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tv   The Communicators  CSPAN  November 21, 2011 8:00pm-8:30pm EST

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[applause] [inaudible conversations] [inaudible conversations] >> this week on the communicator, a discussion about u.s. sponsored broadcast into the middle east. our guest is brian conniff who
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overseas radio tv. >> host: this is week two in u.s. government's sponsored broadcast p systems. last week we talked with david ensor of doa, and now talking with brian conniff, and keach is joining us again this week. what is the mission of the middle east broadcasting networks, and what are the networks? >> guest: okay. that's a good place to start. the nbn, middle east broadcasting networks is the corporate name for the stations. their mission is the same of all broadcasting which was to broadcast accurate news and information, and news about america that dispels some of the distortions that exist out there.
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we're a generallistic organization, and funded by the u.s. government, but we're not the government's mouthpiece, and we're not a propaganda organization. we use a variety of different programs to accomplish our objectives. as i described al hora is tv, and they reach the audience in the middle east. >> host: what's the budget, how many employees, and where are you based? >> guest: it's a diverse organization, the budget is $110 million including for two tv stations. there's the al hora pan arab channel addressing 2 # countries throughout the arabic speaking middle east, and there's the iraq station, targeted to iraq and its content and personnel, and then there's affiliates or
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stations that broadcast in those countries allowed to have an fm transmitter. in addition, we have a robust website and social media organization, so we consider ourselves truly multimedia and that's the direction we want to go. >> host: what's your reach? >> guest: well, it depends on how you define reach, but the aircraft speaking middle east consists of 3 million people, arabic speakers of all ages. we reach with alhurra about 26 million adults weekly, that's weekly. which is a very comparable number to npr for a comparison, and we have an unduplicated combined total of 35 million people watching either one of
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the two radio or watch the tv or listen to the radio weekly. >> host: well, let's talk a little bit about the arab spring, and we want to show video, and we'll show a little bit of video, and then we'll have you talk to this. this is from january 2010. [speaking arabic] [speaking arabic] >> host: that was from january 2011 in cairo. what are we watching here? >> guest: well, this is a broadcast from alhurra's studio in cairo from al youm, a similar far mat to the today show in
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this country, and it was demonstrations taking place in cairo that night, and there were clashes within the vicinity of the studio between government forces, security police, and the demonstrators. they became violent, and there were, i think, 26 or 27 deaths and a few policemen. in the midst of the demonstration, the police, security apparatus, stormed into our building, came into our studio while we were on the air while our anchor was broadcasting and interview, and they came in and they were searching, apparently, for protesters, demonstrators, and then they pulled the plug as they left and took us off the air. >> guest: as we saw from the clip, there were risks that alhurra were facing in the spring, and what happened when the uprisings were happening on
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the ground in these locations? >> guest: in cairo, we had a robust presence for time time or as large as the government would allow us. the mubarak regime had a lot of restrictions on media, particularly foreign media, and that was always something that we played a cat and mouse game with, but we had a studio, and we had a studio at that time. we had been investing and hoping that the day would come where you'd have the developments moving towards democracy, so we were well positioned in cairo at that point in time. we have a news bureau there in addition to the approximately 80 people that put on the daily show al youm. it varies. some don't allow us to have anybody. in syria, we don't have anybody. they don't credit us to have correspondence there, so we have
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to be creative and innovative in finding ways to report from those locations. yemen is difficult too. we have a couple people there, but they clamp on the satellite link and how the packages a transmitted out, and so it's a difficult environment. in egypt, also in addition to the event we just showed in the 25 january revolution, we have a similar situation where we had two cor spots on the air from the studio, security forces burst in, pulled the plug, took them off the air, and threatened their lives. people were literally jumping off the building on to the next building's balcony in order to escape the thugs in this case, so it's been a dangerous environment. libya has been obviously a dangerous environment to operate. we had a correspondent, a radio correspondent that accompanied
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the rebels as they marched forward. it's an exciting time for us. it's one of the reasons we think we were created is for the day these events would be taking place, but it's not been without its challenges and risks. >> guest: and when the organizations were created, it was really in the darkest days of the iraq war around 2004 and alhurra were put together, and from everything i read, it was a reaction to other airic news channels who felt they were smearing the united states in their broadcastment since then, the brand of al jazeera is perceived differently in the united states. how do you differentiate al-sawa, alhurra, from the al jazeera message? >> well, you made a comment about the change and perception about the al jazeera.
