Stars of the Studio (2): Hani al-Badri

All kinds of topics make it onto air during morning call-in shows. Not all listeners call in about a specific problem they’re facing: some might simply offer a viewpoint on some more broadly relevant issue, framed as a comment or – sometimes – a kind of advice or warning directed at anybody who might be tuning in. Such was the case of one listener who called up Hani al-Badri on his daily morning programme, Wasat al-balad (“City Centre”), imploring people not to give money to young children “begging” at the windows of cars standing at intersections. Not to be cold-hearted, of course, but merely because these children are more often than not effectively “employed” by certain “organizations” in order to bring in money.

“Not only that,” the caller went on. “The phenomenon of begging itself should disappear!” What kind of country do we live in if it allows these kinds of things to go on?

al-Badri was all agreement. Outraged, of course; how could he not be? One of the staple strategies of the morning call-in show is to personalize every problem by linking it to a particular official figure; so al-Badri turned his ire onto the Minister of Social Development, who had recently issued a declaration she wanted to “affirm the importance” of psychological support for families –

Oh really. Affirm the importance? All good and well – but what was she going to do about it?

الوزيرة هاي بتأكّد (..) ولما تأكّد (..) احنا بنّام ليلنا طويل مرتاحين

This minister, she’s affirming… and when she affirms… we can all sleep comfortably through the night

( (..) stands for a longer pause. Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 13 April 2014)

All this in a very sarcastic tone, laced with muffled laughter. al-Badri, with his kind-of feel for what might turn into an effective gag, held on to this, and went on to slam – quite subtly, as is his style – all ministers that spend their time issuing vague “calls” or “affirmations” to develop their fields but are really not doing much to fulfill their real duties. A reminder, to  government officials as to every one of his listeners, that the morning show – with its intimate insight into citizens’ observations and opinions – is always vigilant.

“No fear,” al-Badri said. His programme team – his šabaab – were already busy sifting through the news.

“Whenever a minister declares they’re affirming the importance of something, I’ll let you know.”

The Cynical Citizen

If Muhammad al-Wakeel’s distinguishing feature is his propensity for drama, that of Hani al-Badri – the sharp-tongued doktoor who hosts Radio Fann’s morning call-in show – is cynicism. One need only look at the kind of comments he gives on news headlines to get a sense of this. “Denial that hospitals in al-Aghwar al-Shamaliyyeh have been supplied with spoiled meat and poultry” – but who was it exactly that denied it, hmm? “Every official in the country?” “President of the House of Representatives says that the parliament is open to unions” – yalla bas?! Only “open?” “Open” towards people and their demands?! “Demand for clothing goes down by 30%” – well, after the increase in customs fees which those amazing minds at the Finance Ministry believed would bring more money into the state budget… who would have thought it?

It’s not just in the ‘safe’ environment of news commentary that al-Badri’s attitude shines through. He can be equally acerbic while taking call-ins, and doesn’t hesitate to lash out at government officials who either (in his eyes) aren’t doing their job very well, or have gotten on his bad side by being difficult to reach or refusing to answer Wasat al-Balad’s phone calls – which, really, amounts to the same thing. (A disproportionate amount of these officials appear to be women, which of course is just an unfortunate coincidence.)

So the poor Social Development Minister again found herself chastised about a week or so after the “begging” comment, when a woman from Ramallah called in to report physical abuse suffered by her disabled son at an educational center in Jordan. The šabaab had tried to contact the Minister about the issue as the show trundled on, but – horror of horrors – she could not be reached:

وزيرة التنمية الاجتماعية للمرة العشرة آلاف (..) بيرُدّوا مكتبها بيقولوا الشباب (..) هي في اجتماع

ستبقى في اجتماع (..) الى ان يكتب الله (..) او يفعل الله (..) ما كانَ

The Social Development Minister, for the ten thousandth time… her office replies – the šabaab tell me… she’s in a meeting.

And she will stay in a meeting… until God writes… until God does…

(Source: wasaT al-balad recording, Radio Fann, 20 April 2014)

Well, what can you do? This is just how officials are, sometimes. Refusing to answer the phone. Refusing to do their job. All al-Badri could do in the end was raise his hands, and laugh in resignation.

Even towards his listeners, al-Badri can be rather brusque. His impatience shows through especially when people call up with issues that had already been brought up before, or are rehashed over and over again during the course of a weak. Sighs of frustration, and raised tones, and hand-thumps are not infrequent. “We’ve heard about this twenty times already…” “We’ve contacted the Municipality yesterday for the hundredth on this very same subject…”

The officials are still the ultimate target here, but such a way of communicating goes somewhat against the conventions of polite discourse. It’s not that al-Badri isn’t aware of this; he even reflected, once, on a message that came in to his programme calling him maghruur (“aloof” or “conceited”), gracefully conceding he does have a general problem with “niceties.” Perhaps this is all just part of the strategy: to tell things “as they are,” interacting with callers and listeners in a way that goes straight to the heart of their issues without sugarcoating them. Within the confines of Wasat al-balad, if al-Badri is able to speak his mind so freely – without inhibitions – the people who call in may well feel they can do the same.

Judging from comments al-Badri has made for Rana Sweis’s New York Times article on Jordanian radio, that’s certainly the general idea. al-Badri tries to speak as if he were just another Jordanian: frustrated, by the government’s inefficiency, by unresponsive officials, by the fact that Jordan seems to lag behind every other Arab country (or, rather, those in the Gulf – but aren’t they the ones that count?) in terms of infrastructure and economic development. And more than a few callers do, in fact, contact the show just to commiserate, and share their views – on problems such as child beggars, or the role of parliamentary deputies, or even more abstract issues such as feelings of “belonging” (انتماء).

