Visualising the (Pious) Voice

Based as it is on sound, radio programming tends to focus on people’s voices to a much greater degree than other types of media. But with the rise of Internet streaming and remediation of radio more generally, the visual component has come to play a much greater role than it perhaps used to when ‘radio’ was hardly more than a disembodied voice issuing from a box.

In Jordan, the heavy use of social media such as Facebook and applications such as WhatsApp by radio broadcasters is one way in which this kind of media boundary-crossing comes into play. Another is YouTube, which is effectively becoming a comprehensive digital archive for more than a few Jordanian radio stations and programmes.

But of course, having been designed as a video-sharing platform, YouTube uploads presuppose a visual component as well. The simplest way for radio programmes to resolve this is to simply put up a logo of the station (or the programme, if there is one) to ‘play’ as a still for the duration of the recording. Often, a photograph of the host is added to the graphic as well, especially if they have some degree of local celebrity (such as Muhammad al-Wakeel, or Hani al-Badri, or Jessy Abu Faisal). And the identity- and image-building associations of exploiting visuals in this way can be quite subtle – as, for example, with imagery of broadcasters on ‘Islamic’ stations such as Hayat FM.

Below is a clip from one of Hayat FM’s programmes, the early morning half-hour Aḥlā ṣabāḥ (“Nicest morning” or “A very good morning”), hosted by two female broadcasters, Alaa Abu al-Faylat and Du’a al-Bushayti. The visual element of the clip is limited to a static graphic collage which includes the Hayat FM logo in the upper right-hand corner, the name of the programme in large letters in the middle, and an appropriate “morning-y” photograph as background, with blossoming flowers and a steaming coffee cup. The colour green is dominant, in keeping with the station’s official logo and promotional colour scheme. Finally, there is a photo of one of the broadcasters on the left-hand side – complete with headphones and microphone that emplace her firmly in a radio station studio, but also a full-face veil (niqāb) indicative of an explicitly pious Islamic identity.

Radio tends to be conceived as a medium limited to sound. Listening to Hayat FM’s presenters, one does not necessarily know what they look like. But archiving recordings on YouTube suddenly provides space for visual assertion of the radio station’s Islamic identity as well. This image seems to suggest that Hayat FM’s female presenters – of which there are more than a few – are indeed behaving impeccably according to local understandings of how particularly pious Muslim women should behave (i.e., wearing a full-face veil in public and when communicating with strangers). The religious aspects of on-air talk on Hayat are, in this way, amplified by the visual, when the visual becomes available – as is the case when radio content is “remediated” on a website such as YouTube.

Male presenters – such as the Islamic scholar Ibrahim al-Jarmi, whose image appears in the recording of a recent Fatawa (“Fatwas”) programme above – aren’t exempt from this kind of visual identity assertion, and might also appear in stereotypically “Islamic” clothing in publicity photos used in YouTube clips. In any case, when considering images of presenters generally, there is a marked contrast between the visual material published by Hayat and that used for promotional means by other radio stations. Browsing, for example, through the Twitter feeds of JBC, Radio Hala, or Sawt al-Ghad reveals hardly any “Islamic” or pious imagery as far as images of broadcasters are concerned, in terms of female headdress or otherwise – excepting the occasional excursion into explicitly religious territory, such as when Muhammad al-Wakeel heads to Mecca for the pilgrimage.

A station’s degree of commitment to piety is, then, just as important an aspect of identity and brand-building as the music it plays, the programme lineup it offers, the kind of topics its hosts like to discuss. In the diverse and dynamic media ecology in which radio exists today, visual imagery can be an important aspect of this – and at least in the case of Hayat FM’s Islamic identity, this is deeply intertwined religious rulings and local attitudes towards gender roles. In this day and age, visualising pious voices is not merely a mental exercise for the listener; rather, it’s a central – or perhaps even necessary – component of how radio stations define and present themselves to the public.

Visualising the (Pious) Voice

The Blissful Foreign Tongue

Jordan’s airwaves are not occupied wholly by Arabic. English, too, makes regular appearances. Arabic-speaking hosts might pepper their speech with words or phrases in English when they want to sound sophisticated, or can’t find the proper word in Arabic, or sometimes when the Arabic equivalent is potentially obscure enough that their audiences might be more familiar with the English word (then they would usually say them both, just in case).

But there are also radio stations that have adopted English wholesale, as their prime medium of communication. Language is their most visible distinguishing feature, though the difference also shines through elsewhere: in programme structuring, the hosts’ communicative strategies, the kind of music that is chosen and the way it’s treated, and so on. All in all, English-language radio makes for a properly distinct format in Jordan (along with at least two others: ‘standard’ Arabic-language radio, and ‘Islamic’ stations).

