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.