And the others? Complaints from callers who contact al-Badri about specific problems are taken in quickly; dismissed, usually, with a swift HaaDriin (“we’re on it”), and a promise to contact the person responsible for it. There’s no space here for drama, for heroic arcs. al-Badri tolls, does the best he can, but his longest, most eloquent, most exasperated monologues are in fact offered on issues that he cannot possibly solve, rather than “playing them up” for a final more theatrical resolution. We’re all at the same table here: shaking our heads, laughing in dismay.

And moving on.

All in the Genre

Still, there’s only so far you can go. al-Badri – whatever his claims to offering a place for free debate and discussion might be – still operates squarely within the confines of the Genre. The songs playing underneath his comments praise the homeland, the king, and the army. Radio Fann’s jingles pronounce it as both haašimiyye (Hashemite) and urduniyye (Jordanian). (Throw in miyye-miyye (“100%”), and whoever penned the Radio Hala theme tune might well complain about plagiarism.) It also never challenges the basic premise of a complaint-focused morning call-in show: of being, essentially, an intermediary, an informal arm of government that can turn its attention to areas it for some reason might have missed.

And, let us not forget. al-Badri is a doktoor. Someone with an academic degree. Someone with status. (In Jordan, this counts, very much.) A respected journalist, even apart from his radio career. Implicitly, at least, there’s still a divide drawn between him and his listeners. He might complain, much like them, about much the same things; but in the end, it’s his voice coming out of the speaker, his figure seated in that comfortable chair behind the full-length window looking out into the streets of Amman. Just by virtue of his position, it counts for more.

The only thing that might really distinguish al-Badri’s show from all the others is his style. His cynicism; his disillusioned attitude towards many (though certainly not all; there are red lines, still) branches of government. Such a stance, at least, his programme seems to allow. Callers’ voices are still very much a part of his performance – though, perhaps, in such a context there is at least a slightly better chance that they be heard as voices, rather than just sappy stories to be exploited, or props for an imagined heroism. But it’s only by looking closely at the kind of talk and interaction that each particular programme – and host – allows for themselves and then contributors that we can explore just how far the genre’s conservatism can be pushed.

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Stars of the Studio (2): Hani al-Badri

Mourning the Custodian

By Sunday, 25 January, pundits and journalists had already milked the Saudi king Abdullah’s death for about all its worth. There were obituaries, and eulogies, and op-eds. Western corporate media were swift to provide  assessments of his life and legacy – accompanied, of course, by the obligatory fretting about oil prices. There were more critical voices too, calls for a more nuanced assessment of the legacy of a man who many of his Euro-American political colleagues insisted on praising as a modernizer and reformer (though, really, he was anything but).

512px-King_Abdullah_bin_Abdul_al-Saud_January_2007

(King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons)

Abdullah was not, in fact, just the “King of Saudi Arabia.” His official royal style was خادم الحرميْن الشريفيْن، “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (ie. Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram and Medina’s Mosque of the Prophet) – a legacy of his predecessor, King Fahd, who attempted to shore up his Islamic credentials by declaring himself a bearer of religious and not just worldly power. A dubious claim, in the eyes of many – including within Saudi Arabia itself – but it still imposes a very pressing formal requirement to refer to the Saudi regnant with this title whenever his name is mentioned in Arabic.

Like other Arab regnants, the Royal Hashemite Court expressed its “deepest and utmost sorrow” at the Custodian’s passing, and declared that it would enter a 40-day mourning period beginning from Friday (23 January). Official mourning in Jordan more generally – media blackout, flags at half mast, and so on – would last for three days, ie. Friday to Sunday.

Radio Hala, at least, took it all very seriously indeed.

Radio Hala programmes suspended on Sunday… in mourning for the passing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz

Image text reads:

MOURNING

Truly we are God’s, and to Him we return

(This latter is a Qur’an quote – part of verse 156 of the Sura of the Cow, quoted / recited / posted often at mentions of death)

And – indeed. Instead of the familiar voice of Muhammad al-Wakeel and bagpipe-friendly  nationalist tunes, on Sunday morning Hala’s airwaves were overtaken by the supremely pious sounds of Qur’an recitation – much the same as on Radio Jordan, the Jordanian government’s official (official official) radio station.

A bit of skipping around the airwaves, though, soon showed this was more the exception than the rule. Hani al-Badri’s programme on Radio Fann was unaffected. On JBC, Mahmoud al-Hawyan did linger for a sentence or two longer on the news of Abdullah’s death than he did on other headlines – his comments had all the standard ‘solidarity bases’ covered: “he was a great man,” “all Jordanians mourn his passing,” “Muslims and Christians alike” – but in the end it was just one piece of news among others. King Abdullah was honored – as befits him – but eventually set aside. There were flowery-worded rants to make, and callers to soothe and assist. Even the Custodian could not compete with imperatives of the morning call-in show.

Nashama FM – my impression of it is a kind of “Hala Junior”, indeed quite literally as its broadcasts include a programme hosted by Muhammad al-Wakeel’s son – straddled the fence a bit more, with much of its morning slot being taken over by a host speaking over music about Abdullah’s legacy and what might happen now his brother Salman had succeeded him. (All good things, of course.) Perhaps most glaringly, Hayat FM – the prototype of an “Islamic format” radio station – showed no trace of being in mourning at all. Its live programmes went on as usual, punctuated by religious addresses, sermons, and calls to prayer; and its news bulletins were much more concerned with the most recent round of police brutality in Egypt than with the Custodian’s passing. Yet even within the confines of its own format – that of Arabic-language stations providing live programming and call-ins, and playing (pretty much exclusively) Arabic music – Hala was the exception, and just about the only channel that followed official guidelines on media suspension.

