Radio connection

How Al Aan FM is offering a lifeline to the people of Syria and helping media activists report the truth
(Back L-R) Yaman Shawaf, Yasser Hamza, Fahima Mazani. (Front L-R) Nasrin Trebulsi, Muhammad Irfan.
(Back L-R) Yaman Shawaf, Yasser Hamza, Fahima Mazani. (Front L-R) Nasrin Trebulsi, Muhammad Irfan.

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While talk of the broadcast industry usually centres on lucrative sporting contracts, viewing figures and advertising deals, one of the region’s most important broadcast projects remains an unsung success story, although its presence represents a lifeline to those who tune into it.

Al Aan FM, an independent pan-Arab satellite radio station covering more than 8 million people in Syria and a further 3.5 million in Libya, launched in July 2011 from broadcaster Al Aan’s headquarters in Dubai Media City.

The FM radio station, which has a four-channel playout, relies on a team of dedicated journalists and presenters - and transmitters placed strategically in and around Syria - and has already gained a loyal following. Indeed, the station, which is also available to the Syrian diaspora around the world thanks to satellite and online radio, has become more than just a psychological lifeline to ordinary Syrians whose lives have been turned upside down by the conflict.

The radio station was the brainchild of the management team at Al Aan TV, which is best known for its family-oriented satellite TV station. Al Aan FM was launched in mid-2011 to offer Libyans, and soon after Syrians, an alternative to the state-controlled broadcasts on offer. Al Aan’s management decided to cover Libya’s population with FM radio around the time of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi to provide important broadcasts to the population as the country went through a turbulent time. But as Syria slipped into civil war, the management of Al Aan took the decision to deploy transmitters to cover key provinces of the country, leading to the current broad coverage of Syria.

Digital Broadcast Middle East caught up with the team behind Al Aan FM at the station’s offices in Dubai Media City. Radio program manager Nasrin Trabulsi explained the background to the development of the station. “First, Al Aan FM focused on Libya because the Libyan revolution was about to start, but when the Syrian revolution started they put a plan to put transmitters in Syria and later when I joined in February 2014 they wanted to expand production for Syria. That’s why we have a huge Syrian audience all over the world, and also because the refugees are everywhere,” she says.

At present, most provinces of Syria are covered by Al Aan’s FM transmitters, with an estimated 8.4 million people listening to the station, and a further 3.5million people in Libya.

“We have transmitters in the Syrian cities especially in the free areas, as well as some of the areas controlled by Daesh and the regime, so people listen to us in the countryside of Damascus, Latakia, Deir ez-Zor country side, Daraa in the South, Idlib in the north, Hama, Homs Aleppo and the countryside of Aleppo, so now we are covering a huge area of Syria. Our audience is the Syrian people, our target is the Syrian people, especially now, after the revolution. The people who work in the radio station are Syrian and this gives us a place to make programmes and talk to our people.

“We have to talk to our people wherever they are in the country. We have to talk to everyone, no matter who is controlling the area where they live,” Trabulsi adds.

However, running a radio station broadcasting to a fragmented country is not easy, from a technical or logistical perspective. Whether it’s getting reports from journalists and citizen reporters in Syria, or maintaining the FM transmitters that serve the country, the challenges are many.

“Each area has its own frequencies. It’s not easy with the separation of Syria now to use just one frequency,” Trabulsi says.

Sometimes Daesh destroys the transmission towers, although in many cases activists put them back up again. Al Aan FM has nine transmitters covering Syria and is looking to expand in the coming months to cover areas including Al Hasaka and Kamishli, Kobani, TalAbyid, and Kurdish areas, according to Mohamad Irfan, technical project manager for Al Aan FM. Al Aan FM works with about 17 technicians in Syria who maintain these transmitters,” he adds.

Irfan explains that a 2Kw FM transmitter covers a 40km radius, which means transmitters on the border of Lebanon can reach Damascus.