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i think that's the english channel. i think that doesn't -- as i understand it, al jazeera arabic and i think learn are editorial managed completely separate, so i'm not sure that one has to do that much with the other, but you're right. the media environment has changed drastically in the middle east over the last year or so. what used to be state controlled media is now in some cases, there's no control. the news stations are cropping up overnight, not necessarily with quality products, but already cluttered environment has become more filled with new channels, and most of it is probably not of high editorial quality, so we still think we have a solid role. also, as i mentioned in the introduction, alhurra in addition to just practicing good journalism also has a role to
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describe america. america is really grossly misunderstood, american culture, american values, american society is really grossly misunderstood in the middle east, and that's one of the things we try to do. al jazeera's not interested in doing that. bbc is nos interested in doing that. french 24 isn't. there's so much arabic stations in the middle east, but they are not really interest the in explaning america, and i think that begin people that accurate information about america, and it's the society, but also the political consequences. there's no secret that america's foreign policy is criticized in the region, but we try to explain how it happens and how it's developed and debated. we present different sides to the story, and through that, and people want that. they just don't want to know what the official press release is from the state department, but they want to know how did
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this come about? how was it that secretary clinton has to go in front of a house committee and answer questions? that's a fascinating concept that is the separation of branches of government like that. so part of our mission, which al jazeera and others, 20 get back to the original question, around interested in, is to ceo plain the american democratic show, to show the american democratic experience. >> guest: how do you deal with the topic of israel and palestinian territories when you know the audience is critical of what american policy is. do you carry some of the criticism in your broad cation? >> guest: that's a very good question. we cover it just like we cover everything else in the journalistically sound way, but as you can imagine, a lot of the media in the arab world doesn't cover israel in a full balanced
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way, so a lot of times as your question indicated when they see us do that, they don't like it, and we are criticized in the middle east for that, but, you know, that's journalism. you have to show both sides. we've had successes, too. we had cases where we've had an israeli guest on -- we had one time with an iranian guest, i'm not sure they knew it was happening until the plug was pulled, but we had saudis on and people who don't want to appear, and he's been successful, so the knee jerk reaction and in those people's hearts, when they hear the full story, they appreciate it. they make publicly take a position they don't like that, because that's what the people expect them to say, but people keep coming back, watching the
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show audiences had, and it's been about 26 million for three or four years which in the face of all of the competitors that have been launched in recent years we're quite happy with. >> has the spring changed your priorities at all? >> yeah, i think it has. first of all, we went to almost all breaking news for months and months which was once again one of the reasons we were created for. we had the infrastructures and some other places, so we were ready for that, but now we have been sitting down and thinking, okay, what kind of programs, what kind of information do the people want and need? we have been scrapping old programs, outlived their usefulness and developing new programs, developing a reality show that follows two young people in the egyptian revolution as the process goes
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forward. hopefully into democracy, so, yes, our programming is reflecting and will even more so reflect the events of the arab spring. >> host: brian, did the arab spring increase your viewership? >> guest: absolutely. it created a lot more interest in our point of view, and in another point of view, in an objective point of view. each one of the countries where these events have happened, they have been covered differently by different stations because of their political alliances or historic call or -- historical or religious afghanistans and so forth, and people quickly realized we don't have those influences, that we journalistically cover these events without other encumberments, and we have an
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incredible amount of e-mail or facebook postings that say that, we value your independence and objectivity. in fact, at times when during the egyptian revolution when the administration here was trying to decide when to support or not support mubarak, and we weren't reflecting that -- we were not supporting their position. we were just telling it straight, what was going on, and we got so many people, and, in fact, i was in cairo a few months ago, and they said, that's when i knew you were independent, when you were not just there supporting mubarak because the perception was that america was supporting mubarak. we told both sides of the story, and they wanted to hear that. they expected the al jazeera position of anti-mubarak, but they get both sides from us, and they really appreciated that. >> host: has restrictions
