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19 February 2015

1,001 Days and Nights: radio proves pivotal as BBC Arabic turns 77

It broadcasts 24 hours a day from Morocco to Iran - but how does one explain BBC Arabic radio?

By Antonia Quirke

On Monday morning we heard that Egypt had used radio rather than television or the internet to announce its strikes on Isis in revenge for the mass beach-beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. The news – the first time Cairo has publicly acknowledged taking military action in Libya – shows how pivotal the medium remains in that region.

BBC Arabic (now celebrating its 77th birthday) has the second-biggest audience across the World Service, with a reach of 36.2 million listeners, tuning in to news, drama, music, features on health, and often hairy live discussions. Much of that figure is watching the TV output, but BBC Arabic still broadcasts on radio 24 hours a day, in a huge area stretching from Morocco to Iran, sometimes using partner stations such as Voice of Lebanon or Radio Bethlehem to broadcast an hour here or there, a news summary, a documentary.

“Some stories are now totally inaccessible, of course,” the head of the service, Tarik Kafala, tells me. “Three weeks ago we had a team in Yemen and that was nerve-racking. You have breathless days just watching and waiting, hoping everyone gets in and out . . .”
And what sorts of shows in this frequently anguished region do listeners demand? The dawn news remains ever popular but Adel Soliman, the editor of radio (and a former archaeologist in Sinai), tells me that “99 per cent of the time it’s not a geopolitical story they want”. Even though (or perhaps because) the area is “in flames”, often the stories listeners seek out are about “new drugs or scientific inventions, or even aliens. Today, for example, it’s something on the chemical changes that take place in your mind when you fall in love.”

Both Kafala and Soliman describe the Arabic Service in 2015 as “electric”. But when I frowningly mention the pointed and frustrating modesty that has always struck me as entirely too characteristic of the World Service (and which in the past has surely left it open to swingeing cuts) Kafala shrugs amusedly – as only the truly confident can. “It’s a particular part of its character,” he says. “It’s an anomaly: Britain spending millions to broadcast to the outside world. Culturally, Britain is proud of the World Service but . . . it’s always been a difficult thing to explain.” 

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