio style into the troubled Middle East and the mullah-ruled Iran. According to a recent survey commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the government agency responsible for all U.S. government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting, in five Middle Eastern countries, average listenership of Radio Sawa has amounted to 31.6 percent, making Sawa the most popular radio in the region. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the BBG Chairman, declared over the Sawa success, “Just as people the world over, Arab citizens want accurate news and provocative current affairs programming.” He then added, “The truth will out.”

Or will it? The truth is, accurate news and provocative current affairs programming are not the selling points of Radio Sawa. Pop-music is. In every hour of broadcasting, Radio Sawa has only a few minutes of news. The rest – over 50 minutes per hour – is American and Arab pop music. American pop stars such as Britney Spears and Whitney Huston are big hits in Sawa. No wonder. If a commercial free pop music station existed in the U.S., would the public tune to it? Sure.

But trying to wrap Uncle Sam in pop music and to sell him to the Arabs is another matter. An editorial in the daily Jordan Times warned against making the "wrong conclusion" about the success of Sawa: “It is easy to win people's attention to hit songs and albums. But changing their political beliefs is a whole different story.”

Indeed. Give the Arab people some credit. The fact that they like our popular music – as many people in this world do – does not in any way mean that they like our foreign policy. Americans should know better– so many of their cultural products, cheesy music, provocative TV shows, violent movies, and tacky radio talk shows are popular but despised here. Just imagine: Would the public buy a political message if it was carried by Mary Carey?

At best, the success of Radio Sawa is irrelevant to the campaign of winning the Arab minds and hearts; at worst, it may be counterproductive. American pop music simply confirms the “ugly American” image portrayed by extremists and Islamic fundamentalists.

In the aftermath of September 11, Dr. Margaret DeFleur and Dr. Melvin DeFleur of Boston University conducted a survey of more than 1,200 high school teenagers in twelve countries. According to the preliminary report of their study, entitled “The Next Generation’s Image of Americans,” teenagers in the world generally acquire their impressions about American society through entertainment products, namely, Hollywood movies, TV programs, and music. It concludes that, with rare exception, that the teenagers they studied hold uniformly negative perceptions of America, both of its government and its people. They believe that Americans are violent, materialistic, dominating, intolerant, and immoral. Does that description fit Britney Spears and other pop stars featured by Sawa?

The war on terror is also a war of information. In this war, Al-Jazeera is clearly winning in the Arab regions. America can only win this war with the same seriousness, and by respecting the intellect of the local people. Greasy car salesman style may attract listeners, but the message will be lost, or be rejected.

U.S. international broadcasting had great success during the Cold War. Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), with their information programs, contributed significantly in bringing down the Berlin Wall. They became household names in all communist countries, despite the threat of punishment, including long jail time, to listeners. Largely due to the efforts of VOA and RFE, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the American people enjoyed tremendous affection from people in the former Eastern Bloc.
Such success can be repeated in the war on terror. That is, if we send CNN instead of Westwood One to fight Al-Jazeera.

*Xiaoxia Gong holds a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University, and is currently a free-lance columnist.

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