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New Talk Radio Allows Iraqi Callers to Vent Everyday Frustrations - 2004-09-17

A new talk radio station has opened in the Iraqi capital Baghdad that for the first time, lets callers vent their frustrations at government officials over everything from trash pick-up to the continuing violence. It is called Radio Dijla and it is making waves across the capital and beyond.

It is eleven o'clock on a weekday morning and that means it is time for "Service Period" - a program on Radio Dijla, a new Iraqi talk radio station.

The program is hosted by two university-aged disc jockeys, and brings in government officials to field questions from listeners. Today, the program's guest is Police Brigadier General Jasimal Bahadly, the commander of all Baghdad traffic police.

One caller, Khaled from Baghdad, asks the general why there are so many traffic police posted at Ali Khaa square, but none at nearby Ramadan Square, where there is a lot of illegal parking.

The general concedes the point. "We don't have enough police to cover all the squares in Baghdad," he says. "You know there are 214 intersections, and we just do not have the forces." But he adds, his ambition is to recruit more police officers to cover every intersection.

A radio program like this might seem banal by some standards, but in Iraq it is revolutionary. It would have been unheard of during the oppressive years of the Saddam Hussein government, when media was tightly controlled, and dissent was punished by the government.

At least 15 private radio stations have opened in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government last year, but Radio Dijla is the only one dedicated to just talk. It is on the air for 20 hours a day broadcasting 12 different programs, all of them live, call-in shows that encourage listener participation.

Some programs, like "Service Period," are meant to help ordinary Iraqis cope with the changes wrought by the change in government. Other programs offer advice on love, relationships and family issues.

Radio Dijla, which means "Tigris Radio" in Arabic, after the river, was launched in April, with some funding from the Swedish government. Now it takes in advertising revenue.

Assistant General Manager Karim al Yousif says its format is the first experiment of its kind in the Middle East. He says it plays a vital role in Iraq still riven by violence.

"Most of our programs are cultural ones and we try to direct people to stop the bloodshed, to stop the killing, to stop striking electrcity stations - all these things that are against the people," he explains. " We want to be a civilized society like in other places."

One staff member screens calls before they go to air. But Mr. al-Yousif says 99 percent of the callers are against violence.

Twenty-one year-old disc jockey Shaymaa al Amari says working in such a way helps to teach Iraqis to respect each other's rights, and implement democracy.

She says, "We do not allow anyone to insult other groups. Everyone has rights - so we don't give them the chance to infringe on the rights of others. Some people might try to criticize - but there is a line we do not let them cross."

And Ms. Al Amari knows she is having an impact.

She says when one man called in, he was so excited he turned up the speakers in his store and gathered people to listen. Then he gave free drinks to everyone in his store.

Listeners sometimes contact the radio station to offer assistance to people they have heard discuss their problems on-air. So Mr. al-Yousif says there is now a Radio Dijla club to help them.

"We spent 35 years under Saddam Hussein and most people are needy and in poverty," he says. Mr. Al-Yousif says the station has some contacts with humanitarian organizations who volunteer to help some needy people when Radio Dijla provides their addresses and phone numbers.

Perhaps more important is the shift in attitude since the Saddam Hussein years, with government officials taking time to appear on Radio Dijla to field calls and complaints.

Asked whether any of his fellow officials might be reluctant to come on air, General Bahadly has a simple answer.

All officials, he says, should speak to the people directly, because he says, "it is our duty to serve the people."