What kind of listener is this format designed for? Is it merely an audience-drawing ploy to have your programmes in a high-prestige foreign language – or are there also other consequences to the specific kind of communicative style cultivated by English broadcasting? I’ll be considering the case of one particular radio station – Bliss – to see if its broadcasts can offer some insight.

Rise to Shine

Radio Bliss, the most recent addition to Jordan’s English-language radio field, was founded in 2013 by the armed forces (Radio Hala is billed as its “sister” station) and joined an already budding scene featuring stations with snappy names such as Play, Spin and Beat – all with English-speaking presenters and music from Euro-American pop playlists.

bliss twitter screencap

(Screenshot of Bliss Radio’s Twitter profile. Source: Bliss 104.3 Twitter profile webpage. Accessed 18 February 2015. LINK)

Bliss’s programming schedule doesn’t hide its bias towards the commuter crowd. There are only two ‘hosted’ weekday programmes – the morning programme, “Rise N Shine,” running from 7:00 to 10:00, and the afternoon “Joy Ride” from 15:00 to 18:00 – each with a pair of young presenters (one female, one male) that run the show in pretty much perfect American-accented English. Some stations apparently hire native English speakers; Bliss boasts local talent – even as, apart from the hosts’ names and their clearly native pronunciations of Arabic words, it’s easy to assume otherwise.

They are also very active on Twitter. There are quizzes; giveaways; questions to listeners, whose answers are then retweeted, and constant encouragements to send in music requests.

This social media focus is hardly unusual, compared to other radio stations in Jordan. But the English-language format seems to carry its own impositions. It might just be the adoption of broadcasting styles familiar from other media environments, but it is notable that Bliss’s programmes seem to be centered much more firmly on the music. Sure, the named presenters are there – to carry the brand, as it were – but they rarely interrupt the tracks as they are played to read out listeners’ messages, or hum to the tune or comment on it, as Arabic-language hosts are wont to do. Hosts might comment on what’s coming up on the playlists – often humorously, or in a way designed to reveal their personal preferences and so convey intimacy without ever giving away too many concrete private details – but they do so in their own stretches of ‘host-talk,’ clearly bounded and distributed in between sets of songs played in whole from beginning to end. For the most part, the music is left undisturbed.

(The “Rise N Shine” hosts, Ban Barkawi and Tamer Gar, with one of their studio guests. From Radio Bliss’s Twitter account)

To Whoever Might Understand

The linguistic borders, though tightly sealed, do allow for some leakage. Most of Bliss’s phone and Twitter interlocutors appear to be Jordanians. The advertisements – what few there are, on this particular stations – are in Arabic. The presenters’ chat also includes what are clearly “insider” signals (in sociolinguo-speak, “in-group markers”) when they occasionally come up with words or phrases in colloquial Arabic: speaking, for example, about problems with a taHwiile (“detour”) at a busy Ammani intersection – see, again, the car-commuting assumption here – or debate on the possible effects of the عاصفه ثلجيه جنى, “Snowstorm Jana” (as the “Joy Ride”‘s presenters did on 18 February, just before the new cold front was due to hit the Kingdom).

Bliss’s target audience might prefer their media in English, but the assumption here is that they also know Arabic: a class of educated, urban (likely West-Amman-dwelling) Jordanians who know enough of the foreign language to understand it, and participate in conversations in it. They might resemble the station’s hip young presenters in other ways as well – like comportment, or outfits, all meaning-heavy elements of styles that stand for an individual’s particular (real, or desired) social position. The programming schedule suggests that the only time it makes sense to target them is when they’re in their cars, commuting from and to their jobs. For proof of a “bubble” of a foreign-oriented stratum living apart and above from the rest of Jordan, look no further.

And it’s precisely this ‘bubbling’ tendency that’s problematic here, for those hopeful that English-language media could prove redemptive, with its putative potential to bring in “Western” values and break the taboos of Jordan’s “conservative” society. Bliss’s programming isn’t particularly socially or politically subversive in any case – which you might expect, given its founders and owners. But even with more courageous content, English media simply can’t properly challenge the status quo as long as it draws its linguistic borders in the way it does. Playing only English-language music, and having their hosts speak in English alone, prioritizes and commodifies the foreign language in the service of bilinguals, at the exclusion of those who don’t know it – and, as a result, only perpetuates existing social divisions and stereotypes.

