Radio Sawa

In the Summer of 2001, the Broadcasting Board of Governors – the body that oversees all U.S. government-sponsored international broadcasting – began to flesh out an idea that would reshape the government’s goals and strategy for reaching out to the Arabic World through the media. The goal of providing news reports to the region through American produced radio was nothing new (The Voice of America had done it for years), but surrounding these news reports with compelling, exciting, research supported programming was.

Under the guidance of Norm Pattiz, founder of Westwood One, the basic philosophy of this new endeavor was forged – use research to find out what young people in the Arab world were looking for in a radio station and then “giving the people what they want”. The belief of Pattiz was that a need was not being filled in the region, and that this created a great opportunity for entirely new kind of U.S. International broadcasting. To flesh out the concept and to coordinate all the research that would help guide the station, the U.S. government turned to Edison Media Research

The process started with a fact finding trip by Edison Media Research to Cyprus, Dubai, Cairo and Beirut to meet and contract with local research partners. Soon after, Edison coordinated focus groups in Amman and Kuwait City. In addition, surveys were conducted in Amman, Cairo and Bahrain. The goal of this research was to come up with a profile of the new station’s target audience and to then gain insight into what they would want a new radio station to sound like.

It was through this initial research that we got a firm handle on the “hole” that existed in the radio markets of many major Arab cities. There clearly was an audience for a station that would mix together both Western and Arabic songs. The research showed this concept a good one, but the key would be to play the music (both Western and Arabic) that people loved. The goal was never to put a Western style radio station on the air. The goal, first and foremost was always to put on a station that people would find hard not to listen to. A station that would be like nothing else that was available but would sound like something they always wanted. The research helped seal what the format would be: A new kind of “top 40” station focused on a broad (much more so than an American station of a similar format) array of pop music alternating Western and Arabic songs.

Having settled on our basic format, the next step would be researching what songs to play. We again traveled to the region to three more countries to train our local field companies in the music testing techniques we had perfected in hundreds of studies we had completed in the United States and other countries. As we worked with our local partners and met volunteer test respondents, cultural differences became clear and we adjusted our research accordingly. One rule that became readily apparent was that respondents always needed to be interviewed by an interviewer of the same sex. Where would the music testing be conducted? In one market only in-home surveys were acceptable, while in others, only a “neutral” setting like an office would be feasible. We also discovered cultural differences in the actual song rating process. The concept of being “familiar” with a song differed by market, with respondents in one market rating many songs as being unfamiliar and the respondents in another seemingly reluctant to “admit” to not knowing a song. It was an evolving process, but in the end we helped Radio Sawa develop its first “playlist” and Radio Sawa was on the air.

Edison has continued to conduct research in markets around the region ever since and the station has had remarkable success almost everywhere it has been broadcast. The concept of “giving the people what they want” turned out to be a great success. Seems simple but it was actually quite a journey.