The reason? I would point to two factors. First, the more obvious – and cynical – one: Hala was simply following the official political line of “solidarity and support” with Saudi Arabia, which given its status as the premier ally of the United States in the region could hardly be otherwise.

But there may be something subtler at play here as well. Recall that Radio Hala is the official station of the Jordanian Armed Forces: the voice of the Arab Army – and, by extension, also this army’s supreme leader, the commander-in-chief, His Majesty Abdullah II of Jordan himself. The king is, as is well known, a first-rate military man, and the Armed Forces one of the most prominent organs acting in his name outside the walls of his palace.

Hala is not just a station that happens to have been founded by the Armed Forces (like Radio Fann, or Bliss), but an integral part of the army itself; its ‘voice,’ if you will – though one that’s rather varied and nuanced in its expression, and certainly not a straightforward mouthpiece. Still, it’s subject to obligations that other stations whose links to the state apparatus are not as explicit might be able to dodge. With the Court in mourning, there’s no choice for it but to fall into pious silence too.

Mourning the Custodian

Facebook Counts

During the final days of Muhammad al-Wakeel’s stint at Radio Rotana – when his programme was still called بصراحة مع الوكيل, “Honestly with al-Wakeel” – the host dedicated one Thursday session to an on-air interview with Rajae Qawas, a comedian best known for his work on the Arabic entertainment network Kharabeesh. They touched on many topics, including family, fan interactions, Kharabeesh’s online competitors (Saudis, apparently), and the use of Jordanian dialect in comedy. Eventually, the talk turned to Qawas’s imitation act, and Abu Haytham came up with a challenge.

“Could you do an impression of me?”

Qawas rose to it splendidly. Not as much the tone of voice – though he did nail al-Wakeel’s distinctive cadence, with rises at the end of phrases followed by over-extended pauses – as the way in which the star host tends to conduct his on-air interactions: reading out listeners’ names, responding to their greetings posted on social media, and re-phrasing and appropriating the problems from their call-ins to fit into his own personal performance arc.

And, to top it all off, a reference to al-Wakeel’s personal “Page” on Facebook.

صار عندنا على صفحتنا اكثر من مليون و نصّ (..) مشاهد و

we now have on our page more than a million and a half (..) viewers and…

(The (..) stands for a longer pause. Source: bi-SiraaHa ma3 al-wakiil recording, Radio Rotana, 10 April 2014)

A clever choice – especially given that, for the past few days, al-Wakeel had worked in his number of Facebook followers into just about every third sentence he spoke on air. “We’ve reached a million and a half followers on our Facebook page.” “A million and a half friends.” “More than a million and a half.” And so on, and so on.

A star, indeed, to be liked by so many.

Presence, Everywhere

Fast forward nine months, to January 2015. al-Wakeel – now at Radio Hala – had in the meantime more than doubled his number of Facebook followers, now fast approaching 4 million. When the quota was finally reached, on 13 January, it was more than enough of a cause for celebration.

Broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Page celebrates its fourth million follower

Afterwards, one proudly quoted estimate put al-Wakeel’s page as the seventh most “liked” Facebook “news” Page in the world.

The raw numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story. Even those radio programmes and personalities with more limited reach can make good use of social media  to assert their presence. Twitter feeds might offer live updates on road conditions, summaries of points discussed or brought up in the programme, or even just reminders of regularly scheduled programmes – such as, for example, Radio Hala’s daily tweet reminding followers of the afternoon Islamic advice programme ريّح بالك، “Comfort your Mind”, hosted by the daa3iya (= popular Islamic scholar) Zaid al-Masri:

We meet again for a new installment of “Comfort your Mind” with @ZaidAlmasri

[sponsor message omitted]

You can participate by calling 0798666000

This is a one-way sharing of information – from programme producers to followers / listeners – but the capabilities of social media also allow for more direct interaction. Here, Facebook takes the proverbial cake, especially as far as morning call-in shows are concerned: hosts spend a lot of time sifting through and reading out on-air the various comments left on their programmes’ pages (most of which just say “good morning”), or responding to and commenting on the messages they’d been sent. Not all of these involve issues to be resolved: they can be observations on current affairs, or religious quotations, or lines of poetry (quoted or, sometimes, original).

Reach out, then; and there will be a response. Though it’s definitely comforting to hear one’s name mentioned on the air, dialogues between listeners and radio people sometimes take place entirely on social media. Radio Bliss, the Jordanian army’s English-language offshoot, manages this kind of interaction quite skillfully:

Tweets, and retweets, and mention threads all become tools for listener management: through song requests, or quizzes, or just general questions asking for experiences or opinions. That it’s an English-language radio station using Twitter in this way is not all that surprising, either. Jordanians listening to radio broadcasting in Arabic seem to vastly prefer Facebook. Still, it’s just one particular “twist” on the general theme. Radio listeners, in this day and age, are no longer just listeners; and those who work in Jordanian media realize this very well.

