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Live from Baghdad, talk radio helps callers vent frustrations

Hussein, high rent among the topics

BAGHDAD -- When Iraqi talk radio host Majid Salim recently asked his listeners whether Saddam Hussein should be imprisoned, executed, or set free, the switchboard swiftly lit up.

Some attacked Hussein. But others attacked Salim, accusing him of being either pro- or anti-Saddam. One caller threatened to cut out Salim's tongue.

''Even when they swear at me, I say, `Thank you very much,' " said Salim, of Radio Dijla, or Radio Tigris.

Welcome to the nascent Iraqi Talk Nation.

With an emphasis on call-in shows, the 3-month-old station stands as a sort of unofficial ombudsman for Greater Baghdad, fielding the frustrations and hopes of a metropolis with much on its mind.

Amid unceasing insurgent attacks, chronic unemployment, a shaky infrastructure, and a foreign military presence, Radio Dijla executives describe their creation as a societal steam valve.

''Before they go out on the streets and protest and fight, they can call us," assistant manager Kareem Youssef said.

Broadcasting in a 90-mile radius from a two-story Baghdad villa, the station features a mixture of music-request shows, radio plays starring prominent Iraqi actors, and religious and legal advice programs. But the centerpieces are the morning and afternoon call-in shows -- sometimes posing a specific question, but often opening the lines for a daily gripe session.

Nadia in Mansour, for example, called to lament the plight of her brother-in-law, a former intelligence officer who is now unemployed and fears vigilantes seeking vengeance against members of Hussein's regime. ''We need to learn to deal with these people in friendship, not revenge," Nadia pleaded.

There are complaints about unemployment, high rents, retirement benefits, even the occasional relationship rant.

The No. 1 topic, however, is the nation's teetering infrastructure.

''We specialize in electricity complaints," Youssef said.

In accordance with the temporary broadcasting license the radio station was granted by the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority, coarse language, personal attacks, and statements advocating violence or sectarianism are banned.

Beyond that, everything else is fair game.

''The Iraqi citizen speaks with freedom and honesty now," said Salim, Dijla's signature voice and a name familiar to Iraqis from his days with Youth Radio, a government station that was run by Odai Hussein, one of the slain sons of the former dictator. Back then, Salim had a call-in show that was ostensibly live. In reality, the show was broadcast with a brief delay, and the limitations imposed on staff members and callers were ''too many to count," he said.

Radio Dijla operates with no delay, but founder Ahmad Rikaby said he's thinking of introducing one -- ''just to stay on the safe side."

''Before there was fear," Salim explained. ''Now [the callers] only fear God."

The veteran broadcaster prides himself on being a cool hand on the microphone. But occasionally that practiced composure breaks down. When sovereignty was returned to Iraqi hands on June 28, Salim pleaded with his listeners, ''Please let this day pass without violence or military operations."

He looks sheepish now when asked about it. ''Sometimes you have to speak not as a radio host, but as a citizen," he said with a shrug.

Dijla's morning ''Service Period" show fields a steady stream of complaints called in by listeners about overnight water and power outages. The host patiently notes details about the caller's neighborhood, address, and length of outage, then ends by saying, ''God willing, your voice will be heard."

Some officials in Iraq's fledgling interim government seem to be listening. Rikaby said the beleaguered Ministry of Electricity often tracks the station's broadcasts. Occasionally, braver members of the ministry even appear on the air.

''We've got a lot of complaints about the electricity in the Karkh area," another call-in show host said, ''but first let's hear about your achievements."

There are no ratings measurements to reveal how Radio Dijla is faring against competing stations -- which include the US State Department-funded Radio Sawa, British Broadcasting Corp.'s Arabic broadcasts, and a handful of new local music and news channels.

But none offer Dijla's emphasis on caller interaction, and Rikaby says the station's jammed phone lines are proof of its word-of-mouth popularity. Listeners, he says, come from all age groups, although young people seem to do much of the calling. In true talk radio fashion, there's a large following among taxi drivers and others who spend a lot of time in their cars.

''They talk about the world, people's concerns, unemployment," said driver Amaar Mahdi, 26. ''They talk about reality."

Then there's the demographic that listens, but doesn't call in. Rikaby said the station is a huge hit among the inmates in Abu Ghraib prison, about 20 miles west of Baghdad. ''Prisoners are telling their families to call in and say hello to them on the air," he said.

Dijla's focus on water and power problems reveals the quality-of-life issues that Rikaby says are a higher priority for many Iraqis than the country's ongoing political experiment.

''Would you sit and think about Kofi Annan when there's no electricity and it's [125] degrees?" he asked, referring to the UN secretary-general.

Gradually, Dijla staffers say, the station will take on more of a political focus.

But even staffers admit a healthy amount of self-censorship remains when it comes to the topics they plan to discuss on air. The relative lawlessness of modern Iraq and the new ability to openly debate sensitive topics makes them wary of touching a raw nerve and prompting attacks on the station or its personnel.

''We can talk about the government from morning until night," news director Seif Khayat said. ''Try to say something about [radical Shiite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr or the kidnappings or even the old Baathists, and see what happens."

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