Officials on the Line

For all their musical chatter and social media activity, the conversation with the official remains the centerpiece of Jordan’s morning “service programme” genre. It’s what makes them truly distinct from any other programme out there. Hosts and producers are very much aware of this. The amount of direct on-air conversations is kept low, usually only for the most high-profile or sympathy-swelling issues. Airtime is precious, after all; and if not it has to be made so.

The broadcasters’ role is key in this. They’re the ones authorized and empowered to speak; the voices that have the officials’ ear, those that choose which issues will be presented and resolved in the daily drama of the morning show. In their position as “problem mediators,” the hosts enter into direct relationships with people in Jordan’s official and government circles. Whether hosts and officials in fact know each other personally is not really an issue.  What matters is that their interactions are performed as such: through amicable on-air conversations, cultivating a feeling of closeness that reassures listeners and encourages them to come forward with their own difficulties.

The types of problems often repeat – issues with traffic, infrastructure, schools, taxes, government employment – and so do the officials summoned to resolve them. Listeners, especially regular ones, inevitably catch onto this. And though they may for the most part be blocked from linking up with the officials directly, they still come to know who precisely it is that the stations keep as their “contact.” At the other end, there’s always somebody listening: a person, with a name and a job and a face, someone with the will and power to hear their plight and do something about it.

Official Chats

On Muhammad al-Wakeel’s show, these principles are evident enough. His style of interacting with officials is predictably chummy, though always respectful: conceding the floor, letting the phone guests speak their mind, with much fewer interruptions than for the ‘civilian’ callers.

Though his position on the Jordanian army’s official radio station might give al-Wakeel a somewhat privileged ‘insider’ status, the style of interaction exhibited by other hosts isn’t all that different. In the end, a conversation between a host and an official is always a conversation; and, as such, subject to all the rules a normal conversation in Arabic entails. Extended greetings are exchanged at the beginning at the end. The forms of address the participants use to address each other – “sir,” or “my brother,” or direct use of names or teknonyms – inevitably reveal the kind of relationship the two wish to project between each other. And there are constant  respectful evasions and allusions, compounded by the fact that they’re now speaking “on air.”

When, in the beginning of December last year, a busful of students crashed in the early morning on the road leading to Madaba, his contact in the Civil Defense’s media office – Brigadier General Farid al-Sharaa – was quick to respond to Radio Hala’s requests for information. Just to “reassure” al-Wakeel’s loyal listeners, of course, by telling them which school in particular the bus belonged to, and that the accident only resulted in seven light injuries.

(Tweet reads: “In the morning the nicest faces are not those made most beautiful but those that smile the most and are the most innocent… Good morning, Muhammad al-Wakeel.” From Radio Hala’s Twitter page)

This could very well have taken the form of a detached, formal announcement, giving only the barest facts about the incident. But framed as it was within a telephone conversation, it played out rather differently: as a friendly chat between two men, comfortable in their positions, who have no trouble speaking to each other publicly on an equal level.

al-Sharaa and al-Wakeel exchanged greetings and blessings, shared a few laughs, and concerned themselves at some length with expressing respect for each other’s work – in the Civil Defense and on the radio, respectively. The Brigadier might have spoken in his formal capacity, about a serious issue – a traffic accident – but the image he presented was far from that of a stodgy institutional spokesman. He was just another person; chatting on the phone, just like anybody else would. The easy familiarity that al-Wakeel showed while talking to him only confirmed the basic premise of the morning programmes: that institutions – the Civil Defense, as any other government agency – are made up of people, and that these people can be called up and talked to.

Personalizing Authority

Such familiarity extends beyond on-air interactions. The web of ‘backstage’ links maintained by the various programmes’ producers maintains the links even in the absence of directly broadcast conversations. On the listeners’ side, there is a similar sense of regular contacts being maintained – to the extent that callers come to expect, quite explicitly, who the official ‘listening in’ might be when they link up with each particular programme.

Comments about Jordan’s roads and traffic violations are common on all morning shows. One listener, who called up Hani al-Badri on Radio Fann to complain about overcrowded school buses, already made it clear in the introduction to his call who it was he expected to hear it:

يا سيدي فيه ملاحظتين لو سمحت لي على ادارة السير (..) ان شاء الله إنه يكون معاوية المقدّم معاوية يسمع

Sir there are two comments if you will for the Traffic Department… God willing Muawiya, Lieutenant Colonel Muawiya, is listening

 (Source: Wasat al-Balad recording, Radio Fann, 21 April 2014)

al-Badri’s response to this was only – “of course.” “Of course he’s listening.” The caller, then, could go on to explain his problems, safe in the knowledge he wasn’t just speaking into the wind. Which he did – reassured, presumably (though of course we only have the sound recording to speculate from here).

[fann] wasat al-balad numbers

(Graphic listing ways of linking up with Radio Fann’s Wasat al-Balad programme. Source: Radio Fann’s Facebook page, 23 February 2015 – LINK)

The issue isn’t whether the Lieutenant Colonel was in fact listening to this particular segment of the show, but rather the expectation that he would. And it isn’t just any employee of the Traffic Department: it is this particular Lieutenant Colonel, Muawiya, a person whose voice had been heard on air before and surely would be again.

It’s not likely that callers are particularly ‘strategic’ in choosing which morning programme to call depending on the contacts they keep. Most are probably grateful enough for the chance to come on air at all. Also, many programmes’ links appear to lead to the same official personages: usually people in press offices of ministries or government agencies, or the more ‘media-friendly’ ministers and officeholders (the Mayor of Amman makes especially frequent appearances on all sorts of issues).

Still, the general principle holds. Through the practice of calling up officials on morning programmes, government authorities are given names, and voices. They are, in other words, personalized; kept formal, and official, still, though in a way that makes it clear that these are institutions made up of people – people that can, then, be criticized for their particular failings, or enter as (supportive) characters in dramatic arcs played out in the ‘problem solution’ segments of the morning service shows. People who take their time, and listen – and who, in the end, might care more for citizens’ problems than a faceless bureaucratic state.

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Officials on the Line

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