PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

(This is the second in a series of three posts on findings from my doctoral thesis, with the title “Linguistic Practice on Contemporary Jordanian Radio: Publics and Participation.” A general introduction to the posts can be found here. Part 1 is here; Part 3 is here.)

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During the first few years of this decade, the heyday of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there were more than a few journalists and scholars caught predicting that great transformations were afoot in Middle Eastern societies – not least because of the communication revolutions brought about by new media. Internet, smartphones, Facebook were all hailed as harbingers of a new social order. Regimes would be toppled, the people would finally find their voice, and so forth. Some years on, and these revolutionary consequences have pretty much failed to materialise in their predicted capacity. Authoritarian political culture has returned in force in countries such as Turkey and Egypt; in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, media have become a battleground for a spectrum of factions seeking rhetorical advantage rather than an outlet for free expression.

This is not to say that changes haven’t happened, or that new media aren’t important. It’s just that the ‘great divide’ approach to new media – we have smartphones now, so everything is will be different – isn’t the most accurate. As I’ve argued a couple of years ago on the Discover Society blog, we should rather be more attentive to what specifically each medium enables: what types of arguments, what kinds of rhetoric, what kind of language, which particular channels of meaning-making. Sometimes, these resources can be used effectively for resistance and social change; sometimes (likely more often), they are not. But without knowing in detail what they actually allow for, we also can’t provide a useful account of their potential.

I study radio. Radio is a very special medium: it is, fundamentally, sonic, as it utilises sound as the primary medium of transmission. As a listener, one might have visual or palpable engagement with your radio receiver, for example, but the essence of the transmission – that is, what is actually transmitted to you as well as all others attending to a particular station’s broadcast at any given moment – is sound. Sound is the funnel: you do not see the broadcasters talking, you do not see the people calling in, so what you hear provides the raw material needed to understand what the broadcast is actually trying to convey.

At least, that’s the theory. Media consumption never takes place in a vacuum, and our interpretations will always be shaped by external factors – cultural beliefs and stereotypes, the context of viewing or listening, subsequent discussions with other people. Still, there is a prevalent sense or belief – what can be termed an ideology, following Ilana Gershon’s concept of “media ideologies” – that radio is primarily sound-based. This is a crucial part of what has defined radio as a distinct medium ever since its inception in the 1920s, and its subsequent presence in daily life – in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

PresslerSalomon001.jpg

Photo taken in the studio of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), Jerusalem, 1947. The PBS, established in the 1930s during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, was one of the first radio stations to broadcast in Arabic, as explored in detail by Andrea Stanton (see this article for a useful summary). Image via Wikimedia Commons (unknown author).

The ideal of radio as a sound-exclusive medium is noticeable in Jordan as well. Non-government radio stations, which I focus on in my research, are highly invested in maintaining a relaxed, spontaneous, authentic environment during their programmes. Since sound is their main means for doing so, they resort to spoken language to present an effect of spontaneity and authenticity: they use colloquial Arabic, of the type used in day-to-day life in contemporary Amman, to impress upon listeners that their programming is meant for ‘ordinary’ Jordanians, attentive to their problems and accepting of their voices. (The extent to which they actually enable listener participation is another matter; but at least it’s a motivating factor behind the choice of idiom.) Similarly, when nationalism or patriotism needs to be conveyed – as in morning programmes, when the Jordanian nation is metaphorically brought into being – this is done through sound: language sometimes, for instance emphasising the particular sounds (such as [g] for ق / qāf) that are considered to be characteristically ‘Jordanian,’ but more often music – especially nationalist, patriotic tunes, with distinctly Jordanian or Bedouin dialect lyrics, praising and supporting some aspect of Jordan (the land, the people, a particular town or village, and so on), or the Hashemite monarchy.

