World: Medium of the Week - Free radio returns to the airwaves in Afghanistan

The lifting of the music ban has young listeners tuning in, Marialuisa Taddia writes. Three years on from the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan's battered economy is picking up. And with the ban on music lifted, commercial radio broadcasting is beginning to flourish.

Arman FM, the 24-hour radio station set up to cater for the young, music-starved generation in Kabul, has been at the forefront. Opened in 2002, the station has proved successful in the capital and surrounding regions with a mix of Afghan, Bollywood and Western pop music, as well as news, culture and social issues.

Saad Mohseni, the station's founder and director, says Arman FM's main target is the lucrative 15- to 35-year-old age bracket. "People with disposable income who embrace social and cultural change," Mohseni, the son of a diplomat who spent part of his childhood in Afghanistan and 20 years in Australia, elaborates. "Our advertisers are fairly large corporations, including local telcos and some Western brands such as Unilever, Sony and Sharp."

The past six months have seen a big shift in the type of advertisers that have been using the station, he adds. Before, it was mostly NGOs with community messages, now around 90 per cent of the advertisers are purely commercial.

One reason is the economy, which has been growing at an average annual rate of around 20 per cent in the past three years - albeit from a very low base. "There's a lot of activity in the country, particularly in Kabul," Mohseni says, pointing to Coca-Cola, which is building a plant in the region and will start advertising next year.

Arman FM, which claims 80 per cent of the potential radio market of 4.5 million listeners in Kabul and the surrounding provinces, is making the most of a country where 60 per cent of Afghans are reportedly using radio as their primary source of news and as many as 72 per cent tune in three times a week.

Arman FM's most popular programmes include the weekly music chart Top 40 Afghanistan and The Ahmad Zahir Programme, named after the Afghan Elvis, an icon who was murdered 20 years ago.There is also the rather controversial Young People and Their Problems, a phone-in show hosted by Humayoon Daneshayar, a kind of "Frasier of Kabul" who counsels young people disoriented by the influx of Western values.

The station claims that it does not broadcast anything forbidden by Islam, but there are no restrictions on the type of products it promotes. "As long as you can sell the product in the marketplace, you can promote anything," Mohseni says. Advertisers can either sponsor a specific programme, produce advertorials or go for traditional spot advertising.

Last month, Arman began expanding beyond Kabul to the northern capital of Mazar-i- Sharif, and by the end of October it will be beaming to a further five cities, including Kandahar and, in doing so, will become "a truly national station", Mohseni says.

Television, which was also banned by the Taliban, is the next step. This month should see the launch of a Mohseni-backed channel, dubbed Tolo (Dawn).

Moulded on the likes of CBS and NBC, "it will be like a commercial TV station in the West, with news, soaps, comedies, current affairs and documentaries," he says.

ARMAN FM (www.arman.fm) was launched in April 2002 with an initial investment of $500,000. Just under two- thirds came from Mohseni and his two siblings, with the balance from the US Government's development arm, USAid, which will also be involved in the financing of the TV channel, Tolo.

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