Extending the Airwaves

Social media are able to do things that radio alone never could. In the time allotted to their programmes, hosts can quite simply link up with more callers by reading out posts from a comment feed, rather than waiting for each one to call and come on air in turn. And there’s always the fact that the Internet is accessed through a screen. Laptop, or phone, or tablet; in every case, it’s essentially a visual medium. One that can transmit images – moving, or stationary – in addition to sound, and is thus able to relieve what’s probably one of radio’s biggest shortcomings.

It’s one thing to call in to al-Wakeel’s Programme about a pothole – or a traffic jam, or an offending roadside stall – but quite another if you’re also able to send in pictures of it, which the host can then upload and distribute on his Facebook page for all his 4 million followers to see. When, last April, a worried mother called in to Rotana about her child being given materials with Hebrew script on them for their first-grade English class, al-Wakeel was able to receive visual evidence of it almost instantly. To get a clearer picture of the problem – all, of course, in the interest of solving it more efficiently, once the appropriate official is  called up.

(Above: image from Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, listing all the various ways in which listeners can link up with the Programme. From right to left: 2 phone lines, a fax number, dedicated numbers for both WhatsApp and conventional text messages, and (below) social media handles for both the radio station and the presenter himself.)

This is something that (huge jargon warning lights here) Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin have called remediation. Radio, in its classic form, connects people – and places, and times – through sound: speech, or music, or white noise, audible signals transmitted through the airwaves. You can do your best, but this kind of interaction can still never be entirely like live presence.

As digital media proliferate, more and more ways can be found to circle around this. Get a Facebook account; put images up on your website; stick a camera in your studio so that every one of your listeners – or at least those with a screen-endowed device, and enough bandwidth to stream the video feed live – can see you while you expound on bureaucratic mishaps and try to help your callers resolve the latest water main problem in their neighborhood. And yet – and this is the gist of Bolter and Grusin’s argument – all these efforts to transcend a medium’s failures only end up producing more media: each with its own characteristics, and capabilities, and limits.

Still, you can try. Somewhere, behind all this – behind all the videos, the pictures, the audio feeds, the tweets and Facebook posts and instant messages and website updates – there is a real person: coming to work; putting their headphones on; sitting behind the desk, in a studio, reading words off a screen, answering phone calls. Without all the pictures and video clips and Internet responses, they might as well have been just another disembodied voice issuing from a car speaker, or a corner radio set. But as it is, maybe – just maybe – they can become something more.

Facebook Counts

Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

The morning of 28 September 2014 began much like any other for Muhammad al-Wakeel’s  programme on Radio Hala, the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces. There was the standard repertoire of Jordanian patriotic music; comments and greetings from Facebook, read out by al-Wakeel himself, as he does constantly throughout the show to reinforce the sense of connection with his listeners through social media. With Eid al-Adha approaching, there were news related to that: the exact dates of the public holiday, as well as details of the preparations, including prices for sacrificed animals (أضاحي، aDaaHii; usually, sheep) and reports on Jordanians making the greater pilgrimage to Mecca.

Soon after 8 AM, though, the programme’s tone changed abruptly. The lively beats of Jordanian tunes gave way to a sentimental piano piece. al-Wakeel spoke of Eid al-Adha, and how even though many people might find it a time of warmth and celebration there are others with much less – who live in very difficult conditions; as the Programme’s listeners know quite well, from the phone calls that al-Wakeel receives on a daily basis. There was one especially moving story, al-Wakeel said, that he wanted to speak about today, that of a 19-year-old boy down on his luck – without a proper job, with no close family to help him, or even a decent roof over his head.

And who was, at that moment, right there in the studio.

[MaW Drama] 1 - abd al-salam

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 28 September 2014 – link)

The young man’s name, as listeners soon learned, was Abd al-Salam. He had come to Amman from Aqaba on an early morning bus, with 42 Jordanian dinars in his pocket, driven to desperation in finding government bureau or some other agency that could assist him. He was searching for his mother, whom he had never met, and who had given birth to him in prison. He’d been trained to do hotel work, but wasn’t employed in a hotel now. When al-Wakeel asked him whether he had a place to live in Aqaba, his only response was silence.

“Okay,” al-Wakeel said. “See. He doesn’t want to speak about this.”

Abd al-Salam’s voice was shaking. There were sniffles; he’d been crying. His story, in al-Wakeel’s own words, had “shaken” everyone in the studio, and of course the esteemed host was on the case immediately. Contacts were called up, in the police and in the prison administration, searching for the boy’s mother. “It’s fine,” Abu Haytham reassured him. “We will find her.” And perhaps most importantly, at about 9 o’clock, a phone call came in from a manager at a well-known chain hotel in Aqaba, declaring that he’d heard Abd al-Salam’s story and wishes to help him out, and that they have a job for him.

The airwaves fizzled with joy. For a while, all al-Wakeel could utter was praise: for his friends in the government offices; for the generous hotel manager; for everyone on Facebook who’d declared their compassion for poor Abd al-Salam, and their readiness to help him in any way they could. It was a proper grand conclusion to the spectacle: a touching story of loss and longing and deprivation, resolved through heroic intervention. And though Abd al-Salam’s plight was what drew the eyes and ears of listeners, the actual focus of the story – its true hero – was the man who’d brought it all together, and made it happen. Muhammad al-Wakeel.

Medicine in the Ruins

Abd al-Salam’s visit provided a spirited start to the week; but there was more to come. For days before on Radio Hala’s airwaves, announcements and jingles were building up hype for an “unprecedented media event”, a special installment of the Programme that would astound listeners and completely change their thoughts on what a Jordanian morning call-in show could be like.

The big secret? A field trip to Gaza.

