Radio charity and “call-fixing”

In Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue, which I am currently reading – really a great book, by the way, with Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation justly being shortlisted for prizes – the surveillance-heavy authoritarian government gives out free mobile phones to record citizens’ conversations, and extends its heavy hand of censorship to make sure TV stations only transmit approved government news. One field it doesn’t touch, however, is radio – at least not directly. Radio shows aren’t censored and controlled ‘from above’; instead, the government mobilizes “loyal citizens” to call into radio programmes and give the impression of organic, authentic support for its policies.

The issue of staged call-ins is a real one – not invented by Abdel Aziz, surely, even as it fits ever so neatly into her near-future dystopian riff on our current technological and social environment. If we take the voices of ordinary people’s opinions in the mass media as a measure of some sort of public participation, what do we do when these ‘opinions’ can  be directly promoted, even bought, by interested parties? Governments, corporations, even media institutions themselves might ‘encourage’ people to call in with ‘their’ opinions – giving a sham picture of a thriving public sphere where in fact much of the conversation is just staged performance in service of a specific governmental or commercial purpose.

There’s a unique twist to this issue in Jordan, where actual opinion programmes – where listeners might call in to support or oppose a policy or government decision of some sort – are quite rare. (Radio al-Balad runs quite a few, but both their independent and professional stance and the fact that the majority of the people they have calling in are drawn from a limited pool of ‘regulars’ make it less of an issue there.) On the other hand, the daily service programmes, barāmij khadamātiyya, in which listeners call in to ask the station to help them with solving some sort of personal or local problem – finding a job, say, or repairing a pothole in the street or a broken water pipe – can also be seen as susceptible to call-fixing. What better way to promote the ‘effectiveness’ of the station in solving people’s problems other than inventing a few yourself? Someone calls in with a non-existent issue, the relevant government department declares it ‘solved,’ the station’s mediation has been successful, and everyone can just pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on their efficiency.

But if such practice exists, how widespread is it? I can only speculate – perhaps a reader might have a more concrete answer? – but I can imagine it quite easily happening in, for example, the shows of Muhammad al-Wakeel, where his vastly inflated social media audience (seven million Facebook ‘Likes’ come close to estimates for the entire population of Jordan) is already cause for suspicion. al-Wakeel, indeed, seems to be heavily invested in problem-solving ‘arcs’: not just taking calls and passing on queries to relevant authorities, but also emphasizing his heroic role in solving problems, following up with callers once their issues have been resolved and detailing precisely which government employee it was that caught and straightened out the problem.

A recent announcement for Muhammad al-Wakeel’s programme on Facebook. Via Radio Hala.

More recently, al-Wakeel has also begun to take in queries through recorded messages via WhatsApp – which makes call-fixing, potentially, even easier: now the ‘fake’ caller doesn’t even have to be live for the staged problem to be initiated. Now you can, theoretically, record a whole bunch of ‘problems’ in a single go and simply release them on air as needed.

The possibility that calls are fixed, that there is an element of fraudulence to the whole proceedings, interests and excites discussion; and that in itself is worth noting. There is a default expectation of ‘authenticity’ in media participation that we can’t seem to shake, and whose force becomes especially clear in the outrage when this expectation is violated. But on the other hand, it also sounds fully plausible: there is so much cynicism about media and corporate motives today that, if call-fixing proves to be true, nobody would be surprised in the least. True in Jordan, in the Middle East more generally – just look at The Queue; the call-fixing motive is effective precisely because it’s so believable – but also more generally. (The extent to which such cynicism crosses different kinds of social lines would be an interesting research project, to be sure.)

But there are other pointers that not everything is staged. While al-Wakeel’s arcs often feel too neat, even his filtering team slips up sometimes; there are occasional run-ins with callers who aren’t happy with his responses, or unexpected questions that require on-the-go interventions in order to continue the normal flow of the programme. If we’re delving for authenticity, this is where we’ll find it: the breaks in the façade, the cracks where something at least can occasionally slip through, and give a semblance of true agency to actors other than that of the (already compromised) institutional voice.

A Facebook Live clip from Hani al-Badri’s morning programme, 12 December 2017.

And then there are other broadcasters – Radio Fann’s Hani al-Badri, for example, whose show – although taking the ‘service programme’ format much in the mould of al-Wakeel’s – features many more such ‘authenticity cracks’ than his Radio Hala competitor. al-Badri frequently complains of callers going off topic: declaring one question to be filtered through by the studio team, and then bringing up something completely different once they’ve been cleared to speak on the air. Most often, these involve people asking for money – charity, “donations” (tabarru‘āt) – or jobs. al-Badri is usually sympathetic to such pleas, and has a network of ready volunteers apparently keen to contribute in charity drives, or calling up with job openings for desperate callers – though rather less so when these requests seem non-genuine, or don’t accord with what the caller declared they would talk about.

