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Individualizing a Mass Medium: Key Figures in Arab-World Radio Broadcasting, 1930s-1950s

Panel VI-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Much radio history scholarship focuses on institutions, either on broadcasting stations or the governments or corporations running them. This panel takes a closer look at individuals’ influences on mid twentieth century Arab-world radio broadcasting involved, highlighting their importance via four case studies. Whether on-air news broadcasters, musicians or other cultural figures working on contract, station officials, or technical staff, these case studies suggest that individuals – named or unnamed, alone or in groups – often played a critical role in whether and what kind of listening audience a station found, as well as in what kinds of political and cultural influence it had. The sound ecologies they produced via live and recorded music; the intellectual arguments they advanced via talks; the cultural positions they promoted via plays and humorous monologues; and the political stances they advocated via subtle verbal and other cues helped create auditory relationships with audiences, drawing them to listen to state-run stations by acting as mediators between government figures and listeners. The panel includes four case studies. The first focuses on the influences of the largely anonymous broadcasters on Italy’s Radio Bari in the 1930s, whose pronunciation, command of Arabic grammar, use of dialect, and timbre made the station compelling to listeners – as did its orchestra music under director Salvatore Giannini. The second, drawn from the Mandate-era Palestine Broadcasting Service, highlights the role of Qudsiyya Khurshid, a Palestinian poet and essayist who in the 1940s wrote or edited much of the children’s and educational programming and broadcast talks focused on Islam and women. The third focuses on Radio Lebanon’s transition in the late 1940s from a colonial to national station under the directorship of Mohamad Sabra, showing how it became part of the larger bureaucratic apparatus of the postcolonial Lebanese state, with station jobs becoming part of individuals’ political career trajectories as the station became embedded in national politics. The fourth examines the rhetorical tools used by Ahmed Sa`id in the 1950s to develop a uniquely Egyptian radio language for Voice of the Arabs – one focused on metaphor and imagery and that helped shape the regional soundscape for the next two decades. With these case studies, this panel highlights the roles of individuals in shaping the history of Arab-world radio broadcasting and in giving particular stations their ability to have substantive political and cultural impact.
Media Arts
  • Radio played an increasingly central role in the interwar Arab world. In Mandate Palestine, the state-run radio station, the Palestine Broadcasting Service engaged a range of figures - from local musicians to intellectuals, religious officials to poets - as on-air broadcasters. Station officials and many of these broadcasters saw their work on air as articulating and advancing modernist, nationalist views. Consequently, the PBS attracted many well-known Palestinian luminaries as broadcasters, and these figures played critical roles in building the station’s reputation among Arabic-speaking listeners. Drawing from a mixture of personal papers, Mandate-era periodicals, and archival sources, this paper presents the case study of Qudsiyya Khurshid, director of the girls’ section of the Amiriyyeh School in al-Bireh. Like many Palestinian intellectuals and musicians, she worked on contract with the PBS, editing from 1940 through 1947 many of the children’s and educational programming, and writing and delivering talks that focused on Islam, women, or both. Some incorporated her interest in literature, as in a 1940 series on Malak Nasif, Aisha Taymour, and May Ziadeh, three famous writers and social activists, that she created for the PBS’ school broadcasts. Others, like her talk on “The Character of Women”, and “Muhammad and Women” were reprinted in Palestinian newspapers. Her work on the PBS’ educational radio programs was recognized with a six-month training stint in at the BBC headquarters in England. Khurshid was also known in Palestine for her poetry and critical essays. She published her work in Palestinian periodicals like the short-lived but influential weekly al-Mihmaz; al-Dhakira, another literary journal; and al-Qafila, Huna al-Quds, and al-Muntada, the PBS-affiliated cultural magazines. Along with other key women broadcasters on the PBS, her work in broadcasting allowed her to argue in a different medium for a distinct Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim form of religious and cultural modernism focused on women’s rights. The scripts that she wrote and broadcast demonstrate how she translated the arguments of the essays that she published in ‘silent’ Palestinian cultural magazines for ‘sounded’ delivery to a broader audience, and shed light on what cultural and religious messages the station broadcast. Khurshid’s story sheds light on the PBS’ role in establishing radio as a key platform for Arab-world intellectuals, writers and poets, and musicians and singers, as well as on how mid-century Arabic broadcasters, including women, used radio to promote culturally and religiously modernist views to listeners around the region.