[MaW Drama] 2 - gaza - field studio

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

For the next three days, the Programme would be broadcasting not from the comfort of its studios in Amman, but from the Jordan Field Hospital in Gaza, a continually-renewed Armed Forces mission that has provided medical aid to residents of the Strip since 2009. The hospital staff welcomed al-Wakeel and his crew with open arms: eager to participate, to make themselves heard, to show off the good work they were doing, as well as demonstrate quite concretely the Hashemite leadership’s generosity in lending aid to the people of Gaza.

Again, a carefully managed performance. And one in which, for all of al-Wakeel’s drama and  posturing, Gazans themselves barely featured. The focus was firmly on the Jordanian cadres – officers, doctors, nurses – and their work, the efforts and heroism of the “intrepid” (baasil) Jordanian armed forces. (Let’s not forget either that al-Wakeel visit took place right after one of the bloodiest summers in Gaza’s history, after constant strikes and bombardment by the Israeli army in July and August left more than 2,000 people dead and much of the Strip reduced to rubble.)

[MaW Drama] 3 - gaza - in hospital

(Source: al-Wakeel al-Ikhbaarii, 29 September 2014 – link)

Certainly, there were Gazan voices present. Hospital patients, for one: al-Wakeel spoke to quite a few of these, and gave them air space to talk at length about their health problems and the way that the Field Hospital has been helping them. But the way in which these mini-interviews were framed made it quite clear who was in the center of the picture. Not the Gazans themselves, or their problems, or their opinions, but rather the Jordanian army, the valiant našaama and našmiyyaat (the homeland’s “heroes”; both male and female) who toiled day and night to treat injuries and diseases in the middle of a land torn apart by war.

The patients had little to offer, in the end, other than blessings and praise – to their doctors, and the hospital workers, and the Hashemite leadership, with all their selfless generosity. Bland voice-boxes, compared to the Jordanian staff, each with their own rank and skills and profession, and personal experience and opinions worthy for al-Wakeel to discuss and engage with whenever he pinned one of them down for an interview.

A clear imbalance, then, in terms of agency – and who in the end really mattered. For al-Wakeel, details of the drama of Gazan life were not nearly as significant as the stories of the Jordanian medical champions who worked to make things better.

The Master of Drama

Everyone knows that there’s suffering in Gaza. It might not be necessary to dwell on others’ misfortunes too much, if your listeners already have a sense of what is going on. Sometimes, though, the arc requires a little more buildup; and this is something that al-Wakeel – and the members of his team who manage his programme as it comes on air – is very well versed in. There’s nothing random about the choice of sappy piano music to accompany Abd al-Salam’s story – just as there isn’t in the following phone call, recorded and published via YouTube (see especially from 7:20 onwards):

“The Story of the Girl Who Brought Muhammad al-Wakeel to Tears.” The title of the video itself makes it very clear. We’re dealing with emotion; with compassion; a tale so tragic and so heart-breaking that it even wet the eyes of the great Abu Haytham. (Imagine!) The “girl” – Sara – contacted the programme in order to seek assistance from the programme for her father, a taxi driver beset by eye problems who had difficulties providing for his family. The man himself came on air later, and after they’d spoken for a while about his troubles al-Wakeel was so overcome with emotion that for almost a minute he could manage nothing but sniffles and whimpers. With, of course, appropriate musical accompaniment.

The more tragic, the more hopeless, the more emotionally stirring a caller’s problem is made to seem – the more spectacular, then, al-Wakeel’s eventual solution. Even it involves something as prosaic as surgery at an eye clinic that is (no coincidence there, either) one of the Programme’s regular sponsors.


During the final hour of the 28 September programme, al-Wakeel received another call from Aqaba. It went on air: a man, declaring he had heard Abd al-Salam’s story, and was moved by it – so much so that he’d decided to offer him a job!

Alas, he’d have to be disappointed. As far as Abd al-Salam went, the script was finished. The arc was done: the boy had a job already, through the hotel manager that had called up earlier. In the end, al-Wakeel didn’t quite know what to do with this living exemplar of Jordanian generosity. A greeting; a blessing, a polite dismissal, and he was sent on his way. Time was short, and there were callers waiting, more anguished souls for the hero of the day to save.

Stars of the Studio (1): Muhammad al-Wakeel

The Stars of the Studio

No self-respecting radio station in Jordan exists without a live morning show. These usually run on weekdays between 7 and 10 AM, and feature various radio hosts speaking over music, offering reflections on recent goings-on and hot discussion topics. The kind of Arabic used is very colloquial; relaxed, really, especially in comparison to the rule-bound formality of news programmes and reportage. Management of social media is also important. Hosts enjoy reading out greetings and comments left by listeners on the programmes’ Facebook or Twitter pages, and points mentioned in the show are sometimes also summarized in social media feeds:

The al-Wakeel Programme observes: Severe traffic jams on various roads in the capital Amman as work begins at 9:30

But what’s probably the most attractive feature of these programmes is that they invite listeners to call in directly, declaring their grievances or problems they wish to have solved. Calls are received in the studio and then handed over to the host to be transmitted live on-air – or discussed off-air, sometimes, if the issue is sensitive or involves names that listeners don’t want to mention publicly. It’s a good way of gaining public exposure; officials may be listening, after all, or others who might be able to give help or advice.

Sometimes, though, the responses are more direct. Hosts such as Muhammad al-Wakeel, JBC’s Mahmoud al-Hawyan, and Radio Fann’s Hani al-Badri all have their own lists of contacts at various government offices – often simply the departments’ designated media representatives, but also higher-ups, men (most often men) of rank such as colonels and cabinet ministers. When a problem crops up that concerns a specific official, they might expect a call from the radio station, and questions from the host on-air – or, every once in a while, direct conversation with a citizen.

