Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Beach musings in Cyprus

I can recommend Cyprus as a great holiday destination. Last year, I stayed in Paphos and explored the western part of the island, including Troodos mountains and Limassol. Further up the road towards Larnaca is a place called Zygi, famous for its giant cement works, and some transmitter towers next door which form the main part of the BBC's Cyprus relay station. On the door of the transmitter building was an (im)famous logo, that of the British government's clandestine radio station of the 1950's called Sharq al-Adna. Originally set up as a propaganda station in Palestine, it retreated to a site near Limassol, Cyprus when the British withdrew. After the end of the first Middle East conflict it even became a quasi-commercial station - run by the British government but independent of the BBC Empire Service.

In July 1956, President Nassar of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. In October 30th of that year, the station suddenly became the "Voice of Britain" calling for the overthrow of Nassar. The transmissions were backed up with a leaflet campaign dropped by British aircraft over Egypt. Not only did the project fail to impress the Egyptian public, the entire programme staff of the Voice of Britain resigned, many of whom had family across the water in Egypt. Only later did the British government hand over the facilities to the BBC. The site moved to a better location in Zygi, and more recently two sets of giant mediumwave masts at Ladies Mile for 24 hr coverage of BBC's Arabic Service.

So why all this history?

Because Cyprus has become a hotbed of other international broadcast activity. This year, I stayed in Larnaca, and took a trip out to the eastern part of the island, past the tourist resort of Ayia Napa.



This is sign to the real Eastern Tip of European Union. You can't get any further east that Cape Gkreko. It is the Eastern-most tip of the Republic of Cyprus, famous for its caves - famous to radio specialists as the home of Radio Monte Carlo Middle East. Formerly a separate commercial radio station, operated by the French government, since 1996 it has been under the wing of the Arabic service of Radio France Internationale. RMC-ME has always been an important outlet for the French government, since it has daytime coverage of Beirut, literally across the water.




They still hire airtime out to TransWorld Radio in the evenings, so from 2130 in the evening the mix of French and Arabic music stops and its becomes wall-wall evangelical. I haven't heard gospel music in Arabic until now. This continues until 0015 when Radio Canada International appears out of nowhere with an Arabic language programme - presumably for nightwatchmen!




But RMC-ME has a new neighbour. The US Board of International Broadcasting has persuaded the Cyprus government (and presumably also the French) that this spot is a great place for another mast on 990 kHz. It's a 500 kW transmitter carrying Radio Sawa.



No Comparison

In the battle for hearts and minds, the French have beaten the US hands down. Here are two stations, both with Arabic programming, both with a "commercial" music format and both part their government's strategy to influence Arab speakers in that part of the Middle East. But the French station is full of lively announcers, who show themselves on the station website - you can see them, e-mail them, send SMS. The Radio Sawa station is an emotionless jukebox, carrying a format of Arabic-US-Arabic pop which alternate. I note regular ads for the US government's Freedom TV (Al Hurrah) and drop-in IDs. There is a short news bulletin on the hour and a few times a day a 15 minute block (!) of correspondents reports, during which Sawa must frighten most of its audience away. The website is not the one you would expect from a music station, and the announcers/DJ's certainly do not profile themselves like RMC does. There are several versions of the same station - at night I can hear 4 different versions of the same thing, regionalised newswise. America is back in the business of shouting at its targets, and we know that no-one trusts anyone who shouts. So the French are playing is soft and subtle, the US brash and ever so cold, despite the 35 degrees here on the beach.

If you're on your vacation, enjoy.
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