ISTANBUL // Radio Al Kul, a dissident radio station run by Syrian exiles in Istanbul, prides itself on broadcasting unfiltered news and criticism of the country’s warring factions.
But for Syrians shattered by nearly three years of fighting, it is the station’s shows on how to fix a broken car and cooking meals when supplies are low that are proving most popular.
“The radio is their only alternative way of having news, even having fun, listening to songs, listening to shows, regaining their civil life again,” said Obai Sukar, co-founder and CEO of the station.
Radio Al Kul, which means “Radio For All” in Arabic, started broadcasting in April last year, employs just 20 people and claims to reach about half a million Syrians.
The station, which is run from the ninth floor of a run-down office building in a commercial zone in Istanbul, tries to present a balanced look at daily life in Syria, said Mr Sukar, 31, a US educated audio engineer who returned to Syria after getting his degree but left again for Turkey after Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011.
Many of the listeners crave a sense of normality, which is why the station beams shows such as “My Car Has Stopped”, a slot that offers practical advice on how to keep cars running.
“You have to get around using whatever you have,” said Mr Sukar.
One of the station’s aims was “to remind people that it isn’t always about fighting and war,” he said. “You have to be human and sometimes you just have to have fun or just listen to the radio.”
But the station does not shy away from sensitive political debates.
Mr Sukar said that although Radio Al Kul supports the Syrian opposition fighting to topple Bashar Al Assad’s regime, it is careful not to become too close to the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main umbrella organisation of the opposition. “We keep the same distance between all the opposition forces,” he said.
“Sometimes we criticise them, we criticise a lot,” he said.
Mohamad Al Barodi, a 25-year-old from Damascus, who used to work for Syria’s state radio before he came to Turkey a year ago where he now is an anchor for Radio Al Kul, said the station is an important part of the fledgling democratic movement.
“It is one step towards free Syrian media,” he said. He said he hoped Radio Al Kul could contribute to change in his country.
Like Al Barodi, most of Radio Al Kul’s employees are media professionals who left Syria in recent years and came to Turkey, a country now home to about 600,000 Syrian refugees.
The station’s programming is available online 24 hours a day. Four hours of fresh content are sent daily to activists within Syria who rebroadcast it via FM in seven of Syria’s 14 provinces to reach Syrians who do not have internet access. Like many things at Radio Al Kul, the method of broadcasting is a mixture of professionalism and improvisation.
Funding for the radio station comes from private donors and from NGOs, most notably the Association for the Support of Free Media (ASML), a French-Syrian group registered in France.
ASML also supports the activist group Syrian Revolutionary Media Action Team (Smart), whose members have been equipped with the mobile FM transmitters that are used to spread Radio Al Kul’s programme.
“Sometimes they have to cut the broadcast because of a bombing or an air raid,” Mr Sukar said about the Smart members who, he said, were under threat of attack by government forces.
Power cuts and fighting in parts of Syria mean that call-in shows sometimes fail because of a lack of responses by listeners. “There is this problem that we are reaching the people, but the people are finding really hard obstacles to reach us,” Mr Sukar said.
“We are getting good testimonies and feedback, especially from people who are living in total blackout areas where there’s no electricity.”
No one at Radio Al Kul expects the conflict to come to an end soon. But Mr Sukar said his team was committed to a long-term aim of having “our station based in Damascus, in the capital of the free Syria, to be the free Syrian voice that the people are waiting to listen to”.
In the meantime, Mr Sukar is hoping for more funds to be able to expand programming, which already includes Kurdish broadcasts, to include Aramaic, the language of Syriac Christians.
“We have this optimism, because we don’t have any other choice,” he said.
“You cannot tell the people, ‘You are losing.’ You always try to give this message of uplifting and high spirits, because it’s the only thing that Syrians have left.”
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