One example, just from this morning: A caller appears on air with a sob story – bad conditions, family, not earning enough to live on, and so forth – and begs al-Badri to help him find a job. al-Badri, already primed for antagonism due to the caller’s voice being unclear and muffled, asks innocently: “So what kind of job are you looking for?” And the caller answers: “Any kind of… government job” (ānō wadhīfe ḥukūmiyye). For al-Badri, this is a bit too much, and he immediately launches into a tirade (during which the caller is naturally cut off). “A government job, of course! Why not a private sector (qiṭā‘ khāṣ) job? You need a government job to earn a living? But of course, the problem with a private sector job is that you need to show up for work (‘andā dawām)…”

It’s not hard to see how such charity and job appeals might be staged – choose an appropriate caller, make up a story, say the issue’s been resolved, khalaṣ – but rather less so how call-fixing could lead to situations like this. al-Badri keeps a kind of low-level hostility in reserve for all kinds of on-air begging, but his communicative style also allows him to make jokes and shame his own callers when the situation calls for it. Of course we could speculate that even these kinds of calls are fixed as well, that they’re merely staged for the benefit of the listening audience, that the caller of course is not actually looking for work at all but has just pre-agreed to be mocked by the broadcaster…

But this, I think, adds just one too many layers to the conspiracy. It would mean that the drama is so carefully controlled that not just the calls supporting the service programme image – help with solving problems, heroic arcs and so forth – are being given an institutional inducement, but also calls that directly go against this image. Much more probably, even if solicited callers take up a large part of the phone-in menu, even the most ardent call-fixer will let a few genuine ones slip through – to keep up appearances, a kernel of authenticity as it were, the possibility for proper word-of-mouth to spread outside of the context of the programme and presenting people with the possibility that maybe (just maybe) they can also be helped.

But if so, then other voices can, and do enter. And then there’s always room to push back.

Radio charity and “call-fixing”

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

The recent rounds of violence in the West Bank in the past few weeks – sparked by assaults on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by radical Israeli groups in mid-September, and now ongoing with regular deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters by the IDF as well as isolated assaults targeting Israelis – has, of course, hardly gone unnoticed on the far side of the Jordan river. Jordan has a large population of ethnic Palestinians, but perhaps more important for regime-friendly media in the Kingdom is the fact that the Jordanian state still claims formal custodianship and administrative control over the Haram al-Sharif (which houses both al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock). When events in the occupied Palestinian territories are mentioned, it’s often difficult to judge whether what is involved is actual compassion for the Palestinian cause – or interest in the Jordanian public’s opinion regarding it – or merely a rhetorical strategy pursued to shore up the Jordanian regime’s legitimacy.

On 11 October, Hala Akhbar – “Hala News,” a recently established ‘news’ offshoot of Radio Hala – published a recording of an interview the star broadcaster Muhammad al-Wakeel had made with Ziyad Abu Hlayyil, a Palestinian man who had challenged Israeli soldiers on the margins of a demonstration in Hebron. Video footage of the event – see the al-Jazeera-sourced clip below – was subsequently shared widely on social media as an example of anti-occupation heroism (in what some observers have already dubbed a new intifada). In the clip, Abu Hlayyil yells and pushes at the soldiers, telling them to not shoot at “the kids,” refusing their orders to move away and giving generally irreverent responses – including “you can’t arrest me” and the (racist) “go back to Ethiopia” (reference to  Beta Israel members of the IDF). He loses his balance and falls to the ground at the end of the clip – though apparently not suffering significant injuries, as he confirms in subsequent interviews.

This act was, ostensibly, why al-Wakeel had invited Abu Hlayyil to speak with him in the first place. But from the very beginning of the interview, it was clear that the story would be subjected to a somewhat different framing than that of a heroic Palestinian man single-handedly resisting occupation forces. This was still the basis of Abu Hlayyil’s “message” – the pitch, if you will, through which his tale was presented as one worthy of attention. But to appear on a show such as al-Wakeel’s, on a radio station run by the Jordanian army, this tale had to be subsumed under a different narrative: one where heroism, sovereignty, and ultimately agency are assigned not to Palestinians, but to their Jordanian “protectors,” embodied in the twin public personas of the Army and the King.



