ISTANBUL — For Radio Al-Kul, a dissident radio station run by Syrian exiles in Istanbul, hands-on advice to listeners on how to fix a broken car is part of the struggle against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The show “My Car Has Stopped” features in Radio al-Kul’s mix of shows, news and music that is beamed to Syria from Istanbul every day.
In Syria, a country devastated by civil war, daily life is hard for most, and car-owning listeners are more interested in getting their vehicles going again than in the latest SUV model on world markets, said Obai Sukar, 31, co-founder and CEO of Radio Al-Kul, “Radio for All” in Arabic.
Hence the car-repair advice: “It’s about car parts, how the engine works,” Sukar said. “When we do a cooking show, we can’t tell people how to do a cordon bleu.”
Sukar, who studied audio engineering in Los Angeles, and the roughly two dozen other people who produce Radio Al-Kul pride themselves on a hard-nosed realism coupled with optimism for their country’s future, despite the seemingly never-ending bloodshed.
Shows about music, cars and cooking do not mean that Radio Al-Kul is nonpolitical. Radio Al-Kul has its own news desk, and Sukar said his station sent a special correspondent to Switzerland to cover the ongoing UN-brokered talks there between the opposition and representatives of the Assad regime. Sukar said, “We are doing live coverage for important events, with guests and calls.”
Radio Al-Kul went on the air last April, launched by Sukar and other Syrian dissidents, most of whom were familiar with media work. Although it was hard to find radio professionals among Syrian exiles at first, Sukar said that the station has since received applications from more qualified people than it had jobs for.
Sukar’s own life story provides a glimpse into what most people working at the radio station have gone through. Sukar said he lived in Syria until last year, having returned to Damascus from the United States after graduating in 2005. But in early 2013, pressure from the regime increased. He was told that his wife, a doctor, was on a government watch list because she had treated anti-Assad protesters. So the couple left Damascus and came to Istanbul.
“The basic idea was to have this free radio station to give the Syrians a voice that they want to listen to, without the dictatorship of the regime trying to control the media, trying to control whatever the people want to say,” Sukar said.
While bringing that message from the ninth floor of an office building near a mall in Istanbul’s European district to the embattled cities and towns of Syria is not easy, Sukar said Radio Al-Kul broadcasts in seven of Syria’s 14 provinces and that 90% of its broadcasting area is outside the government’s control. Although Radio Al-Kul is available on the Internet around the clock, many of its estimated 500,000 listeners in Syria do not have access to a stable Internet connection.
This is where the Syrian Revolutionary Media Action Team (SMART) comes in. A civil action group active within Syria, SMART provides mobile FM broadcast equipment that puts Radio Al-Kul’s program on the air in areas with power or Internet blackouts. SMART gets four hours’ worth of fresh Radio Al-Kul material every day for its broadcasts. Sometimes the program has to be interrupted because of a government airstrike or because the team's members, who number around 30, fear detection.
SMART is an affiliate of the Association for the Support of Free Media, or ASML, a French-registered nongovernmental organization (NGO) that is also a major donor for Radio Al-Kul. Sukar said the station also received funds from other NGOs as well as from Syrian businesspeople.
Its financing and reliance on SMART are not the only things that set Radio Al-Kul apart from ordinary radio stations.
War conditions mean that call-in shows may fail to receive any calls from their audiences. Sukar said one of his station’s problems was that while it could always reach its audience, listeners could not always get through to Istanbul. “If they don’t have electricity, they cannot reach us, so they can only listen to us,” he said. “So sometimes we expect calls, but we can’t get any.”
While Radio Al-Kul is part of the Syrian opposition movement, Sukar insisted that the station was not a mouthpiece for the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, but an independent observer of events in Syria. In the long run, Sukar plans to take the radio station into Syria once the war is over and open offices in all cities and provinces.
“Our vision for Radio Al-Kul is evolution more than revolution, so just cross out the R,” he said. “I think our main objective will be that we have to be inside Syria once the regime falls. And hopefully we can reach our target, namely al-kul — everybody — at that particular time.”
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