There was a time when turning on the radio meant that all the cassettes were broken, the car’s CD player wasn’t working and you were in desperate need of a distraction from the sweet, sweet sound of traffic horns and angry drivers. The radio in Egypt was known for playing songs that only your parents would enjoy, sandwiched between presenters who only spoke of outdated topics, and to make matters worse, in classical Arabic.
In the past few years, radio has gone through a major face lift that introduced a couple of young, hip radio stations that not only played new music but, most importantly, speak the language of the youth who make up the majority of the nation’s population. Most recently, as with most other media outlets, radio has been transformed once more following the January 25 Revolution with more freedom of expression than ever allowed.
With radio’s newfound space, can we expect that medium to make an even stronger comeback with more stations and a bigger role for the radio to play in post-revolutionary Egypt?
The year 2003 was a major year for the nation’s radio history as it marked the birth of Nile and Nogoom FM. Listeners tuned into 104.2 and 100.6 and were surprised to find contemporary songs playing, accompanied by young presenters. “Radio became different with the appearance of Nogoom and Nile FM, particularly Nogoom because it’s in Arabic,” says Youssef El-Husseiny, programming director of Nogoom FM. “Egyptians had steered away from radio. We brought back the culture of the radio to be able to follow what’s happening in the world through the radio."
El-Husseiny began his career as a radio host with Nogoom FM in 2004 and later became the head of presenters before landing his current position. He says that at the beginning, listeners were drawn in by the tone and lingo of the station’s hosts. “Our presenters were using the same terminology of the people,” he explains. “We were talking to them rather than talking down to them in a way that made other stations’ hosts sound like your grandparents.”
One host who definitely does not sound like anyone’s grandfather is Mohamed Safi, perhaps the most familiar voice on the radio today. Safi started out at Nile FM from the first year it launched. According to Safi, Nogoom and Nile FM helped shape the market of the radio into what it is today.
“I think radio in Egypt is developed but nowhere near enough,” he says. “I’d like to see lots of new radio stations out there, since at the end of the day, competition can only benefit us.”
And competition was just around the corner. After nearly an eight-year-reign over the radio market in Egypt, Nogoom and Nile FM finally got some competition.
In 2010, Nile Radio Network (NRN) was established as part of the National Radio and Television Alliance (NRTA), which is partly privately owned, and with it two new radio stations slipped into the market: Mega FM and Radio Hits.
“When we came out, we tried to provide new information, a new idea that was not restricted to just entertainment and was not superficial,” says Wesam Magdy, programming director at NRN.
Magdy, who was one of the first radio presenters at Nogoom FM for around seven years, says the evolution of the radio in Egypt is quite obvious and still ongoing. “The radio has gone through a major transformation in the past eight to nine years with the introduction of private stations,” she says.
Marina Mahfouz is glad to be a part of that transformation. Mahfouz, radio presenter at Mega FM, simply states, “I love radio!” The eager presenter has been trying to get on the radio ever since she was a little girl giving the morning speech at school, and her dream finally caught up with her last January, when radio made its next evolution to include more channels and she was hired by Mega FM.
“My show is different, it steers away from the traditional as I like to focus on odd news,” she says, providing examples such as the National Consensus Council’s July recommendation that women now be drafted into the Egyptian military.
“For seven years, Nogoom FM has [been alone in the market],” says Mahfouz. “We have to offer something new, and people were attracted to our station because we had more songs, less commercials, interesting shows, more coverage across Egypt. And we [now] became Nogoom’s number one competitor.”
A new dawn
Regardless of who competes with whom, the January 25 Revolution definitely leveled the playing field for all radio stations, which are now stepping into unfamiliar territory with unlimited boundaries for expression and little to no censorship.
For Safi, the months following the revolution were some of the best radio he has ever done.
“The two months right after the revolution, we were in a position where you simply could not go on the air and talk about Britney Spears or Justin Bieber or Top 40 stuff. You had to play an important part,” he says. “On a personal level, I learned for the first time on the job how to be an objective media person because I was never put in that situation before.”
Prior to the Egyptian revolution, radio, much like all other media, was under heavy restrictions where you could not mention anything related to the “holy trinity:” politics, religion and sex. Safi admits that it had a major impact on his work. “At the end of the day, we are a top-40 hit music station,” he says, “but at the same time, it restricts you from having a socially aware show or a show that throws out topics that are a bit on the edgy side.”
Following the revolution, radio presenters discovered newfound freedom where they could talk about anything and everything. “After January 25, it didn’t make sense for any show not to talk about politics,” says Mohamed Fahmy, radio presenter at Mega FM. When Fahmy started hosting his show in October, it was mostly entertainment filled, but today his show is dedicated to raising the political awareness of the public. He admits that it was not an overnight change.
“The change came gradually because you’re coming from a pre-directed media where you couldn’t discuss any of the current news, then you suddenly became a media without a boss or anyone to answer to,” says Fahmy. “People didn’t understand at first whether or not we could actually talk about politics or who we would have to talk to for permission.”
For Tamer Adel, a presenter at Radio Hits, the change started on a personal level at first and later translated into his work. “I am an average Egyptian citizen, my relationship with politics was like most of us,” says Adel. “I’m more aware now, I started reading newspapers differently, I started wanting to know the other side of things rather than what was being dictated to us through state media.”
As a result, Adel made it his mission to educate people who were once like him on what the country is going through. “I felt that my role was to take people by the hand, those who don’t understand what’s going on,” he says, “since I was one of them two or three months ago, and transmit the real picture to them.”
Future Sound Wave
Even though radio has come a long way in Egypt, there’s still quite a bit more to go as there are only a couple of new, hip radio stations sounding off through the nation’s speakers.
However, Mega FM’s Fahmy is optimistic that a lot more radio stations will emerge soon enough.
“A lot of stations will come out now,” he says, explaining that the former regime made radio licensing extremely difficult so that they could control exactly what was being said. A fair statement considering that the radio is one of the most easily accessible mediums in the nation.
“The radio has a huge role now because the number of cars in Egypt is unbelievable,” says Adel, adding that radio can easily educate the masses on their rights, politics and current events.
Fahmy echoes the same idea. “With all the people driving around in the streets of Egypt, the radio has become a main source of media,” he says. “ Particularly that the youth have become more active, but some of them still don’t read newspapers or watch news channels.”
While there has been a recent focus on politics, that will not be the only thing on the minds of these young hosts.
“We are a top-40 hit music station so at this point you have to ask yourself, what would MTV do? If there was a revolution, MTV would talk about it for the first few months then naturally go back to their regular programming,” says Safi. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a social role to play. [We have] our public service announcements, our weekly awareness show, which helps raise awareness about cultural issues, so we do have a role to play but at the end of the day we’re a music station.”
El-Husseiny agrees: “We’re still continuing with the original message of musical entertainment, but with content that goes with the feel of the street, reports from the streets, live reports because people need to know what’s happening in Egypt.”
Clearly, radio’s evolution is still ongoing. This once outdated medium is transforming into a new and exciting outlet for expression.