Occasionally, the sound ideology also gets manipulated in a broader sense – as for example in Ṣawtunā wāḥid (“Our Voice Is One”), the 5 February 2015 memorial programme for the martyred pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. For this occasion, a number of radio stations broadcast a single live programme for nine hours instead of their regular programming as a gesture of national unity. They unified, in other words, the sound of their broadcasts, their otherwise disparate voices. Whichever of the 10 or so participating stations you tuned into on the day, you would hear exactly the same live broadcast. Sonic unity thus stood for actual unity – but it could only do so because sound was considered the main channel of transmission for radio stations.

Report on the Ṣawtunā wāḥid memorial programme on 5 February 2015. Via Mazaj FM, on YouTube.

Digital media do transform these dynamics, to an extent. Jordanian non-government radio has a heavy Internet presence. Each radio station has its own Facebook and Twitter pages, with a constant stream of posts announcing upcoming programmes, sharing photos and videos of station personnel, or just greeting and chatting with their audiences. Webcams are also popular; these are placed in the studio – usually, there are at least two, one showing the broadcaster and another for the ‘control’ area where the producers and sound editors work – and transmit a live video feed for every programme over the radio station’s website and dedicated smartphone apps (most stations offer a free app that can be downloaded from all major phone app storefronts). Finally, hosts make good use of the textual aspect of contemporary media to engage with listeners – through classic mobile text messages, Facebook chats, or WhatsApp.

All these channels of communication clearly go beyond radio’s limitation to sound alone. Now the broadcasters can actually be seen; questions can be sent in text; announcements posted live on social media can be browsed and read by users at their own leisure, rather than going unheeded if they missed the particular moment at which the host read them out during the programme. Still, all these mechanisms are supplementary to the live radio broadcast. Sound remains at the core, the central zone of engagement for radio producers and their audiences.

Broadcasters use digital media for many different purposes, and sometimes in quite creative ways. The Radio Fann morning programme host Hani al-Badri, for example, is a very prolific WhatsApp user in communicating with listeners, allowing him to greet a much greater number of listeners within any single show than if he was just taking phone calls. Jessy Abu Faisal, the Lebanese host of the morning show on Sawt al-Ghad and the first successful female radio presenter in Jordan, was fond of using webcams for prize draws, giving out rewards to callers who could identify objects in the studio through the live webcam. Digital media here only amplify the potential already present in radio – such as its ability to connect ‘live’ to its audiences and engage with local listeners. They are an important part of the media ecology in which contemporary radio operates; they transform it, to an extent; but they do not displace it.

Hani al-Badri hosting his morning programme on Radio Fann, captured by the in-studio webcam.

Much can also be said about the impact of these media on radio language. At the most trivial level, there are the words used to describe digital media interactions, and which reflect broader trends in colloquial and formal Arabic as these media have risen in popularity in recent years: the use of English loanwords for specialised social media terms such as like or tweet, or native Arabic terms which have some colloquial traction – such as تطبيق taṭbīq “(smartphone) app,” تحميل taḥmīl “download,” نزّل nazzal(a) “to post, upload (on a social media page),” and so forth. One could perhaps quantify, as sociolinguists like to do, the proportions of kinds of words used for different social media interactions, or how different levels of engagement with digital media impact variations in pronunciation or use of different registers (Standard, Colloquial) of Arabic, and then attempt to interpret these findings in the broader context of contemporary Arabic linguistic variation.

But more than lexical or phonetic details, what is, I think, more relevant here are the effects of digital media on radio language in a broader sense, in terms of the novel communication dynamics that they enable. It’s not a revolutionary change by any means; again, what I’ve found is that it mostly amplifies radio’s existing potentials, rather than transforming it into some completely new phenomenon that will change Jordanian society in unprecedented ways. Still, it does provide interesting new possibilities for radio hosts.

When Hani al-Badri reads out his listeners’ WhatsApp messages, he’s not just engaging with large numbers of people; he’s engaging with them, addressing them directly, as individuals, usually by name. This is quite different from the classic radio dynamic of ‘speaking-to-everyone’ while giving an impression of intimate, one-to-one conversation – speaking “for-anyone-as-someone,” as the media scholar Paddy Scannell puts it. The kind of language used when communicating by means of social media messages still allows a sense of closeness and intimacy between broadcaster and audience. But this is now an intimacy of overhearing actual conversations, rather than simulating them through addressing an undifferentiated mass of listeners as if they were just one person. You may not be the person addressed, but the feeling of liveness, closeness, intimate presence, is still there, perhaps even stronger.