Aside from its team of technicians on the ground, Al Aan FM also has a separate team of monitors, individuals who check on the quality and availability of the signal and alert the headquarters when there is a problem, such as an outage. “These two teams don’t know each other. We have a separate monitoring team in Syria, so whenever there is an interruption in the signal, they let us know,” Irfan says. “We have 9 FM transmitters in Syria plus we have six transmitters in Libya as well.”

He adds that Al Aan FM also launched a 2kw transmitter in Tobruk, in the eastern part of Libya, in January 2016 .

The station’s four channel playout means that it can send different feeds for Libya and Syria, making the broadcasts more relevant to the listeners, Irfan says. He adds that a significant number of listeners are also listening to the station via satellite in North Africa, in addition to Syrians in Europe and elsewhere who tune in to the online stream.

However, broadcasting within Syria is becoming more difficult, especially in areas controlled by the Assad regime and Daesh, Irfan admits. The harsh winter weather is also making life more difficult for the team responsible for maintaining and managing the infrastructure. “On the operations side it is getting harder and harder. Now it is winter and it is cold and becoming more difficult to get fuel – that is one of the challenges,” Irfan says.

Al Aan is working on a project to boost its coverage in some difficult-to-reach areas by deploying FM infrastructure that it has had designed for its own specific requirements. The equipment was almost ready for deployment as Digital Broadcast Middle East went to press. The FM transmission kit, which Al Aan FM refers to as “Pocket Radio”, is essentially a low-power 50 watt, battery-operated transmitter with a solar panel. The device consists of a small FM transmitter with Radio Data System and satellite receiver. The idea is simple – place these transmitters on building, hills or mountains where coverage is limited and let the device boost coverage of Al Aan FM.

“It has a built-in satellite receiver so locally the technicians just need a downlink container, a 1.2 metre Dish to connect to the unit, and that is it. They will tune to our radio signal via satellite and our signal will start transmitting in the area around the device,” Irfan says. These transmitters, it is hoped, will also help to overcome the burden of high fuel costs. “Small villages can be covered with these devices because fuel is very expensive, at about two dollars a litre.”

The lightweight solution also has the advantage of being easier to deploy than full scale equipment, particularly in battle-zones and dangerous areas. “One technician can go with this unit, he can go and set it up and start broadcasting in 10-15km circular,” Irfan says.

Programming mix

With the population in Syria enduring harsh conditions, from all-out war to shortage of food, water and power, it is vital that Al Aan FM provides a mix of information and entertainment to serve its listeners. Judging by the level of interaction on social media and the volume of interaction directly with the crew at Al Aan’s HQ in Dubai, the station is broadcasting exactly what the listeners want.

Nasrin Trabulsi says that Al Aan FM broadcasts 24 hours a day. A significant proportion of the content comes from Al Aan TV, but much is produced purely for Al Aan FM. The station also has access to a database of Syrian and Arabic songs which are played through the night.

One of the station’s popular programmes is a news broadcast called ‘Syria Today’, which airs at 7pm daily from Sunday to Thursday and aims to cover news from across Syria. This programme relied on citizen journalists and reporters across Syria who send reports in by email, WhatsApp and other social media. People also send video and audio footage – both professional grade and amateur – some of which also gets used on Al Aan TV.

Fahima Mazani, a radio announcer and producer at Al Aan FM, adds that the reporters and citizen journalists feel compelled to share their stories out of a sense of duty to tell the wider world what is happening in Syria. She adds that stories can be verified quite easily and there will often be multiple reports and messages about a specific event.

Yasser Hamza, news producer at Al Aan FM, said that he recruits reporters in Syria on an ongoing basis. These reporters were not initially trained journalists, but were taught everything by Al Aan FM. “We taught them how to film, write reports, how to present their reports and how to do interviews,” he said. The reports that are sent to Al Aan are vital for the various programmes, from the daily news bulletins to Thaer Al-Shamali’s “Nehna Makoum” program, which offers listeners vital information, such as where to seek medical attention after severe aerial attacks have taken place.

