A brief look at radio’s tumultuous local history
It was a hot mid-summer in 1923 when Mr. Medhat Assem and Mr. Ahmed El-Gawahergi ventured into opening a sound studio in the Abassiya district to broadcast music, drama and many commercials. Despite the bad technical quality and the relentless personal messages, programming gained popularity in Cairo’s traditional coffee shops and even became a side distraction from Saad Zaghloul’s nationalist movement Running a radio station soon became a fad and a potentially good business adventure, as 12 competing stations worked in total chaos. That is, until the government closed down all private stations. All technicalities were handed over to the experienced hands of British Marconi Company that ran the show and expanded the bandwidth north and south for more than 15 years. In 1947, the Egyptian cabinet abruptly abrogated the contract and on July 23, 1949, the parliament passed a law declaring Egyptian radio an independent body under the Cabinet Ministry. The European Local Program and the Main Program were introduced and were well received by both local and foreign audience. Exactly four years down the line, a young officer named Anwar El-Sadat announced to all Egyptians on the radio airwaves the ends of the monarchy as well as the short-term blueprint of the then-anonymous Free Officers. Radio immediately became the official mouthpiece of the new government, beaming its Pan-Arab socialist ideas in the fiery speeches of its leadership and smooth songs of its divas and superstars both locally and regionally. The inspirational role of the radio remained as a solid base, even after the inauguration of the Egyptian Television in July 1960. By the 1970’s, with popular transmission in 34 languages, Egypt had the sixth largest radio broadcaster in the world. The summer of 1967 was notably an exceptionally hot one along the Eastern borders, and millions of Egyptians were glued to their radio sets cheering triumphantly to the good news they were allegedly receiving from the battlefield. Four days later they knew it was all a hoax and that there was no victory. Subsequently, they had to find a replacement to their seemingly undependable source of information, and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) became the main source of news for many in the region. In 1971, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) were established under the Ministry of Information as the sole controller of the airwaves, setting regulations as well as goals for both media. Eventually, television replaced radio as the main source of information and entertainment for the some 70 million Egyptians. A few minor success stories were scored, including the inauguration of the Youth and Sports Station that was opened in 1975, until the big breakthrough came about in the year 2000 with the inauguration of El-Aghani (Songs) FM station that attracted thousands of listeners mainly stuck in their cars in traffic jams. The endless stream of new and old hit songs on a finely tuned frequency immediately became competitors to the most popular El-Quran El-Karim (Holy Quran) Station. A year later, the two more successful private stations: Negoom FM and Nile FM were licensed and everyone from commuters to producers to advertisers joyfully witnessed the real comeback of radio. This summer, almost 40 years after senior radio administrators in Egypt angrily assessed their loss to the British in the radio news department, a deal was concluded between the BBC and the ERTU after two years of negotiations. The BBC had initiated an idea for a program to be broadcast during the primetime of Egyptian radio’s popular stations, teaching mainly young Egyptians spoken English in an entertaining and informal set-up. The one-hour co-produced show, named BBCe, was launched early this summer and its presenter is the popular movie star Khaled Abul-Naga, who actually started his professional career as a television broadcaster in the 1990’s. The program is divided up into five-minute segments and, according to its producers, has had excellent feedback from young Arab listeners. As more youngsters in Egypt tune in to their favorite radio stations in their cars, on their laptops and via satellite radio sets, producers are eagerly searching for new ideas that can further hook listeners and entice advertisers to what has become the new money machine: radio.
Meanwhile, on the sizzling hot summer days, sounds of the new and old radio stations endlessly echo from cars stuck bumper-to-bumper in Cairo’s main roads or speeding on the highways to the fancy summer resorts to the north and to the east.
Hanzada Fikry is a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the American University in Cairo.