Or take the obsession of broadcasters with their social media followings. The most blatant example of this is Radio Hala’s Muhammad al-Wakeel, whose public Facebook page currently (as of August 2017) sports over seven million ‘likes’ and ‘follows.’ How many of these are genuine individual profiles doesn’t really matter; again, the media ideology of sites such as Facebook presupposes that each of these likes and follows stands for a singular, unique person. And so al-Wakeel is able to mention his social media following on the air whenever he needs to shore up his legitimacy – whenever he needs to claim, for example, that his voice is what truly represents the Jordanian people, or that his show is the best, most popular radio programme in Jordan, providing news and ‘services’ (such as putting people in touch with officials) to nearly the entire Jordanian population. In his day-to-day language, al-Wakeel can thus directly define and enumerate the audience his programme supposedly represents – a linguistic strategy that simply wouldn’t be possible without a deep investment in social media.

Image published to celebrate 4 million “Likes” on Muhammad al-Wakeel’s Facebook page, January 2015.

This takes me to a final point regarding the relevance of media and media context. Hosts such as al-Badri, al-Wakeel, and Abu Faisal are radio celebrities. They take up the majority of the on-air time on their respective shows. They claim, and sustain, a particular kind of authority simply through being given more space to speak in the radio setting. This matters because the things they say, and the ways in which they say them, will be heard by large numbers of people – on a regular, everyday basis, in a setting which simulates the impression of intimacy, often in direct conversations with the very people who constitute their audience. The language they use is not just a data point to be compared with a slew of others in a statistical comparison: they build rapport with audiences in different ways, construct unique personalities. They might be authoritarian heroes, or simple ordinary citizens who make light-hearted jokes with their listeners and allow them to make jokes in turn. When scrutinising their language, we can’t just claim that this is how media language in Jordan today looks like, or equate their positions with beliefs shared by all Jordanians (however much they might claim that this is in fact the case). They must be viewed with caution, in context, for the unique language users and personalities that they are. And the media which they use to communicate, whether radio or social media or something else entirely, are an important factor in this.

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What kind of medium you use to communicate matters greatly. The initial enthusiasm about the potential of new media to bring about social change in the Middle East may have been unwarranted. But challenges and transformation can happen; we just need to be more precisely aware of what any new medium is capable of achieving, and what it is not. On Jordanian radio, the Internet, webcams, and social media are used to supplement classic radio communication – often to sustain the very same arguments and dynamics already possible in classic radio, such as constructing a single Jordanian national public or seeking a live, authentic connection with a local audience. But this is not to say that these new dynamics could not be used in different ways. They won’t cause a revolution all by themselves; but perhaps they can be used as tools for one… if they are taken up.

I think it helps to think of media as an arena. It is less a ‘stage’ for putting up rehearsed performances than a space in which struggles and competitions take place, among whoever is able to enter. There are paths to victory, to making your voice heard, to change and revolution; but there are also obstacles. Rules of the game. Restrictions on equipment, match-ups which are often unfair to novices. You cannot just participate; the way the arena is shaped – media form, if you will – affects the way you need to shape your contributions, your strategies for participation. You need to talk in specific ways, with specific people, through specific channels, in order to be heard and heeded.

This might be self-evident to many of us today, moving in the highly dynamic, highly reflexive world of multiple media in which we are all producers and participants. Different social media are used for different purposes; they demand different repertoires, different ways of expression, different kinds of language. Even as prosaic a device as a hashtag (#) is used in different ways on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram. This has, slowly, come to be recognised by analysts of language and discourse as well – though perhaps less so for Arabic than for other languages (i.e., English, where most of this kind of work is being done); and, even more frustratingly, not as much for ‘old’ media (radio, film, music, television, and so forth) as for the ‘new’ offerings of the smartphone age. But it is not just new media that shape language; classic media do as well. And they continue to be relevant. The contemporary media ecology is dynamic, reactive, and complementary, an environment – a discursive arena – built of many possibilities, rather than each new medium simply steamrolling over all previous ones.