There are two talk-based techniques in the interview that make this very clear – one more rhetorical, the other reflected in quite minute details of language. First, thanks and praise for the king of Jordan and the Hashemite leadership are constantly on Abu Hlayyil’s lips.  Looking closely just at the beginning of the interview: Abu Hlayyil’s first turn, after al-Wakeel greets him, involves extensive praise for Jordan, its security agencies, and in particular King Abdullah II, as if he were the ultimate agent of anti-Zionist activity in the region:


ZAH: Good morning to beloved Jordan
Good morning to the Jordanian Hashemite government, and with honour also His Majesty the King Abdullah II, son of Husayn, Guardian of Jerusalem and the noble al-Aqsa [Mosque]
Good morning to the Jordanian tribes, good morning to the “ever-vigilant eyes” of safety and security from the sister[-state] Jordan
And I would like to speak with you, ((sir))

MaW: ((Yes))

ZAH: Also with all respect to my Majesty, Abdullah, His Majesty the King Abdullah II, father of Husayn
Who has risen up in glory and threatened the Zionist forces with – with – with cutting off relations if they continued to desecrate the sanctuary of Jerusalem
Also we should not forget last year, when Netanyahu’s gangs began to prevent all worshipers from entering Jerusalem, and my Majesty ordered that all roads be opened for entry, and especially in the blessed month of Ramadan

MaW: Yes

Similar praise for Jordan and its government recurs several times – e.g. at 2:16, 5:02, 9:06, 14:46 in the Facebook video above – so extensively that it nearly equals Abu Hlayyil’s account of his own experience (the ostensible topic of the interview). Throughout this, it is never clear what exactly Abu Hlayyil is thanking King Abdullah II for. He resorts mainly to vague, formal terms of reference – such as “loyalty of the free [Palestinians?] to the Hashemites,” “heroism,” “protection,” “positioning,” and so on – which defer, or at least put at a slight distance, criticisms one might have of Jordan’s acts in the drama of the occupation. This is, in turn, a crude but effective way of asserting the legitimacy of the Jordanian monarchy: stating its formal role as the protector of Palestine and the Muslim holy sanctuary in Jerusalem, without ever delving into the messy details of what actually substantively fulfilling such a role might imply – but still upholding, in talk, the Jordanian regime’s impeccable political position, its deep dedication to the Palestinian cause.

The second, less evident technique is that of linguistic accommodation. The argument is on slightly shakier grounds here, given that a lot of the particular elements of colloquial Arabic which Abu Hlayyil uses and which are widely stereotypical of (male) Jordanian speech – in particular, using [g] for the Standard Arabic equivalent (q) – are also traditionally present in southern Palestinian dialects, and indeed around Hebron where Abu Hlayyil comes from. There are still some points, though, where I would argue Abu Hlayyil’s deference to a Jordanian style of speech shines through – in particular, the handful of instances where he uses the distinctly ‘Jordanian’ second person plural pronoun form -ku instead of the more standard -kum. This is essentially an echoing of al-Wakeel’s usage – which, in turn, invokes a markedly ‘Jordanian’ speech style. A linguistic concession, then, to the host’s speech, which mirrors the more explicit discursive concession of authority to the Jordanian regime – for which al-Wakeel, let us not forget, also stands in as a communicative proxy, as the primary voice of the radio station of the Armed Forces.


For Radio Hala, at least, stories of Palestinian heroes are never just that. The ultimate hero, the ultimate agent, is always Jordanian: the authority of the state, the king, the army, as vocalised by the host, deferred to symbolically and linguistically even when voices from the West Bank are actually given their own space to speak. Interventions such as the Abu Hlayyil interview are, ultimately, less participations of Palestinian voices than they are re-affirmations of a particularly Jordanian state authority – to all, actual and imagined, domestic and foreign, audiences of Jordanian radio.

An Interview with a Hero of the Intifada

Broadcasting the Hajj

Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice, which this year falls on 24 September) is one of the two biggest Muslim holidays, and also forms the centrepiece of the Greater Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, a pillar of Islam and a religious duty upon any able Muslim. For a few days before the actual festival, a handful of Jordanian radio stations have been featuring special reports from personnel on the ground in Mecca. This year, Radio Hala’s star host Muhammad al-Wakeel was among them, and kept on broadcasting his regular morning service programme even from “the field” – as he has done a number of times before, e.g. from Gaza late last year, and from the streets of Amman in military vehicles during this January’s snowstorm. I’d like to explore a bit the logic behind such live transmissions, and what the point is of making them in the first place – especially for hosts such as al-Wakeel whose Islamic identity is not explicitly emphasised in their day-to-day on-air interactions.