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eased now that president mubarak is out of the picture, and are you following the egyptian election process, and what about the post-gadhafi process in libya? are you able to get into there now? >> guest: good questions. it's -- it's pretty chaotic in egypt right now. i went and talked to the minister there, and regardless of what he tells you, can he enforce it, follow through, it's hard to tell. in a way, the lack of regulation is playing to our advantage allowing us to be a little more aggressive and bold in our coverage without worrying about somebody pulling us off the air. libya, we've been fortunate. we just started fm in benghazi, and now we are planning to put an fm in tripoli, and that never
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would have happened. we're pursuing an fm in tunisia, and that wouldn't have happened before. i've been pursuing fm in cairo for years, and i got the same answer two months ago that i got five years ago of we'll see. it creates opportunities, and it em boldens our staff to go out as correspondentings. it's a great opportunity for us as a journalistic organization as well as for the people in the region for democratic developments. >> host: this is c-span's communicators program, our second week looking at u.s. sponsored broadcasting services. the guest, brian conniff, president of the middle east broadcasting networks, keach hagey is with the "politico," our guest reporter. >> guest: will they keep their separate channel in iraq after the troops leave? >> guest: yes, we have every reason to believe that's the
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prudent thing to do. in fact, if any, with the departure of the u.s. troops, there's more of a reason for there to be an american voice, so to speak, there, but that channel is unique, different than the pan-arab channel we've been talking about. this is -- this channel is almost seen as an indigenous iraqi channel. it has -- it's part of the local scene. we have the government spokesperson calling us up and saying can i go on today? we cover local issues. we have a lot of correspondents there, and we are seen as the credible broadcast. we have an evening broadcast at nine o'clock, and it's the must-see hour. people want to -- and it's picked up in the press that alhurra said this and that, and there's stories that when the government gives a press conference, they don't start
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until the alhurra cameras are there. the iraq channel, and it has a much larger viewing percentageship than the rest of the channel. it's a primary source of information in iraq whereas alhurra pan-arab is alternative. it plays a slightly different role, and i see it continuing. >> host: are you required to present the official government position on issues 234 iraq or across -- in iraq or across the middle east in alhurra? >> guest: no, there's no requirement. our purpose, our mission, is to describe journalistically the votes of the day. there's nothing saying we have to present american foreign policy, but that's a huge reason why we exist because people want to know what is the american position? they want it explained. they want to know how it came about. they want to know is it yiewn
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fied? they want all those answers they don't get from local media. it's not a requirement in that legislative sense, but that's why we exist -- to give the people the information that they want, and information in a way that they can rely on. >> guest: alhurra came under fire in the past for running hezbollah speeches and from playing top executives that didn't know arabic or were not familiar with arabic media. i think that shows the difficult needle that alhurra is trying to thread. it's a difficult path. how do you find your talent and take sure they don't fall on either side of that tricky path? >> guest: yeah, it is tough. it is tough. recruitment is a difficult issue. obviously, we don't pay the salaries the competitors pay out there, and as you probably know, there's new channels that are going to be started in the next year, and they've already come and, i guess, paid us the
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greatest complement hiring away our employees showing they think they are good quality employees, but they are paying more money, but, you're right, in the early going, there was lapses, some editorial lapses. the station, as you mentioned earlier, was rushed on the air in the middle of the iraq war, which probably wasn't -- in hindsight, the best time to launch it in terms of dealing with some of these issues, but, you know, since those lapses occurred, we have worked very hard to hire the right people, train them, brought in the university of missouri's school of journalism on an almost every six months basis to help explain our journalism. we've rewritten our code of ethics. we've come up with new editorial procedures that have editorial controls so some of those problems won't occur again. you know, if you react to a
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problem and build a structure to keep it from happening again, you're stronger in the long run, and i think that's where we are today. >> host: the september 2010, the foreign relations committee came out with a report talking about alhurra. this is what they had to say. "given the crowded media environment in the middle east, either greater resources must be devoted to marketing and promotion or additional programming changes must be enacted. should these efforts fail to improve the overall viewership levels, policymakers will have to decide if continuing alhurra's operations is worth the costs." >> guest: well, i think the importance of marketing is -- we agree with that. the environment is such that there are three, four, or 500 channels out there, and a lot of times when we conduct research, the oversight board conducts research, they generally use the