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PhD Findings (2): Media Matters

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

On “Hypermedia”

A recent issue of the journal Public Culture includes an article by the media scholar Marwan Kraidy, in which he engages – not very successfully in my view – with criticisms of the Syrian regime made by the singer Asala Nasri as an effective challenge to Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy (and hence a crucial component of the Syrian uprising). Leaving aside the question of how much mediated challenges matter to a regime whose staying power has been closely linked to its military capacities, Kraidy’s analysis is shaky even when it comes to exploring the way media themselves function. His view of contemporary media – so-called “hypermediated space” – focuses mostly on message transmission capacities: that is, how much “information” can be transmitted, how quickly, to what nodes in a mediated network.

Asala’s challenge was supposedly more effective and more relevant simply because her words were (able to be) transmitted more densely and frequently via the Internet. While this may be true, in a very basic way, this kind of argument tells us little about both what is actually said, and what are the principles of the forms of media in which it is said. Both content and form fall by the wayside, hostages to what amounts to a rather crude technological determinism.

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First, a word on “hypermedia” as Kraidy uses the term. Writers such as David Bolter and Richard Grusin have put a cultural spin on the idea of “hyper-mediation” – or the multiplication of references to media forms; for example, using website-derived aesthetics in printed newspapers, or sharing TV news clips online, or indeed reading out Facebook comments on a radio programme – and have looked at the particular meanings and functions such moves have in mediated communication. Not so Kraidy, for whom “hypermedia space” is simply the multiplication of “points of access” to messages, made possible (or merely amplified?) by digital technologies.

Demonstrators during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, 2005. (Image via Elie Ghobeira / Wikimedia Commons)

For Kraidy, hypermediation is good for things such as civil society engagement and socio-political change, because people are no longer limited to getting their information from a single media source. (Yes, it is that simple.) The problem with this view is that we are still talking about potentials, rather than any discernible effects such media multiplication might have. People can – as they did, according to an earlier article of Kraidy’s, during Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, a kind of not-really prelude to the “Arab Spring” – bypass official channels of information in order to share messages, organise, etc., if only there is a hypermediated multiplicity of communication points for them to access. But of course there is no guarantee that they will actually do so. Further, though the “points of access” may be many, they are not all of the same type, and certainly not spread equally across the population. (The “digital divide” may be breaking down in many Arab countries with the advent of cheaper smartphones and mobile data plans, but there is more to accessibility and engagement than just the fact that somebody can access the Internet from their phone.) Facebook, for instance, might enable people to organise a protest effectively, but on the other hand there is no guarantee that this kind of engagement will actually last – as it gives little accountability and makes no provisions for more lasting organisational structures than e.g. face-to-face meetings might. These are important points, but they are lost in an argument which speaks only about “access to information” without delving in more detail about how media actually work.

To my mind, one of the more bizarre arguments to have come out of this approach is what I’ll cheekily term the “Arab Idol Democracy” argument. This is another point that Kraidy makes: that music talent reality shows – such as Arab Idol, its predecessor Super Star, and Star Academy – which allow audiences to “vote” on their favourites to advance to the next round, are amplifying the possibilities for participation and showing that democratic forms of engagement have real effects. Pick up your phone, and you enter a hypermedia space in which you are participating as a good, democratically aware citizen, whose vote will count and have an impact.

st3

“The stars of Star Academy 3.” “Arab” democracy in action.

Apart from being subtly orientalist – ignorant Arabs being educated about democracy by a Western-sourced cultural form – this argument again completely ignores both the form and content of media interaction. “Participation” might count, but it is limited to casting a (premium-rate-charged) tele-vote on a small pool of contestants who do not in turn have any lasting impact or accountability, and disappear from the scene completely once the “season” is over.