  • Dr. Margaret Peacock
    The radio world in the Middle East shifted on its axis when Ahmed Sa’id and his radio program, Voice of the Arabs, hit the airwaves in 1953. Millions of people tuned in every day to hear the famed broadcaster deliver his pronouncements on the news, to chuckle at his sharp humor, and to hear the great music that was produced during this golden era of Egyptian songwriting. Voice of the Arabs, and its parent program, Radio Cairo, functioned as a center for anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism, a nexus for the playing out of inter-Arab conflicts, and a mouthpiece for Gamal Abdul Nasser’s leadership. Based on an examination of radio transcripts taken from U.S., Soviet, and English archives, this paper examines the rhetorical tools used by Sa’id in develop a uniquely Egyptian radio language that would be emulated by other state programs for decades to come. These transcripts track the rise of post-war, Egyptian-led, Arab nationalism and its intersection with the Cold War. They tell a story of an Arab world under attack from Israel, Britain, eventually the United States, and even sometimes the Soviet Union. They reveal the tensions that arose in these years between the Baghdad Pact nations and the rest of the Arab world, led by Egypt. They tell the story of the Nasser’s propaganda program and its gradual movement away from a revolutionary identity into one that used the language of revolution to defend the state. While numerous Arab and Western scholars have noted the importance of Voice of the Arabs in shaping the soundscape of the 1950s and 60s, few have devoted attention to what that shaping really looking like. This chapter is a first step in unpacking the role that Voice of the Arabs played in this grand story of contestation and consensus. It looks closely at the linguistic and rhetorical development of Ahmed Said’s iconic approach to broadcasting. It pays attention to his use of metaphor and imagery, looking closely at how he used modern, highly emotional, propaganda techniques to merge older Quranic themes with the secular revolutionary promise of an Egyptian-led, pan-Arab liberation for the Middle East.
  • Janina Santer
    In 1946, Mohamad Sabra succeeded Albert Adib as director of the Lebanese government-owned radio station. The succession marked an important shift from the radio being administered under French colonial rule to becoming an outpost of the newly independent Lebanese government. Under new directorship and the purview of the Ministry of Information, the radio station changed its name to al-idha‘a al-lubnanya, hired new staff, and amended its program. This paper interrogates the station’s restructuring through a micro-history of Mohamad Sabra, its first director after colonial rule. Based newspaper- and magazine articles, as well as oral history interviews conducted by the author, this paper discusses the framing of the radio as a national medium and the curation of its politics. How did radio-making change from the colonial to the postcolonial context? How did the radio station fashion its role in newly independent Lebanon? Furthermore, while Sabra’s appointment inaugurated the radio’s postcolonial era, his life story encapsulates a career in politics more largely. Born into an important Shi’a family in Burj al-Barajneh in 1916 and a lawyer by training, Sabra, who was a member of Riad al-Sulh’s Hizb al-Nida’ al-Qawmi, rose through the ranks of government. After serving as director of al-idha’a al-lubnanya, he became minister of information in the 1950s, and served as Lebanese ambassador to various countries including Senegal, Argentina, and Iran. Focusing on Mohamad Sabra and the figure of the director opens a window into examining the ways in which the radio became an institution in the larger bureaucratic apparatus of the postcolonial Lebanese state, offering individuals a career in politics. Thus, this paper examines not only the shift from colonial to postcolonial radio-making but the making of the radio into an institution of the state. Contextualizing the radio as an institution of the state allows us to interrogate the ways in which the radio became embedded in and mirrored national politics as well as how individuals like Sabra shaped postcolonial state-building.
  • Emily Mellen
    The Invisible Voices of Radio Bari From 1934-1943 the fascist state-run Radio Bari in Southern Italy broadcasted propaganda in Arabic towards the Middle East and North Africa. Radio Bari caused ripples within British and French colonial systems with its fascist, pseudo-anti-colonial, and eventually directly anti-British and anti-French perspective. This paper listens to the invisible voices of Radio Bari – the speakers and the singers and musicians of Radio Bari’s orchestra – in order to demonstrate the ways in which individuals working at the sound-level shaped the perception of Radio Bari in the MENA region. This is a project of recovery and discovery, as information about these figures is scant and dispersed. Unlike fellow Arabic propaganda station Radio Berlin, whose principal speaker Yunus al-Bahri was famous throughout the Arab world, Radio Bari had a rotating cast of mostly anonymous announcers from various Arab countries. I build on the work of Arturo Marzano in excavating information the Archivio Centrale dello Stato and the Archivio del Ministero degli Affari Esteri, both in Rome, about these speakers. These documents include some personal details, but perhaps more interesting is the documentation of listeners’ strong reactions to the announcers’ pronunciation, grammar, dialect, and voice quality. The texts are clear that the manner of speaking of the announcers was an integral part of their radio listening experience and made the difference between a compelling station and a “ridiculous” one. The second part of my paper focuses on the musical personnel of Radio Bari, including the orchestra and featured singers. These include significant Arab musical figures such as one of Radio Bari’s orchestra directors, Salvatore Giannini, who later became director of the Beirut conservatory, and singer Elia Baida, a close relative of the founders of the Lebanese-German Baidaphon record label. Using Radio Bari’s monthly periodical and other archival sources, I build a compendium of these profiles. The voices and musical styles of these artists would have been familiar to listeners and they would have held meaning through their personal biographies, nationalities, and the genres of music they performed. Radio Bari’s voices changed the perception of the station in measurable ways, allowing its political messages to have more and less impact at different times. This case study adds to a broader body of work focusing on individuals, rather than government bodies, and demonstrates the importance of sound and voice in the analysis of radio and of radio propaganda.