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affiliates, so they are good companies. they'll find it is a crowded marketplace out there, so we have been doing as much as we can of late, actually, to set aside whatever we can for promotion because if they don't know you exist, they don't -- they can't watch you. they are not going to watch you, but we've hired some god people lately that -- good people lately that have been looking to take -- the little money we have and make the most of it. we're getting our electronic program guides. there's facebook and social media's that's creating a whole new opportunity to bringing in an audience that may never have seep you on tv, but is going to watch you on facebook or youtube. just this morning, i was looking at a youtube video of a package that we put on air, and two days it had 100,000 views. this cross-references of social
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media, there's smart ways of marketing without huge increases of money, but i agree with the sentiments of the report. that's the answers you need out there. i think we have a quality product. i think sometimes people have not seen it, and once they see it, they say i'll make this a part of the regular watching. >> host: should americans be allowed to watch alhurra? >> guest: well, there's a law enacted now that presents voa or any of the other u.s. funded services from broadcasting it. i have no problem with it. they can watch al jay see ray -- al jazeera, and there's a whole slew of arabic channels on cable systems. i don't see why we can't be on it. >> guest: the broadcasting board of governors is rethinking the structure of all of those u.s. backed media organizations. maybe centralizing them, there's talk of, you know, a central cnn
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brain that would be behind all of them. it's early days, but how are those moves likely to affect alhurra and radio sawa? >> guest: i don't know much more about it than what you just said, you we're open to anything that creates greater efficiency and greater effectiveness. with minor exceptions, we're the only one of all of those broadcasters that broadcast in arabic, and we're the dominant one in tv, too. the others do a little of tv, and, in fact, during the arab spring and other news events, we share our products all the time, our vote products. we make our correspondents available for interviews so they'll -- voa has an on the ground voice to describe what happens, and it leverages resources collectively to a much larger audience, and i'm sure there's many we can do, but i'm all in favor of trying to get as
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many eyeballs on our product as we can. >> host: brian conniff, one of the strengths of the voa, especially in the cold war, was secret listeners. does alhurra or radio sawa have a secret audience out there? >> guest: interesting question. i think they do. i've seen pictures of whenever there's an event, maybe president obama's cairo speech, you know, ap and the other services show a picture of people in a coffee shop or tearoom watching president obama, and a lot of times it's alhurra. it's amazing. there's a number of them that came out from gaza, and i said if you go down the street and asked most of those people in that coffee shop if they watched alhurra, they would say no, but they were sitting there watching it. i think there is a secret audience because of some of the reasons that keach brought up
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earlier that it's an american funded challenge, and we don't want to acknowledge we watch it. >> guest: you mentioned using social media to promote the channels themselves, but how much do you use social media to get the news out? that's part of the larger changes that the chairman of the bbc is talking about. >> guest: absolutely. the entire board has been a huge component of social media. they've emphasized that they brought in technical resources, know-how. we've probably hired eight or nine people in the last year to do this, and from a standing start, we have about 200,000 fans and sawa, alhurra, and then the most popular show of alyoum. we get thousands of hits on youtube, interesting discussions on facebook, and we're now trying to go to the next level which is no not just
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-- which is not just pushing out, but bring the content to the viewers. in the middle east, that's lacking. there's not a history of media interaction, and i think particularly among the younger people, and women -- people that have not had a voice, they are hungry to have a voice, and i think social media is perfect to bring them into our environment, and that's our next step. that's what we're working on now. we've recently bought software to help us do that, but that's -- that is our future because it gets us into new demographics that we're currently now strong. right now, most news channel viewers are middle-aged males. that's not the future of the middle east. social media gives us an opportunity to get at the youth. the people who watch our use our social media, 75% are less than 34 whereas people watching tv are 55 and older. it's a great opportunity to leverage a whole new audience for us. >> host: mr. conniff, alhurra
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and radio sawa were founded during the bush administration during the iraq war. do you find the level of the support from the obama administration to be the same? >> guest: you know, it's essentially been the same. it's not -- to me the support comes from congress. that's where the appropriation comes now. the money has to be requested by the administration. this administration has stayed at the same level of support as the prior one. there's been no real difference. historically, international broadcasting has not been influenced by partisan politics, to our collective advantage. we would like to have president obama come on our air. i don't think he's holding it against us. he has not been on the other organizations either. we had valerie jared on, and we had people in the white house come on, and state department is on all the time. we


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