There may be a highly cynical comment about the state of participatory democracy in there somewhere. But this isn’t what Kraidy is saying; for him, rather, the effects are real, and (really) beneficial. In the end, I think, his arguments do little but demonstrate the true perils of technological determinism: taking certain laudatory statements – about “increased participation” and suchlike – for granted, and applying them in a superficial manner with only enough actual analysis that they still stick. Even though there is much greater complexity there in practice.

On “Hypermedia”

Tuning In to God

Technology helps spread the divine word; but it can also serve as metaphor for it. “As we remind you always of the website of our radio station,” the preacher Muhammad Nouh declared in one of his programmes on Radio Hala last December, “so we should remind ourselves always of the site from which God, Glorified and Sublime (الله عزّ وجلّ), looks upon us.”

Unless his listeners, Nouh claimed, tuned their radios precisely to 102.1 (FM), they wouldn’t be able to listen to Radio Hala. “And so,” the metaphor continued, “you cannot communicate with God unless you tune your heart to the proper wavelength.” A wavelength which, in this case, involves “love, compassion, and sympathy,” rather than a particular FM frequency. Left implied here is that, by tuning in to Radio Hala – or rather, Nouh’s own programme, as it is transmitted through its airwaves – pious listeners might be able to “tune their hearts” to such emotions as well.

Every weekday afternoon, Hala sets aside an hour for an Islamic scholar to expound to listeners on various Islamic virtues, and answer callers’ questions on a range of issues related to religion – from ritual details, to compatibility of social practices with Islamic belief, to rules of inheritance and the proper way to conduct financial transactions. The call-ins, especially, show how the technological capabilities of radio can be creatively and flexibly adapted to serve an audience segment presumably craving religious content. Callers are given quick and authoritative answers, by someone known and recognized as an expert of the subject – often with a doctorate in Islamic law or fiqh; or, at the very least, are given reassurance by hearing the expert’s voice directly, and receiving a blessing. It doesn’t stop with phone-calls either: in a context where other kinds of electronic media are readily available, hosts such as Nouh can take additional questions via (for example) text messages and Facebook comments, allowing even more people to benefit from the wisdom of a public Islamic intellectual.

In the following I look a little more closely at the genre that Nouh’s (former) programme on Hala can be put into: what I call Islamic advice programmes, where religious scholars speak on air, take calls from listeners, and give authoritative statements on religious, social, and personal matters. This, I would argue, is the primary way in which Jordanian radio makes space for Islam; an inescapable part of everyday life, but also (and probably, equally important) an officially verified aspect of the social fabric of the Kingdom.

The Genre

Like other shows on Jordanian radio, Islamic advice programmes have their own generic rules and structural features. They begin with a short religious address from the host read out in impeccable Classical Arabic, and tend to be followed by a few minutes of comment or explanations – on a current affairs issue that might have caught the host’s ear, or a scriptural or ethical question (in the vein of Nouh’s comment on “tuning your heart to God” I’ve mentioned above).

After this, the phone lines are opened, and usually stay open until the end of the programme – or at least until the point that the presenter can still answer all the questions posed on-air within the time set aside for it. In the time between calls, the presenters might expound further on Islamic ethics, law, or current affairs; or read out questions from messages they’d received either through mobile texts or online means (usually left as comments on the status announcing the day’s programme on the radio station’s Facebook page).

(Recording of Hayat FM’s “Fatwas” programme (فتاوى، fataawa), from 15 March 2015. Example of an Islamic advice programme on a religious format radio station. Though broadcast on a station in a fundamentally different format than Nouh’s programme, all the basic generic features are there – including the introductory address, the call-taking, and readings of text and online messages and responses to them.)

But in order for the answers to count – for listeners to consider what’s being said as a valid, significant legal opinion; if not formally a fatwa – the presenters need to have some claim to religious authority. They are, after all, the source of the answers; their animators, at the very least, when conveying legal opinions framed by some other scholar or jurist before them – but often also engaging with callers on a more immediate personal level, for example when people call in with problems they’re facing in life more generally or disputes where judgments of legality aren’t exactly clear.