It’s difficult, of course, to solve every issue within the few minutes made available for each phone call. But at the very least, there’s the chance for officials to show their engagement. They respond to calls; they make themselves available. They’re present, and doing the best they can to resolve their citizens’ problems as they come along. All that needs to happen is that they are told. And this where the radio hosts come into play: making space on-air for people to speak, and linking them up with those who should hear, proper heroes riding the waves and lines of modern communicative media.

The Quest for Assistance

The topics callers discuss can vary wildly. One listener might complain about traffic light intervals; another, about refusing to be treated in a hospital, or the influence of the presence of Syrian refugees on Jordan’s labor market. There are also job requests, and charity appeals, and calls regarding lost property. Though these latter don’t usually require official intervention, they still very much fit the mold: using radio as a means of publicizing, of transmitting to otherwise what might otherwise have stayed confined, of sharing information and experiences among a community of listeners that is both heedful and responsive.

And then there are the other kind of calls. Problems too complex to handle; problems that aren’t even problems, but really only rants, sometimes so belabored and meandering that even the hosts have trouble making sense of them. Such callers are, in the end, usually sent off politely, though with the distinct undertone that they shouldn’t be wasting people’s time. The only way to really help such people might be to let them help themselves.

Or, at least, offer advice. One young Jordanian man who had obtained his Master’s degree in Malaysia and was facing problems getting it certified in Jordan decided to seek help from al-Wakeel. Though the host heard his story, it was quite clear that he had no idea about a possible solution, given that the caller had himself already exhausted all official channels that were available to him in Jordan. The response? Go back to Malaysia, and get those papers you need, as al-Wakeel put it (though perhaps a bit less bluntly). After all, it’s the law. (That the Jordanian postal service had proven somewhat inept in ensuring that letters mailed internationally actually arrived to their addressees, or that the Malaysian university’s administrators seemed to have no idea what specific document the Jordanians required in addition to what they’d already provided their erstwhile student with, wasn’t considered an issue.)

So, when all other channels fail, it’s the hosts themselves that offer on-the-spot solutions. They might not know all the details; nuance might escape them, especially if what they’re confronted with isn’t something that’s dealt with regularly (such as fuel subsidies or infrastructure maintenance complaints). But none of this matters, really. They’re there; they’re listening; their voices echo broadly, and they’re heard, and heeded, by officials as well as ordinary listeners. They’re the ones, in the end, who dispense knowledge and offer intercessions, the figures in which true power of the programme resides.

Inclusion on the Airwaves

So then, what’s the point? Do these programmes really contribute to raising awareness of government accountability – or do they end up ‘dancing around’ the issue, as Sawsan Zaydeh suggests, devolving into arenas where individuals can demand intercessions that would benefit them personally rather than their communities more broadly?

Likely, a little bit of both. Maybe, though, it’s not as much why people call in that makes the difference, but rather the way in which their calls are treated. Though the morning call-in show is a very well-defined genre on Jordanian airwaves – in terms of structure, the kind of language used, the basics of how participants interact with each other, and so on – each host has their own, very specific, very recognizable style of engaging with callers. Some offer more space for discussion, for criticism, for presenting callers’ viewpoints in their own right; others are more pragmatic, oriented squarely towards the goal of solving problems, or framing them in a particularly dramatic fashion that makes the host’s intervention seem all the more critical.

[14 JAN] hani albadri studio 9-13AM

(Above: snapshot of Hani al-Badri in-studio. From Radio Fann’s live on-air camera stream)

But to understand these differences properly, we can’t just analyze language – linguistic interaction – voices alone. Radio, in this day and age, is no longer just a disembodied flow of sound issuing from a (stationary, or mobile, or vehicle-embedded) machine. For one, there are the video feeds: online transmissions live from the station’s principal studio, where one can see the host at the same time as they listen to them: their facial expressions, hand gestures, behavioral tics such as smoking, or drinking coffee – all components of each particular broadcaster’s public image. And there’s the constant obsession with social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – where hosts both encourage listeners to get involved on their programme or station’s pages with their comments, but also participate themselves, via photographs, sound recordings, and videos that feature their voices and likenesses.

(Above: photo of Muhammad al-Wakeel behind the microphone, from Radio Hala’s Twitter account. Caption reads: “With commitment and vigor, we join you to begin the ‘Morning of the Beautiful Homeland’, and a new installment of the al-Wakeel Programme”)

All part of the performance; though one that’s carefully managed. While the video feeds might show the hosts in their own ‘element’ – making comments, receiving calls, responding, communicating – they only tell one side of the story. As I’ve mentioned – not all calls actually make it to air. Sometimes it’s the callers themselves who request this – though even these are often name-checked by hosts, to reassure them they’re “on the issue” if nothing else – but there’s also sifting going on at the intake level. The studio stars are, really, only ‘frontmen’, supported by a whole team of producers and engineers that choose which calls to patch through, which might be deserving of a spot on the air, which are worthy of the host’s attention and which might perhaps be solved in some other way.

[14 JAN] radio hala production studio 10-30

(Above: snapshot of the al-Wakeel Programme’s production team in-studio. From Radio Hala’s live on-air camera stream)

al-Wakeel calls this ‘backstage half’ of the programme the “programme producers”; for al-Badri, they are simply “the guys” (aš-šabaab). Though they’re just as important for the programme’s airing as the actual hosts, they are, effectively, silenced; absent – at least as far as the audio stream is concerned. Still, they never entirely disappear. The hosts mention them constantly – chatting with them, teasing them, asking for clarifications or information on incoming calls. And there’s also always at least one camera that curious listeners can bring up to check on what they’re doing.

