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

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