It helps, then, for a presenter to have some reputation as an Islamic scholar outside of the immediate radio field. Take for example Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi, host of the Islamic station Hayat FM‘s “Fatwas” programme (see video above for a sample recording). Behind his media activity al-Jarmi boasts a doctorate in Arabic and degrees in Islamic legal interpretation gained by studying with several notable scholars (listed in meticulous detail in his CV; LINK). He’s also authored a number of studies on Islamic legal and ethical issues, has taught in shari’a colleges, and is a recognized reciter of the Qur’an (and naturally a hafiz).

ibrahim al-jarmi islamway

(Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jarmi at Hayat FM’s studios. Image via Islamway.net)

The story is similar for al-Jarmi’s genre counterparts on Radio Hala: Zaid al-Masri, the current host of the army station’s daily Islamic advice programme, but even more so Muhammad Nouh – who is, without a doubt, a star in the field of popular Islam and Islamic scholarship in Jordan. In January this year, Nouh has moved on from Hala in order to found and run his own Islamic format station, Yaqeen. (Its Facebook page boasts more than 200,000 likes after only a couple of months of operation.) Nouh also hosts television shows, is a former government minister (twice over), and chairs the Shaykh Nouh Charitable Society (named in honor of Nouh’s father, Nouh al-Qudah, a former mufti of Jordan). All this in addition to his scholarly credentials, which include a number of published studies and a doctorate in fiqh from the University of Jordan.

To speak on air, a pleasant voice isn’t enough. Anyone can read out religious texts and legal judgments; but in order for listeners to respect you, to take heed of you as a proper authority on religious matters, there needs to be something more. A background that proves your experience; links to sources of authority via texts and named scholar-instructors. And, finally, a knowledge that is broad and deep enough that you can answer even the more obscure legal or customary questions with spontaneity and confidence.

The Questions

The kinds of questions that make it on air tell us much about the preoccupations of those Jordanians trying to lead a pious Islamic life. Many involve particular social practices or situations that listeners have encountered (or been involved in), and what Islamic jurisprudence – for most callers and hosts in Jordan, that of the Shafi’i school – has to say about their admissibility. Popular also are inquiries about ritual details – in particular, details of prayer and ritual purification / ablution – as well as scriptural questions: interpretations of Qur’an verses and aHaadiith, correct readings of holy texts, and other doctrine-related information (such as details of early Islamic history, the external appearance of the Prophet Mohammad, and so on). Other calls are of a more personal nature: they might involve participants asking the hosts for blessings, interpret their dreams or visions, or offer them reassurances about difficult personal situations.

The programmes are reasonably popular, and the amount of questions shooting in from all sides – phones, texts, Facebook – is at times overwhelming. A frequent practice is to take several questions in succession and then offer responses in a ‘lump’ later on, though if the answer is short or straightforward (such as a simple pronouncement of whether a practice is ‘allowed’ or ‘forbidden’) hosts prefer to reply directly. Many callers use their turn on the air to pose several questions, which may be related – or not: a question on Islamic finance might be followed by one on a completely unrelated verse from the Qur’an, or the details of what kinds of aberrations precisely invalidate a prayer (which can get quite complicated).

ZaM in studio 16 March 2015

(Radio Hala’s in-house daa3iya, Zaid al-Masri, in his studio element. Source: Radio Hala’s Twitter page, 16 March 2015 – LINK)

As with other call-in genres, gender inequalities are palpable. Needless to say the scholar-presenters are all male; so are, for the most part, the callers, though curiously enough Radio Hala’s Islamic programme is one of the few pockets on Jordanian airwaves more generally where the rate of female participation at least begins to approach 50 percent. (It’s still a standard 10-20% for al-Jarmi’s programme on Hayat.)