There’s a certain sense of inclusion, then; of community; of the call-in show not being just the product of a lone star lounging in a comfortable chair in the studio, but also a host of others, callers and web commenters and producers. And, last but not least, those who only listen. Radio, done this way, can hardly ever be lonely, or intimate.

The Stars of the Studio

Blizzard Debates

I don’t think I heard the radio host Muhammad al-Wakeel utter the word “Huda” once during his field trip through the snowy streets of Amman. For him it was always al-munkhafaD al-džawwii (المنخفض الجوي، “weather depression”; “area of low air pressure” or “cold front”). Lengthier, certainly, and much drier than a snappy, memorable, carefully chosen (female) name. Still, it did not stop al-Wakeel from dramatizing the event itself in a similar way as did social media commentators and most private media outlets. Already on Saturday night, in expectation of the beginning of a new week – al-Wakeel resumes his regular morning broadcasts every Sunday, after a Friday-Saturday pause – anticipation was being built up for yet another special episode of the Programme:

Caption reads:

Muhammad al-Wakeel returns to air at 10AM tomorrow morning, to examine the positive and negative aspects of the weather depression

And the image text:

TOMORROW.

The al-Wakeel Programme. Beginning from 10AM

The hype is on.

The Star’s Journey

There was more snowfall on Saturday night, and likely due to road conditions the Programme had to be delayed for another hour. (Note that the image in this link is much the same as the one in the tweet above, only without the TOMORROW in the upper-right corner and the starting time changed to 11AM. Quick and responsive.)

When al-Wakeel’s voice finally appeared, it was through a phone line, rather than from inside the studio. As on Thursday, it seemed al-Wakeel was on a field trip – though Radio Hala’s “high definition broadcaster camera” (a LiveStream service) only showed the snowy environs of the studio, rather than a live feed through the windshield of a moving 4×4. Even this, though, drew about 200 registered viewers; a poor showing indeed on Thursday’s 1000+ – though judging from the live chat feed beside the video stream, these were listeners very much concerned with their beloved host’s well-being while he was out on the streets.

Or, at least, eager to show their concern. As in this comment:

[11 JAN 2015] abuhaythamtakecareofyourself

Abu Haytham my brother take care of yourself

(Abu Haytham is Muhammad al-Wakeel’s nickname – a kunya or teknonym, ie. naming after his child; “Father of Haytham” – by which he is known affectionately to many of his commenters and callers.)

Abu Haytham himself, though, seemed quite content to run the first few hours of his broadcast from inside a military vehicle. When he finally did arrive to the Hala studios, it was like a proper media star: recorded on video the moment he stepped out of the vehicle, waving and smiling his way past, all too aware of his popularity and his importance to fans and followers.

Praise to God; the broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel and the al-Wakeel Programme team have arrived to the Radio Hala studios in Amman, in vehicles belonging to the intrepid Jordanian Armed Forces

Balanced Views

The very format of the Sunday broadcast – discussing “positives” and “negatives” of the cold front – set up the snowstorm as a concrete, bordered ‘event’; one that took place, through God’s agency or otherwise, and whose ‘effects’ could now be debated and discussed. It’s a curious way to approach something like weather, though with the constant buzz and discussion built up around Huda perhaps also inevitable. And who better suited for this task than Muhammad al-Wakeel – with his authoritative voice, his lengthy broadcasting credentials, and his dense links to officials giving him an unmatched overview of goings-on in the Hashemite Kingdom.

It began, already, in the army jeep, interspersed between updates on weather conditions and traffic warnings. Positives first, then negatives, al-Wakeel said, though he still couldn’t help but slip in a few critical observations of his own. To offer a balanced perspective, we have to speak of negatives too.

The citizens’ cooperation during the storm was definitely a good thing – obeying the authorities, staying at home when they were told to do so, with only a few people ignoring the warnings (and those duly deserving any fines or punishments the police might have applied). Beautiful views, of course; seeing Jordan all covered in white doesn’t exactly happen every day. The ample precipitation meant that “we wouldn’t be complaining about lack of water during the summer”. Finally, there was the professionalism, the readiness, exhibited by the state apparatus, and also the private sector – e.g. bakeries – in serving ordinary Jordanians.

The negatives? Citizens panicking due to obtaining information from dubious sources; citizens disobeying instructions, leading to traffic accidents (especially while ice was covering the roads); and profiteers who exploited the storm to swindle customers on gas prices.

[11 JAN 2015] alwakeelinuniform12-12PM

(Above: snapshot of al-Wakeel in the studio at about 12:12 on Sunday; for once, in full military uniform)

But all of these hiccups paled in comparison with the government’s efforts to deal with the storm. al-Wakeel called up both his police contact and the Mayor of Amman himself to offer praise, and lauded the ministerial cabinet as well, especially its decisions to temporarily close government offices and postpone scheduled school exams in light of the hazardous weather conditions. Professionalism; preparedness; all very positive things, as far as this particular host was concerned. The people could perhaps have done a better job, but what can you do? Advise, and inform, of course, as is any responsible broadcaster’s duty.

