Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Iraqis talk the talk

Radio Dijla is the country's first all-talk radio station. It deals with listeners' problems -- and there are a lot of them

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD

Majid Salim, center, hosts his radio show in Baghdad, Iraq. His show on Iraq's first talk radio station, Radio Dijla, opened in April and has been putting Iraqis' opinions directly on the air.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

A housewife calls to talk about a broken sewer pipe. A student calls to talk about a lost love. A shopkeeper calls to say what he thinks of the violent insurgency that has swept his country.

The callers have reached Iraq's first talk radio station, Radio Dijla, which opened in April and has been putting Iraqis' opinions directly on the air, mainlining democracy from a two-story villa in central Baghdad for 19 hours a day.

In all, about 15 private radio stations have sprung up since the US occupation began, but Dijla, whose name is Arabic for "Tigris," is the first to serve only talk. The station is one of the most listened-to in Baghdad, according to its employees, a claim that appears to have merit, judging by its broad following among the city's taxi drivers, housewives, students and late-night listeners, who tune in to a night talk show about relationships.

The station receives an average of 185 calls an hour, far more than it can handle, according to its owner, Ahmed al-Rakabi, who said he planned to buy more telephone lines to accommodate callers. Most calls are about the nuts and bolts of life. Many public services have not recovered since the US occupation began more than a year ago. Daily power failures persist. Piles of trash are heaped on city streets. In poorer areas, leaky sewage pipes taint water supplies.

"Iraqi citizens have big problems but nobody listens to them," said Haidar al-Ameen, 34, a businessman, who listens to Dijla while driving. "If I have no gun, there's no one who is going to listen to me. The government has no time to listen."

The station forces the government to make time. Local and federal officials come as guests and are grilled by listeners. The talk shows result in uncomfortable situations, which would have been unheard of in the time of Saddam Hussein, when government officials were royalty and ordinary citizens were mere supplicants who were easily ignored.

On a recent Thursday, callers from the Mansour neighborhood questioned its local government leader, Ali Laaibi, about one of life's basic necessities.

"Why aren't there any garbage trucks?" a woman caller asked in an urgent voice. "It's been so long since anyone came to take out the garbage."

Another woman caller added, "Please, I don't know where to throw the garbage," and said she had even followed someone she had mistakenly thought was a garbage collector. Laaibi squirmed, trying to reassure the callers that he did in fact have a plan. "We've got 13 million garbage bags and we're going to give them out to people," he said.

Beyond easing the frustrations of daily life, the station provides a chance for Iraqis to talk publicly about politics for the first time in decades. Listeners' calls open a window onto the lives of ordinary Iraqis, whose opinions often go unheard in the frantic pace of bombings, kidnappings and armed uprisings.

"After 35 years of people not being able to say what they wanted, we need something that can translate our feelings," said Imad al-Sharaa, a news editor at the station.

One such program was broadcast June 30, on the day before Saddam first appeared in court. The program director and host, Majid Salim, asked listeners what they wanted to see happen to him. The answer was something of a surprise for Salim.

"Most people wanted him executed," Salim said.

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