Statistically, the kinds of questions asked by male versus female callers don’t vary significantly, and the proportion of question types across presenters is also fairly constant. The table below gathers some of the numbers for 10 advice programme sessions I recorded between December 2014 and February 2015:

Question Types

1. Ritual

2. Social

3. Scripture

4. Host Favor

5. Family

6. Finance

7. Personal

TOTAL

NOUH (Hala; 3 shows) 10.0% (6) 30.0% (18) 16.7% (10) 20.0% (12) 3.3% (2) 10.0% (6) 10.0% (6) 60
AL-MASRI (Hala; 3 shows) 21.7% (13) 26.7% (16) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 18.3% (11) 5.0% (3) 5.0% (3) 60
AL-JARMI (Hayat; 4 shows) 18.9% (14) 37.8% (28) 14.9% (11) 5.4% (4) 4.1% (3) 16.2% (12) 4.1% (3) 74
TOTAL 17.0% (33) 32.0% (62) 16.5% (32) 9.8% (19) 8.2% (16) 10.8% (21) 6.2% (12) 194

The categories in the table are rough: often it’s difficult to classify a question into any one particular category – they might apply to more than one, such as questions on family relationships that also relate to finance / property, or subjective experiences of God (category 7 in the table) that are linked to familial or social experiences of the callers. (They do, though, appear to have some validity for the hosts: different types of questions are answered in different ways – quick authoritative statements for ritual questions, for example, or ‘sincere advice’ for personal problems – and the hosts also sometimes classify (especially text / Internet) questions as “Qur’anic” or “social” or “fiqhi,” etc.) The total number of programmes I’ve looked at (so far) is low, and the recordings weren’t motivated by any kind of consideration of statistical significance that would make them representative. Still, the tally provides a quick overview of some of the relevant trends  – at least by showing what kind of classification of questions makes sense across the programmes.

A final note on some of the ‘outliers’ in the table. Some of the hosts appear to have significantly higher (or lower) proportions of certain kinds of questions than in the total tally. My impression is that these are mostly aberrations – a higher sample would likely level out – with one exception: the high number of ‘Host Favor’ (category 4) questions for Muhammad Nouh.

Mohammad Nouh (Wikipedia)(Muhammad Nouh al-Qudah. Image by Majd Makki; via Wikimedia Commons)

Outside the media field, Nouh is – as I’ve mentioned – by far the best-known of the three presenters. Compared with al-Masri and al-Jarmi, many more callers just contact him to thank him, ask him for a blessing, or request a sermon at a local mosque. The religious, charitable, and political activities that have brought him public recognition have a clear effect on his media authority as well.


Decades ago, Brinkley Messick observed in his study of “media muftis” on Yemeni national radio that the public context of radio broadcasts ends up giving legal pronouncements a much more personalized, ‘informal’ flavor than the traditional method of providing written legal opinions. This is all the more evident in Jordanian Islamic advice programmes today. The communicative context of the live broadcast, where presenters have to come up with answers quickly and in a manner their listeners will understand immediately, makes it pretty much a necessity.

The advice given by “media shaykhs” such as Nouh and al-Jarmi does not have the binding force of a legal fatwa (like one issued by Jordan’s official seat of Islamic jurisprudential authority, Dar al-Ifta; indeed the radio hosts themselves sometimes refer their callers to the institution if they sense their issue might benefit from a formal legal ruling). Still, it is a way for people to link up directly with personalities that claim considerable knowledge of the subject, and are recognized authorities in the field. Even in a modern, impersonal, bureaucratic nation-state, authority issuing from particular people still has a role to play.

As I see it, this involves not as much a “fragmentation of authority” as its functioning within the confines of specific media – in this case, radio, which allows sound to be broadcast and transmitted, both from the studio to the audience and vice versa (through phone-ins). Though again, that’s only half the story. For Messick, in the 1980s, it may have been enough to claim that (national) radio broadcasts of fatwas involve their transmission to a (national) Yemeni audience. But times have changed. No longer do “media muftis” sift through mail and sit in their libraries for days to prepare carefully considered legal opinions. Direct call-ins and instant messaging provide a very close simulation of spontaneous communication; one in which the line between “on-air” and “off-air” authority – or the way holders of such authority present themselves in different kinds of personal interactions – is never entirely clear.