Though going on 20 years now, Niloofar Haeri’s remarks on foreign-language competence among Arabic speakers are still relevant. Jordan is, of course, a different can of worms than Haeri’s Egypt, but the basic insights still apply. Access to a foreign language – more precisely, the ability to speak that language competently, to the extent that one is able to listen to an all-English radio station and participate in its various channels of communication – is a minority, perhaps ‘elite,’ pastime that automatically marginalizes enormous swathes of Jordan’s population. All the more problematic that format choice itself seems to be highly exclusive. Your station is either all-English, or all-Arabic. There is no middle ground.

What would be really subversive, then, at least as far as format is concerned, would be a channel combining – mixing and matching, freely, carelessly – English- and Arabic-language music and programming in a way that would, potentially, include all. Accepting of both languages, and both ‘worlds’ they are often assumed to signify, across class and education and (life)style boundaries. As it seems now, though, the nature of the contemporary media industry – with its deep-rooted convictions regarding marketing, and promotion, the audience-carving principles of format radio – might make this a distant hope indeed.

The Blissful Foreign Tongue

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel

Among the radio stations that boast of their Jordanian credentials most proudly is Nashama FM. It’s there in the name itself: nashaama نشامى , the plural of نشمي nashmii, is a word that could be translated literally as something like “gentleman,” “knight,” or “champion,” but it’s also strongly associated with Bedouin values of generosity and valor. Add to this the fact that it’s used regularly in the media to refer to valiant members of the Jordanian state apparatus – the nashaama of the Armed Forces, the nashaama of the police, and so on – and it’s easy to see how it fits a Jordanian nationalist framework that places a high value on (what have come to be understood as) Bedouin ethnic and identity markers.

Other aspects of the brand only confirm this further. Nashama’s logo (see below) proclaims the station to be “100% Jordanian,” and uses the seven-pointed star copied from the Jordanian flag – with inverted colors (red on a white background instead of vice versa), but still perfectly recognizable, and another distinctive Jordanian symbol. (Of the flag’s four colors, green is missing from the logo, though it is present on the station’s Twitter and Facebook profile pages.) Even the station’s media kit claims a unique compatibility with the “cultures and values of Jordanians” – whatever these might be – and promotes itself as providing proper “Jordanian” music of the kind that is “much closer to the heart and mind of every Jordanian than any other.”

NashamaLogo-White&Red-NEW-JPEG

(“Nashama FM 105.1. Jordanian, 100%.” Source: Nashama FM website)

Nashama’s morning show, إبشر (literally “Be Happy”) – hosted for the past few months by Ammar Madallah (follow this link for a telling photo) – is pretty much par for the course. Over a selection of highly patriotic music, the host offers his comments on current affairs; reads out messages sent by listeners – especially those that include some kind of praise the King, or the army, or other branches of the state – and reads out headlines from local newspapers. In the vein of other “service programmes,” like Hala’s al-Wakeel Programme or Fann’s Wasat al-balad, it also features call-ins from listeners, and occasionally phone conversations with government ministers or other officials.

So – apart from the name – what’s there to distinguish it? Outside of the morning programme, Nashama’s playlists do appear to be slanted a bit more heavily towards Jordanian music than that of other private stations – though that’s more a matter of degree than of absolute difference.

It does, though, boast an afternoon show hosted by Haytham al-Wakeel. Son of none other than, yes, the great Muhammad al-Wakeel – also known to his listeners as Abu Haytham.

A Voice to Lead You Home

When Haytham’s show was first announced – a result of a slight restructuring of programming that Nashama underwent at the beginning of the year – one Facebook commenter immediately remarked how fortunate listeners are, as they can now hear both representatives of the al-Wakeel clan on the air – every weekday!

الأب بالنهار وبالليل الإبن

The father in daytime, and at night, the son

Father and son do, in fact, complement each other quite neatly. The elder Wakeel’s Programme runs in the morning, from 7 to 10 AM, while Haytham’s timeslot is in the afternoon between 4 and 6. Both fall squarely in the times a commuting crowd would be most likely to tune into the radio, either in their own vehicles or (often, perforce) on public transport. The name of Haytham’s programme,  تي روّح , “Tii Rawwih,” brings this up directly by including the verb روّح rawwaHa, “to return home.” (Hayat FM’s afternoon programme is similarly explicit: it is called ترويحة، tarwiiHa, a noun derived from the same verbal stem – literally “the act of returning home.”)

Like most shows in the same programming slot, Tii Rawwih features music, call-ins on select topics, and the host’s own miscellaneous musings on the events of the day.

(“It’s time to start our evening with Haytham al-Wakeel… Listen and be a part of the sections and subjects of today’s “Tee Rawwih” programme!”)