What struck me especially was how concerned al-Wakeel was with classifying any particular point as either positive or negative. The kinds of issues that came under each heading were, indeed, telling; but it was also the act of classification itself, the very fact that al-Wakeel took on the role of arbiter in the matter, that tells something about his position with respect to  listeners. There were other voices – both of the officials al-Wakeel called up directly, and those that came into play more subtly through his mention of their decisions – but, in the end, it essentially came down to a monologue.

So the final word stays with al-Wakeel. Ordinary Jordanians might be called upon not to leave their homes; he rides around in an army jeeps, and transmits updates through the airwaves so they don’t have to. He gives advice, and warnings, to those who would listen. And he curates, sifting through voices and pieces of information and news, presenting a confident – and broadly transmitted – reckoning of the aftermath of the storm.

Blizzard Debates

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”

Another trending topic during the days the Huda winter storm hit Jordan was the name Muhammad al-Shaker. Shaker (pronounced SHEH-kur) is a self-professed meteorology enthusiast who started out as a pharmacist; and, in recent years, as founder of the ArabiaWeather / طقس العرب website, and a familiar face for its forecasts and predictions (especially through the web TV channel Ro’ya), he’s become a proper guru as far as weather issues are concerned.

In business-speak, Shaker discovered a niche – accurate, detailed, locale-sensitive weather forecasts presented in Arabic – and managed to fill it splendidly. Though he started with Jordan, now the ArabiaWeather website also offers forecasts for other Arab countries. Public exposure followed, though not always positive. One caustic tweet during Huda – which I’ve sadly lost the link to – had Shaker for a “weather businessman,” “trading” in weather like it was some kind of commercial article, a way of building his image and promoting himself through his regular online performances.

But most of those who pay attention to Shaker’s forecasts seem to be little troubled by the riches he might have gained. His performances – detailed, authoritative, to-the-point, supported with eye-catching interactive graphics – are a much slicker, much more palatable, and to a smartphone-armed public much more accessible version of weather forecasts than official pronouncements. It’s no surprise, then, that when he declared Huda might be a ‘big one’, his words didn’t go unnoticed.

Weather Talk

When the storm hit, Shaker himself provided regular updates to the forecast, broadcast live by Ro’ya and later accessible in online archives. Even winds and snowfall, as battered Amman on Wednesday evening, weren’t enough to stop him. Here’s a clip of him giving a kind of “field” forecast from outside the studio – still worth a watch, I think, even if you don’t understand Arabic:

The tie stays on, of course.

Shaker includes a lot of detail in his forecast here. Time and location of expected snowfall are dissected thoroughly; so are the predicted developments during the night, and in the next few days, as well as warnings for people to stay at home (and explaining why they should do so). The language he uses is quite high-level; on the near side of MSA formality, fluent and confident without being stilted. There are the “explanatory” gestures as well, and the posture. Though Shaker falters a bit in places – e.g. at about 1:38 when the wind picks up – his entire presentation seeks to radiate authority and professionalism. A man, then, who knows his stuff, and whose predictions can be trusted.

Soon enough, every word that came out of Shaker’s mouth came to be watched very closely. His forecasts on Ro’ya continued through Thursday: reports on accumulated snow,  complete with fancy graphics, animations of the cold front moving across Jordan as well as  interactive marking of areas that would be affected.

The Maligned Forecaster

Woe to him, though, that sows undue panic among the people. Throughout Thursday daytime and during the night, Huda gradually eased off, leading some Jordanian internet-nauts to question Shaker’s integrity in “playing it up” as similar to last winter’s Alexa (which at that moment seemed much more severe in comparison). Before the storm hit, Jordanians had been encouraged to stock up on supplies and be prepared not to leave their homes for several days straight. Now, though, despite the warnings that extreme weather would continue (and snow hit the country’s southern regions), it seemed things might be settling down.

Was Shaker to blame? Some seemed to think so. There were voices denouncing him as a meteorological “hobbyist” rather than a proper expert, and even whispers of a smear campaign against him on some authorities’ part. People talked a lot about bread – something citizens might be expected to stock up on, before the storm – and, half-jokingly perhaps, whether Shaker had in fact conspired with bakeries in order to scare people about the storm and push them to spend more than they otherwise might have.

Whenever people see #Muhammad al-Shaker they run to buy bread

Others took the situation with better humor.

Dear Muhammad al-Shaker.

I swear by God that if it doesn’t snow in Tafileh I will not bury you in all the bread that I’ve bought

Still, it seemed that, for this young man who had appeared so confident and professional, the times could turn tough if his predictions proved off the mark.

Redeemed by the Ice Apocalypse

On Friday night, the situation changed again. Shaker had already declared in his Thursday forecasts that by the weekend Jordan would be exposed to the full brunt of the cold front, bringing ice and freezing temperatures, and warned people not to leave their homes.

These warnings, at least, proved timely. The situation on the roads grew quickly worse as temperatures plummeted after sundown. A slew of traffic accidents followed, with at least two casualties. By late evening, when roads in Jordan were announced officially closed due to weather conditions, Shaker’s image seemed to have recovered.

#Muhammad al-Shaker you’ve proven your worth

For somebody like Shaker – disseminating their wisdom from the private sector, without an established apparatus to support them – worth and reputation in the public’s eye might rise and fall on the strength on their predictions. Weather forecasting is a risky business to get involved in; even more so when a storm like Huda hits, when you can expect audiences to hang on your every word, question every claim you make and your qualifications to do so. Though in the end it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the forecaster’s beloved subject – the weather – or their public that’s the more fickle, or predictable.

Muhammad al-Shaker, Buried in Bread: Storms and the “Weather Business”