Radio frees Benghazi — the war of words

For hours and hours, I didn’t know what to make of it: Tribute FM is the first ever English language radio station in Libya. And it sounds just like magic. Diana Ross … the Jackson Five … the Temptations … some German rap … Easy Like Sunday Morning … just as you’re nodding along, thinking “this is nice, I wonder if they have a phone-in,” you remember: this is probably the most radical statement of a successful revolution coming out of any radio, anywhere in the world. It is a huge moment for a country in which not just English but most European languages have been invisible for decades.

Before Muhammad, Aman and two others launched Tribute in Benghazi last week, “English wasn’t frowned on, it was completely illegal,” Muhammad tells me by phone. “It was taken out of schools, it got to the point where nothing in English was available in the city. You couldn’t advertise in English, you couldn’t read a newspaper in English.”

It is a measure of how isolating this was for young Libyans that setting up a radio station would be such a priority as the fighting continues, the stream of refugees is unabated and Gaddafi has not, as yet, surrendered.

Even though the studio’s location is a secret, and they cannot give their full names, for fear of reprisals from Gaddafi loyalists, Muhammad is clear that this is not pirate radio. They are totally legal and nothing to do with the Transitional National Council, the rebel leadership. “It’s just us, we’re just guys trying to make a difference.”

Muhammad and Aman both have dual UK and Libyan nationality. Muhammad was born in England and lived in north London until 1994 when, aged 14, he returned to Libya with his family. He came back to Britain to complete a degree, then went back to Benghazi. “When I used to travel, I never told anybody I was Libyan, I was always from London. Now, I’ve never been prouder to be Libyan. Everybody is so happy. We’re all one nation for the first time ever. We’re just waiting for this guy to pack his bags or get shot.”

This buoyant mood defines the station, but the phone-ins are sobering. Last Wednesday, Tariq called in. He had just returned to the UK from Tunis. “It’s really, really bad. What you see in refugee camps, it’s maybe 5% of what have actually crossed into Tunisia. Families are crossing the border. They have no money … the money in Libya’s pretty dried up. One family crossed with, honestly, six and a half dinars [£3.31]. The guy changing the money refused to even change it. He just gave them 20 Tunisian dinars because he felt so sorry for them. It’s really, really bad.”

He said it so simply, as if telling you what he thought of Manchester United’s chances, or how much he hated Peter Andre. Then they played Put a Little Love in Your Heart, but there are some moments even Annie Lennox can’t lighten. Later in the week, people were calling in from Tripoli to note with admiration how accurate the Nato airstrikes looked from the ground.

On Wednesday evening a legal expert was going to give her view on whether Gaddafi, once he has surrendered, should be put on trial or executed. When it came to it, she felt it was too much of a security risk so the guys in the studio kicked the ideas around between themselves. “So a pro for keeping him alive is to find out all of the genocides he has done, all the people he’s killed, to see all the money he has stolen from this country, to hear all the lies he’s told. That would be a great thing to see on trial.” “And for killing him?” “Well, then it’ll all end. This whole war will end.” “Why?” “Because he’ll be dead.”

I could have sworn I heard gunfire outside, but Muhammad says no, it is much safer than it was a month ago in Benghazi and, besides, they have really good soundproofing. All the talk is of who to kill and how to kill them, but all you can really hear is euphoria and optimism. And then they played Where is the Love? by the Black Eyed Peas.

Normally, when people say they don’t know whether to laugh or cry, it’s just an expression. Listen to Tribute. You will literally not be able to decide.

Historical radio propaganda
In the second world war, the British ran a number of black propaganda radio stations. On Gustav Siegfried Eins (GS1 for short), a fake Prussian commander, known as “Der Chef”, accused Hitler and other Nazi grandees of corruption and sexual shenanigans. According to Daily Express journalist Sefton Delmer, who ran the station, GS1’s “pornographic tone” so angered Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps that he told Anthony Eden: “If this is the sort of thing that’s needed to win the war – why, I’d rather lose it.”

Several Japanese women were recruited to make propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tokyo in English to US troops during the second world war, with the aim of disrupting enemy morale. The mysterious female voices became known under the catch-all name “Tokyo Rose” — though the name is most associated with Iva Toguri d’Aquino, a US citizen forced to broadcast as “Orphan Ann” during the show the Zero Hour, in which American music was played alongside propaganda news bulletins and comedy skits.

Vietnam Network was immortalised in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam — in which Robin Williams played the irreverent real-life broadcaster Adrian Cronauer — a number of radio stations were operated by US forces during the Vietnam war, broadcasting from US Navy aeroplanes. The last AFVN station closed in Saigon in 1973 – though an offshoot, renamed the American Radio Service, continued until 1975, when it played the song I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas as a signal to troops to evacuate Saigon.

United Nations Radio was formed with the aim of promoting peace and security around the world, the station made its first broadcast in 1946. “This is the United Nations,” the announcer said portentously, “calling the peoples of the world.” During the 50s, UN Radio made around six hours of programmes a day, in 33 languages, which were then relayed to 100 countries on their own national radio stations. The station has scaled back its operations now, but it still produces feature programmes about UN initiatives, and twice-daily news round-ups. —

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