Among those who do emphasise such identity is Hayat FM, Jordan’s premier Islamic religious station, with direct links to the hardliner wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. (Note that, despite being “hardline,” this wing is still quite mild compared to proper radical Islamic organisations, and espouses a rather mainstream (if conversative) ideology of modernist-reformist Islam.) An Islamic orientation – what I’ve deigned to call its placement in an Islamic radio “format” – pervades Hayat’s day-to-day broadcasting. The airwaves are filled with recordings of sermons; hosts constantly provide pious quotes and elaborate religious greetings; there are regular programmes on issues such as interpretation of the Qur’an, proper Islamic conduct and familial upbringing, etc. (none of which tend to appear on stations that belong to other formats); and the call to prayer (adhān) is not only raised regularly, but the very structure and scheduling of the station are built around it – with dedicated jingles preceding and following it, programmes modified or cut short so it can be played out in full, and so on.

The Hayat FM delegate on the #Hajj, Muhammad Abu Halaqa, is with you now live on air from Mecca… stay with us

It was not therefore surprising to hear that Hayat sent a “delegate” (mandūb) to Saudi Arabia for the duration of the pre-Adha and pre-pilgrimage preparations, who gave daily live dispatches from the field on the situation on the ground. It was, indeed, almost a duty that they cover it: Mecca is, after all, where the greatest density of Islam-marked “eventfulness” is located in the days before Eid al-Adha, and it would be a serious strain on Hayat’s claims to religious heedfulness if they missed it. Even commercially, the costs of having a hajj representative are likely less than they would be as a result of an image-reversal if the pilgrimage was neglected.


al-Wakeel is, I think, a different story. He does not, of course, do the hajj every year. Radio Hala does not regularly cover the pilgrimage directly, and though it has a religious advice programme (hosted by Zaid al-Masri, and recently relegated into the very early 6AM slot – likely so as not to conflict with the two-hour programme of the former Hala “Islamic affairs” host Muhammad Nouh on Yaqeen) an explicit Islamic orientation is not part of its projected identity – or much, much less so than its militarist and Jordanian nationalist links.


So why broadcast al-Wakeel from Mecca? The above video – in which al-Wakeel, surrounded by (likely) opportunistic hangers-on, announces a special episode of his service programme in which the problems and complaints of Jordanian pilgrims will be focused on – suggests this move as less about religion as such as about the broadcaster, and the image constructed for him through his daily on-air performances.

11138108_1449355341763014_4656447680959914676_nA photo-graphic collage announcing Radio Hala’s “comprehensive coverage” of the Hajj. Source: Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page

In the context of radio broadcasts, the host is always privileged: they hold the power to run conversations, and to speak with authority, simply by virtue of sitting in the studio and speaking at greater length (and much more clearly, given that callers are only afforded grainy telephone lines) than any other person whose voice might issue from the speaker during the time of the broadcast. Broadcasters, then, possess a kind of authority in broadcast discourse; they are the ones who run interactions, who are “in the know,” whose stances listeners have come to accept as important (even if they might not always agree with them). And for this reason they are also the most qualified to provide a model on-the-ground experience to be transmitted to listeners who aren’t present at their location.

So in the video below, it is al-Wakeel, and he alone who functions as the conduit for transmitting a complaint from Jordanian pilgrims suffering without electricity who had just arrived at Mount Arafat. For a Jordanian audience not on the hajj, listening to al-Wakeel speak about it – al-Wakeel, whom they already hear every single day, talking to officials and having the power to solve the problems of anyone who calls in – is probably the next best thing.


But at a more banal level, doing a field broadcast such as this is also something that al-Wakeel is likely to do. Once the stakes have been set – once al-Wakeel has been established as a person who broadcasts his morning show on a daily basis – it’s difficult to escape the obligations of one’s image at the risk of seeming unauthentic. (This is something politicians know very well.) There is, further, a precedent for field broadcasts on al-Wakeel’s part (see above). al-Wakeel could, then, hardly afford to perform the hajj without broadcasting it as well, as long as he remained in active service as a radio host. It would be (at least) highly suspicious if he decided to hide what he was doing during a pre-Adha absence.

There was, of course, nothing forcing al-Wakeel to do the hajj in the first place, at this specific time (though as a publicly validated Muslim he would have to perform it eventually). But since he did, his microphone – and his audience, and the smartphone for posting Facebook videos – had to follow him. For a media personality who can’t be dissociated from their persona in the ebb and flow of public broadcasting, there was simply no other choice.

Broadcasting the Hajj

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:


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