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Ammannet and the Future of Radio
Ethan Zuckerman, 5 Dec 04

I have seen the future of radio, and it is Ammannet.

The Arab world's first online radio station, Ammannet was founded in 1999 by Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, entrepreneur, media activist and blogger. Daoud was interested in doing radio journalism in Jordan, but was frustrated by a government monopoly on FM radio. (This monopoly has loosened somewhat - there are now four independent FM radio stations in Jordan, but all focus on entertainment, not on news. Licensing fees for news stations are substantially higher than the fees for those for entertainment stations, and Daoud's application for a license has yet to be processed.)

His previous Internet experience meant that Daoud knew how powerful the 'net could be at bringing news across national borders in the Arab world. in 1995, he'd founded AMIN - Arabic Media Internet Network - which shared news from across the Arab world online as a way to combat national news censorship. (Arab nations are often willing to allow critical journalism about other nations in the region, so long as the criticism does not cut too close to home. So the best way to learn what's really going on in Syria, for instance, might be to read Lebanese newspapers. AMIN capitalizes on this, using the banner of pan-Arab solidarity to give readers access to critical press in other nations.) The project has been a tremendous success and earned Daoud a great deal of international respect. And it gave him relationships with Internet geeks who could answer the question, "Can't we do an FM radio station on the Internet?" when Daoud thought to ask it in 1999.

Daoud ran newspaper ads, looking for young journalists with an interest in the Internet. (He weeded out the 300 applicants who showed up by asking them their email addresses and five favorite websites, concluding that anyone without good answers to those questions wasn't really excited about the net.) His technical crew set up a server in the US, armed smart young reporters with minidisc recorders and desktop editing setups and sent them out into the field. Each Ammannet staffer works as reporter, editor and producer, turning their interviews and raw audio into a polished, radio-ready final report.

Ammannet is accessible to Jordanians via the web, and to Palestinians via satellite broadcast. There's a daily newscast, plus additional stand-alone stories, many of them pieces of investigative or critical journalism hard to find elsewhere in the regional media. For instance, Ammannet's website hosts the bio and CV of every member of parliament, and tracks the actions of ten selected members (a diverse group, including male and female, muslim and christian, urban and rural, veteran and new members) closely, reporting their voting records, transcripts of debates they've participated in, legislation proposed, etc. Before concluding that this is a poor cousin to government transparency websites like They Work For You, let me point out that the Jordanian government doesn't release any of this information of their own accord - Ammannet journalists need to physically sit in the parliament building, record the votes and debates and transcribe the information for the site.

For non-Arabic speakers wanting to get a sense for the reporting Ammannet does, the "Eye on the Media" project is a good introduction, as the twenty stories have English synopses associated with them on the website. Daoud describes the project as being inspired by FAIR - Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a New York-based NGO media watchdog. Eye on the Media stories have included critical looks at coverage of Abu Ghraib, women's image in Arab media, advertiser dynamics, and coverage of the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

This sort of close scrutiny of the press and the government is the sort of thing that often makes enemies. That said, it sounds as if Ammannet has had a remarkably smooth time of it so far. Legislation has been suggested to regulate Internet radio to the same "standards" that FM radio is regulated in the Hashemite Kingdom. So far, Ammannet has fought the legislation successfully, pointing out a) that the material is "broadcast" in the US, not in Jordan and b) that legislation regulating online audio content would force any Jordanian citizen posting audio or video on a website - whether as a student project or political activism - to seek a government license.

When I expressed surprise at the lack of formal censorship, Daoud made an interesting argument, one I heard more than once in Jordan: "The monarchy may actually be more liberal than either the parliament or the population as a whole." While there are forces who'd like to control media sources like Ammannet, King Abdullah hasn't sought to shut it down, and that may provide sufficient protection to keep it operating. (To be clear - while Jordan doesn't have formal censorship laws on the books, they do have a law that can provide a penalty of imprisonment for defaming the monarchy. And Ammannet has not pushed its luck by directly challenging the authority or legitimacy of the monarchy..)

My colleagues and I visited Daoud on a Saturday, generally a weekend day in Jordan, and the Ammannet office was packed with young reporters chopping and mixing audio on their workstations. One of the reasons the office is so busy over the weekend: this is Daoud's side project. During the week, he runs an educational TV station in Ramallah, where he produces "Sesame Stories", a Middle East version of Sesame Street that features Israeli and Palestinian children playing together ... then on the weekends, he commutes home to see his Jordanian wife and keep Ammannet running smoothly.

As I talked with the staff, I realized that Ammannet is one step away from being one of the world's largest podcasters - by adding RSS feeds to the content they create, they'll make it possible for (arabic-speaking) listeners to have a constant, independent voice of what's interesting and new in Jordan and Palestine. (For anyone interested in lending a technical hand, Ammannet uses the Campsite CMS system developed by Media Development Loan Fund for media NGOs - it supports some form of RSS, but it's unclear to me whether it supports RSS enclosures.)

While Ammannet's audience is currently a local one, it's possible that they'll serve as a critical "bridge voice" going forward. Many young Jordanians speak impeccable English, and a few Ammannet reporters are starting to provide bilingual coverage of local news. Daoud and I are also talking about ways Ammannet journalists might become Jordan's first wave of bloggers - he's visiting the Berkman Center in late January to talk about Ammannet and hear about some of the work we're doing in global blogging. I hope the folks behind Ammannet will increasingly become part of the dialogue between the North and the South taking place on the Internet - the web will be a better place for it.

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Thanks for the kind words about one of our favorite projects. It's also good to see Campsite getting some pixel space too.

I wanted to clear up one minor thing: Campsite supports any kind of XML feed output, but we're rewriting the HOWTO to make the process clearer and easier. Once we're done with the HOWTO, we'll be in touch with Ammannet, as well as other radio stations and networks that have Campsite-powered sites, so that we can turn them into large-scale podcasters.

And keep your eyes peeled for our LiveSupport open source radio management system, which will be out early next year!

Posted by: Douglas Arellanes on 8 Dec 04



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