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Now hear this: fun and freedom on Libyan radio

August 10, 2012


Libyan technicians work at the studio of Radio Zone, one of the hippest channels to hit the airwaves since the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi.–Photo by AFP

TRIPOLI: Music and laughter spill out of the grey building in the Libyan capital which is home to Radio Zone, one of the hippest channels to hit the North African nation's airwaves after the ouster of Moamer Kadhafi.

“The people haven't been heard for a while so we wanted to have a radio station where everybody can call in, speak their minds and not be afraid that they will be hung up on or made fun of,” says presenter Fuad Gritli, 25.

For decades, the main voice on national radio was that of the eccentric leader who took power in a bloodless coup in 1969 and then ruled with an iron grip for the next 42 years.

Then there were the state media pawns who delivered dry news bulletins faithfully reporting Kadhafi's statements and activities, plus excerpts from his now ridiculed Green Book, a personal manifesto mixing Islam with socialist ideas.

“Kadhafi went to the bathroom, Kadhafi went to the shower... it was that stupid! Radio was like his personal Facebook account,” says Gritli.

The popular revolt that broke out in February 2011 in the eastern city of Benghazi paved the way for dozens of new media ventures, most of them spearheaded by young people who were keen to make their calls for freedom heard.

The media boom that began in Benghazi finally caught up with the capital after anti-Kadhafi fighters captured it in August last year. Many private radio stations have opened this year, but most have yet to turn a profit.

Radio Zone, which went on air for the first time in April, was financed by a group of friends, all new to the trade. The private station now boasts 21 producers, presenters and technicians.

Libyan presenters work at the studio of Radio Zone, one of the hippest channels to hit the airwaves.–Photo by AFP

Presenter Amal Creui, 30, says that the best part of her job is the unprecedented “opportunity to break boundaries” in a “positive atmosphere and attitude.” The morning show she co-hosts with Gritli generally focuses on social topics such as the ethics of protest – please keep them peaceful – the importance of elections, and the need to preserve the environment by not littering.

But the mood is always light. During Ramazan, the current Muslim month of fasting and prayer, the presenters have shifted their schedule to the late night and often throw out trivia teasers such as “Where do flies go in winter?” “Everything, everything we say from beginning to end, I would never have dared to say anything like it before,” says Creui, adding that she relished being able to interview government officials just three days into her job.

Injecting new life

She says that young people must now inject new life into a previously staid radio and television industry that was the exclusive turf of pro-regime journalists.

“Now we have a say, and we care. The youngsters are watching and they are not going to tolerate another Kadhafi,” she says, noting that a main challenge in covering politics is sifting through a steady stream of baseless rumours.

Radio Zone faces stiff competition from other private channels such as the English-language Tribute FM or Tripoli FM and state channels.

Between airing his own talkshow and recording jingles for another programme, Gritli says the radio station has offered a fun learning experience and takes pride in the absence of “red lines” on the station's shows.

Another plus is the opportunity to stream music in English, which was previously banned.

“Western music wasn't allowed at all” under Kadhafi, says Issam Dahmani, 36, a bass player who grew up listening to the likes of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple thanks to friends who brought him albums from abroad.

Dahmani, who is also on the Radio Zone team, recalls with a sheepish grin how he and his band got into trouble for playing Metallica's “Nothing Else Matters” at a friend's wedding. By the time the song ended, the police had showed up.

“I'll never forget that song,” he laughs now.

At least two generations of Libyans were not allowed to study English because Kadhafi rejected it as a “foreign invasion” or a tactic by “crusaders” to brainwash people and spread unacceptable notions such as freedom and democracy.

Dahmani and Gritli say it was not uncommon for musicians who sang English songs and played Western instruments to have run-ins with the authorities, especially if they dared to go so far as to embrace punk or heavy metal.

Donning baggy pants and baseball cap flipped backwards, DJ and technician Karim Abuaza has more modern idols such as Krayzie Bone, an icon of spit-rapping, a freestyle music form famous for breakneck speed lyrics.

Abuaza's friends call him “Libya's fastest spit rapper”.

“I just want to express myself,” he says as he compiles a list of mostly Western beats to air between longer programmes.