Tuning In to God

All of Us, a Single Voice

In the wake of Muath al-Kasasbeh’s death, all Jordan was one. Every public voice seemed determined to honor the martyr’s memory, and take a firm stance against the extremism of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. For radio stations, there was no better way to demonstrate this solidarity than to actually speak “as one”: to unify their broadcasts, for one day, and thus show quite literally how the various voices of Jordan’s airwaves can be woven into a single strand.

From 10 AM on Thursday, 5 February, more than a dozen local radio stations – as well as two from beyond Jordan’s borders, one each from Saudi Arabia and the West Bank – all chose to suspend their normal broadcast schedules, instead carrying a single cooperatively produced programme, broadcast live from Amman for ten consecutive hours.

#”Our Voice Is One”

For the first time in the history of Jordanian radio stations, more than 14  stations unify their broadcasts: for Muath; for Jordan; for the King

The initiative was dubbed صوتنا واحد – “Our Voice Is One” – which also came to be used as a common  Twitter hashtag for updates during the day. The programme itself featured conversations about the martyr Kasasbeh, Jordanian national unity, and news on the activities of the King and the Jordanian army, all accompanied by a generous helping of patriotic tunes. Live call-ins came from Jordan and beyond, with people honoring the pilot’s memory and describing their feelings and experiences in the aftermath of the announcement of his death on 3 February. And, in what was probably the most explicit demonstration of media solidarity, presenters you would normally hear alone during their allotted programmes now worked together – in shared slots, each lasting for an hour, where voices from participating radio stations each received their own turn on-air.

(Tweet reads: “Rose al-Soqi, Ammar Madallah and Shorouk Hijazi are with us now on the air, #Our Voice Is One in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

That such an initiative could take place points to a very vibrant, very responsive media context – which the field of Jordan’s non-government radio stations most definitely is. It was also a valiant attempt to take advantage of what could be seen as radio’s greatest technical limitation: its restriction to broadcasting sound. Switching through the frequencies while “Our Voice Is One” was on air, there was literally no way one could distinguish between the stations. In sound, at least, all were one – including stations with such different images and programming philosophies as Radio Hala, JBC, Mazaj, and the radio station of the University of Jordan.

But of course, there’s always more to radio than sound alone. This is where the cracks in the illusion of unity begin to show: in all the various media ‘supplements’ that accompany radio, those that usually help it to overcome its limitations but on this particular day may have actually worked against the initiative’s overarching goals.

Images posted on Twitter showed “One Voice”‘s hosts chatting along amiably together, but they did so from one specific place: namely, the studios of the radio station of the Jordanian Armed Forces, Radio Hala (which, as Ayman Shuqair explains in this report for Roya TV, was also the initiator of the event). For all their shared-image- and hashtag-driven linkages, the tweets and posts issued from each station’s particular social media account – which remained firmly separate, with their own names and distinctive logos, brands which even solidarity with Muath could not be allowed to jeopardize. And even as the various presenters came together in close collaboration, each brought with them their own particular voice and style, cultivated on and bearing the traces of the diverse stations on which they normally appear.

(Tweet reads: “Šabaab [= literally ‘youth’ ] from various Jordanian radio stations in the shared producers’ section making the #Our Voice Is One initiative happen in honor of the #Martyr Muath al-Kasasbeh. #We Are All Muath”)

And, naturally, there were exclusions as well. Jordan’s official state radio didn’t join in; neither did Radio al-Balad, or the Islamic format channels, or any of the various stations that normally broadcast in English. The commercial giant Rotana ran its own programme in Muath’s honor, as did Radio Fann – hosted by Hani al-Badri well outside his accustomed morning time-slot.

Traitors, then, to the venture of solidarity? Perhaps. But this abstention from broadcasting what a large swathe of media has over the past few days assumed to be the prevailing viewpoint of “the Jordanian people” might also be read in a more charitable way. The field of Jordanian radio is so vast – so diversified – that not even such an overbearing national project as mourning for Muath is able to subsume all of its voices. The soft norms of Jordan’s media communication, as dominant as they might sometimes seem, still allow for difference – even if one needs to listen against the current (as it were) in order to discover it.

All of Us, a Single Voice

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