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Tanya Goudsouzian

Radio wars: The battle for minds on Kurdistan's airwaves

Tech-savvy clerics set up an Islamist pirate station over XFM's frequency [Tanya Goudsouzian]

Date of publication: 11 February, 2017

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A radio station in Iraq's Kurdistan region is tackling social and political issues and ruffling a few feathers along the way. Reporter Tanya Goudsouzian meets XFM.

Very few things in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are free of politics. For years after the US-led war in Iraq, the choice of mobile carrier or even the colour of a shirt – yellow, green, brown, red or orange – could reveal sympathies for a local political party or ideology, whether Islamist, communist or nationalist.

Local TV stations, newspapers and magazines, funded by partisan sources, would peddle messages accordingly. And radio stations were no different.

That is, until XFM Radio – or, XFM 105.7 – hit the airwaves in November, 2009.

The station’s founder and CEO, Rawand Karadaghi had returned to his hometown of Sulaimania in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region after 16 years in exile in the UK. Driving around in his car, he missed listening to Kiss FM or Capital FM.

What the war-weary Kurdish city badly needed, he felt, was a 24-hour radio station that helped people unwind with modern music and light banter. Equally important, he said, was the need to offer the youth an alternative media to diffuse some of the lingering tensions and counter the lure of more conservative groups still operating in the semi-autonomous region, whether sleeper cells for al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam.

With an initial investment of $60,000, Karadaghi set up an office in a building overlooking Park-e Azadi (Freedom Park) and hired a team of 18 researchers and young charismatic VJs from the local universities.

“Our target audience was the youth aged between nine and 30,” he says. “And the basic idea was that with the growing number of Kurds returning from abroad and with more and more foreigners coming to work in the region, it was a time of transition and there was a vacuum."

"We wanted to help build a bridge between Kurdish and foreign cultures – promote tolerance and encourage the new generation to adapt to the changing times. That’s why much of our shows are focused on social issues.”

Social taboos

This meant tackling what have typically been highly taboo subjects in conservative Eastern societies such as sexually transmitted diseases, homosexuality, extramarital affairs and honour killings.

“Of course we were criticised and called names at first,” recalled Karadaghi, who holds a PhD in biometrics and security from Hertfordshire University.

“We have been threatened and denounced as ‘infidels’. We have been accused of working for the Americans or worse, the Zionists – all this because our main objective was to offer an alternative to existing media platforms, which were all political.”

Unlike print media and the cyberspace, Karadaghi argues it is hard to measure the reach and effectiveness of a radio station: “But we measure our effectiveness by the number of callers we receive on our live shows. In a two-hour slot, you get anywhere between 280 to 400 calls from different cities.”

Through live streaming on their website, XFM reaches Kurds beyond northern Iraq and across the globe.

Rawand Karadaghi started the station which hit the airwaves in November 2009 [Tanya Goudsouzian]

But the moment the XFM team knew they were making a real impact was when a bunch of tech-savvy clerics set up an Islamist pirate station over their frequency in the neighbouring city of Erbil. Karadaghi managed, through legal channels, to get them off the frequency but only after four months.

Deradicalisation has also become a more significant part of XFM’s mandate in recent years, with the ongoing war against the self-styled Islamic State group. Albeit, other radical groups have maintained organised recruitment campaigns in the Kurdistan Region even after the US-led war in Iraq, especially targeting the youth through social media and subliminal messaging disseminated by local Islamist parties.

XFM attempts to counter their messaging through one of their most popular shows called The X Morning Show, which is meant to promote tolerance by giving a platform for different views and opinions.

“We try and promote the idea that it’s OK to have divergent opinions as long as you don’t force it on others,” said Karadaghi. “We start off by giving factual information about an issue, and then we invite callers to comment. A few times we invited local imams as guests on the show, to take questions from callers and show the softer side of Islam.”

A social responsibility

Shalaw Qaradaghi, one of the hosts of The X Morning Show, says he doesn’t have the luxury of ever making a mistake, and he has to weigh his words very carefully in today’s fraught political climate with Islamic State fighters at the gate just an hour away.

“I am on the air live, and I am accountable for every word,” he said. “We are closely monitored by rivals and conservative groups and they are waiting for a single ‘mistake’ so they can pounce on us.”

Among the more controversial social topics he has broached on the show are inbreeding, under-age marriage, extramarital affairs and women’s rights.

“We often have tensions between callers but our goal is to promote acceptance and tolerance of different ideas. For some people, this very idea is new to them,” he said. “Extramarital affairs among women, for example. It’s commonly discussed about men and they even take pride in it. It is also common among women, but nobody talks about it because it is fiercely condemned.”

One social taboo that is gradually gaining more prominence in Kurdish discourse is homosexuality

One social taboo that is gradually gaining more prominence in Kurdish discourse is homosexuality.

“There are a lot of guys coming out of the closet and going public, sometimes on social media. People in the region are not taking it kindly. They are harsh on these people, and they risk being beaten up,” said Qaradaghi.

Founder and CEO Rawand Karadaghi says radio was his medium of choice, partly due to his limited budget but also because market research showed that radio was more easily accessible to the youth through mobile phones which contained analog radio tuners as opposed to the intermittent Internet access at the time.

“Plus, a radio station is cheaper to start up than a television station,” he said, adding XFM was launched using “very basic equipment, off-the-shelf stuff, nothing professional”. 

The station is self-funded, generating its main revenue from advertising.

“When the economy was good, in 2012-2013, we were bringing in about 30,000$ on a monthly basis,” said Karadaghi. “After the Islamic State came along in 2014, that has plummeted to $10,000 a month which means we are just breaking even – and that’s after cutting staff.”

Still, for those who continue to man the station, like show host Shalaw Qaradaghi, XFM has become more than a job.

“It’s a social responsibility,” he said.

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