A new commercial Franco-Arab radio station in Brussels hopes to promote inter-communal harmony through music.
Radio Contact, one of Belgium's largest broadcasters, recently launched Contact Inter to appeal to the capital's 150,000-strong Arabic-speaking minority. It is the country's first commercial broadcaster to make such a move, and hopes that its early foothold will put it in a prime position to take advantage of a huge, potentially lucrative niche in the market.
Inter employs a basic commercial radio formula of chart hits – not all of which will appeal to those with alternative tastes – interspersed with news bulletins for 12 hours each day. More interestingly, the station's bilingual programming is hosted by two DJs, each of whom interacts with the other and the audience exclusively in Arabic or French.
Late at night, the transmission switches to Medi-1, one of Morocco's leading radio networks. The sister station is more newsy and dedicates more of its airtime to talk shows and discussion programmes.
“The Arab community in Brussels is very excited about Inter. They feel it's something dynamic and vibrant,” says Nicolas Roisin, the network's media spokesman.
This dynamism is reflected in Inter's multicultural team of journalists and DJs from Belgium, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran. Its cultural diversity is reflected in the music that gets airtime. In addition to the usual western hits, the station also plays North African rai, Egyptian shaabi and pop, and other sounds from the Middle East.
Listeners are treated to the infectious grooves of top rai names, such as Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami, as well as Egyptian singing sensations including Amr Diab and Hakim. The more classically discerning can feast their ears on legendary crooners Om Kalthoum, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Fairouz.
“I really like the multicultural feel of the station,” confides DJ Celine Mehbod, an Iranian who has spent most of her life in Belgium. “It makes you appreciate the wide cultural mix in Brussels.”
Mehbod, who speaks French and Persian but no Arabic, has also experimented with airing Turkish and Persian music to the delight of those communities. “I went to a Turkish restaurant and their radio was on Inter. When they found out who I was, they told me they were very happy that I played their music.”
Roisin is at pains to point out that, although Inter is a commercial station primarily targeted at the Arab community, it also aims to promote tolerance by reaching a broader audience. He argues that access to other cultures helps break down social barriers. “We try to help with integration. We have a social role to play in closing the gap between communities,” he explains.
Months of difficulty and delays preceded Inter's launch. Initially slated for October, the station did not get off the ground until February. During that time, Radio Contact had to depend on Medi-1, beamed in from Morocco, for all its content. “It was very difficult to find people with the right qualifications and experience who could speak both Arabic and French perfectly,” Roisin says.
But the fledgling station's troubles did not end with staffing. It was embroiled in legal wrangles with a long-established Arab community station, Radio Al Manar. Accusing Inter of operating without a licence, it sued for the station to be taken off the air.
According to Roisin, Al Manar lost the legal action but is currently appealing the ruling. “It's a grey legal area. There is no law prohibiting or permitting transmission without a licence in Brussels,” he points out.
The absence of an official licensing regime in Brussels is the result of a 20-year-old turf war between the Walloon and Flemish communities over how to carve up the airwaves over the capital. Although Brussels is an overwhelmingly French-speaking city, it is geographically in Flanders, and the surrounding villages and communes are predominantly Dutch-speaking.
Despite all the difficulty, Roisin is pleased with the warm reception the fledgling station has been greeted with since its official launch in February. “I've heard it in a lot of Arab cafes. We have people phoning in and sending our DJs e-mails and SMSs all the time. We've even had graduate students carry out research on the station,” he enthuses.
Roisin admits, however, that Inter is currently putting its finger to the wind to gauge its success and will have to wait a few months before it can have an accurate survey of the exact size and composition of its audience.
Nevertheless, the station is thinking big. It already has plans to expand its coverage beyond the capital's borders. Out of a pool of some 250,000 Arabic speakers, Inter has the ambitious goal of reaching 100,000 listeners. But Roisin points out that the network does not expect Inter to be an overnight success and the management are in for the long haul.
“We had to build Inter from scratch. We started with no product recognition,” he argues. “We're taking it one step at a time.”
This article appeared on Expatica on 6 May 2003.