Yaman Shawaf, news producer at Al Aan FM, is familiar with this situation because he helped train many of the reporters in the early days of the station, back in 2012 and 2013. “When we started to visit Syria in 2012, we needed to find some sources. We did that from Idlib – I met some people and trained them to produce stories for TV, radio and online. After that I started to receive rushes from numerous sources,” he says.

Trabulsi also presents her own show called Sobhia, an Arabic expression that means ‘spending time in the morning with the people you love’. The show, which airs each weekday morning, offers a mix of news and variety content.

“I try to include all the news about the social life in Syria including the suffering of ordinary people and the fate of refugees. We speak to people who went to Europe and look at how they have succeeded, how they have fared learning a new language quickly, for example.

For Hamza, this two-way communication is a key element of Al Aan FM. “It’s the two way communication. Most of the media channels are sending the information without getting the feedback from the listeners or viewers, but with our slogan ‘Start the conversation’ we are emphasising the audience to speak to us, to share their stories, thoughts and ideas. This interaction between Alaan and the audience is happening through our WhatsApp service, Facebook pages, Twitter account and other social media means.”

Al Aan FM also provides vital information for its listeners as part of a programme which is called, in English, ‘We Are With You’. The programme includes updates about the price of essential items such as vegetables and bread, and the exchange rate between the Syrian Pound and the US dollar.

Al Aan FM kit list

FM Transmitter : Elenos ETG series
Antenna system : Extreme Technology
RDS : MGY
Satellite receivers : NETA
Feder cables : Andrew
Generators : AKSA
Power Regulators: ESIS power

On the frontline

While Al Aan FM is now a well-established and much cherished station, it was a huge challenge for its founders to establish from scratch in Syria back in mid-2012. The management of Al Aan became aware that local media activists wanted to broadcast their news locally in Syria, and Al Aan explored how that would be possible. Given the conflict conditions and lack of power, Al Aan’s management believed FM radio was a good choice, but they also had some reservations: In the age of Internet, would radio seem regressive? Ultimately the broadcaster decided opt for radio, supported by social media platforms. “We responded to the demands of the citizens and local media activists and our investment paid off as a result,” the management team said.

Yaman Shawaf, news producer at Al Aan FM, remembers vividly his first trip to Syria to plan the station. He travelled to Syria with technical project manager Mohamad Irfan and the pair spent about three months in the country. They had no shortage of work, with tasks including scouting for locations for transmitters, getting permits to bring infrastructure into Syria and install it, and also the important job of finding and training technicians to maintain the transmitters.

Shawaf and Irfan survived artillery fire and even had a few scrapes with packs of stray dogs. The infrastructure was installed in phases and Shawaf also realised the importance of promoting the channel very early on. He organised billboard advertising for the station at border crossings. People fleeing the country, and those re-entering, saw the bold advertising banner and many shared pictures of it on social media. The existence of the Al Aan FM then spread quickly via social media and regular conversation, leading to the station’s current status as Syria’s third most listened-to radio station.

Meet the producers

Thaer Al-Shamali is producing “Nehna Makoum” program, which means (We are with you). This radio program is helping Syrian people in Syria and Turkey through linking the civilians with the concerned authorities (Aid agencies, local council, universities... etc) to solve their problems.

Jawad Irbini is working to produce a new program called “Demashq Ala Hawa Alaan” program, which means (Damascus on Alaan). It will be a dialog program that focuses on social and economical matters in Eastern Ghoota (Damascus countryside). One of the episodes will be focusing on marriage during the war and displacement.

Mohammad Al Horani is producing “Bedna Naeesh”, which means (We want to live). The program will be dedicated to “Dar’a” province in the south of Syria, and it will discuss any event that affects people’s life there by hosting guests who are concerned in these events.

Mostafa Jumaa is starting a news program “Nabd Syria” program, which means (Syria pulse). The program will tell in each episode a story of a city in Syria before the revolution and during it. It will document the number of mysteries, destruction, and the history. The second part of the program will reflects how people in Syria suffer.

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