After days of preoccupation with the martyrdom of Muath al-Kasasbeh, at the beginning of this week, a new issue finally began to move into the Jordanian media spotlight: the upcoming cold weather front. (The initial idea – bandied about already at the end of January – was to name it Falha, but given everything that had happened in the past week Jordanian media rather settled on Karam, which is the name of Kasasbeh’s eldest son.) So, on his 9 February programme, the question Haytham posed to his listeners was: how do you think the authorities will act in dealing with the upcoming storm? Are all the preparations we hear so much about going to be effective? Will they do as well as they have during Huda?

كل الإحترام (..) وقفة إجلال وإحترام للأجهزه الحكوميه اللي تعاملت مع المنخفض الجوي السابق (..) اشتغلوا بمهنيه (..) بتنسيق (..) أكيد منْوَجّه إلهم تحية (..) والله يعطيهم ألف عافيه

Respect… all honor and respect to the government agencies that dealt with the previous weather front… they worked professionally… they coordinated… for sure we give them our greeting… and God give them strength a thousand times over

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

The calls that made it on air seemed to agree with the host’s observation – similar to what his father had said in the aftermath of Huda – that, if there had been problems, they were caused by citizens not obeying government instructions, rather than official agencies not doing a good job. Haytham then turned to another favored bugbear of radio show hosts: the spread of unverified information through social media – what is derisively called إشاعات، “rumors,” as opposed (implicitly) to the reliable news spread by professional journalists and officially licensed media sources. Again, listeners were asked to call in with their views on the issue; and Haytham also encouraged them – several times – not to post any piece of information on their social media profiles unless they’re “100% sure” that it was true.

يعني شخص يكتب عنده معلومه (..) انت بتروح بتنشر نفس المعلومه اللي هو كتبها (..) طيب انت عارف شو المصدر لهذا الشخص؟ عارف انّه حكى صحّ؟

Okay so a person writes a piece of information… you go and publish the same thing that they’ve written… right so do you know what this person’s source is? Do you know what they’re saying is true?

(Source: tii rawwiH recording, Nashama FM, 9 February 2015)

Once again, the callers supported him. One older man called in to say that he’d been hearing rumors for “70 years” now, and had never believed a single one of them. Trusted sources only. A woman described how she feels bombarded by all sorts of information – from her friends, mostly, on social media – but, also, only takes heed of proper outlets.  “You only trust information from the government then?” was Haytham’s question. Well, of course! Even at work – when her colleagues talk about all different sorts of things, controversial things, politics and so on – she never joins in the debates…

Such discussion – if it can even be called such – is very much confined; sanitized, almost, never going far from the boundaries the host had set through his own reflections and opinions. Though, all in all, this isn’t much of a departure from what happens on most other stations with afternoon programmes. Light topics, accompanying people on their drive (or ride) home. Like the morning show, it’s a very well defined genre. Haytham’s voice may be distinctive – resembling, in some ways, his father’s, with his deep cadence and occasional booming laughter, though with slightly more colorful variation in pitch at times – but his topics and style hardly bring anything new to the afternoon broadcast scene.


 

Two points, I think, that can be drawn from the Nashama case. First is the impression of social tightness one gets when looking at the field of Jordanian radio. Not just the father-son link; even more generally, many broadcasters know each other well, and it’s easy for them to switch to another station to present their programmes, usually with little fuss or changes in style or language. In the past year or two there have been some high-profile shuffes among the morning show stars – al-Wakeel the Elder’s move from Rotana to Radio Hala probably the most notable – but Haytham also hosted a programme on Farah al-Nas before starting his current show, and Ammar Madallah (Nashama’s morning voice) had as his previous home Amen FM, the official radio station of the General Security Directorate (= the Jordanian police force).

Ammar Madallah (left) in the Nashama studio with a guest. From Nashama FM’s Facebook Page

The second point relates to the density of the Jordanian radio field. There are a large number of stations with very similar programming schemes – morning, daytime, and afternoon shows; each with their dedicated host, usually with call-ins and text messages – playing a very similar repertoire of Arabic-language music. The language used is also very similar, the kind of high-level Jordanian (really, Ammani) colloquial that has in recent years become the implicit norm in media.

Still, even here, there are nooks that stations can insert themselves into, targeting (or, indeed, inventing) ever more finely tuned listener segments. With its name, and its image, and its music choices, Nashama FM takes the ‘real Jordanian’ part of the audience to its furthest possible extreme.

For the moment, at least, this seems to be viable move; though I get the feeling this might tell us just as much about the cultural coordinates of the Jordanian media scene as it does about its purported listenership.


(Thanks to Abla Oudeh)

The Father by Day, the Son by Night: Nashama FM and Haytham al-Wakeel