Audiences’ Letters to the Local Radio Station In Afghanistan

January 6, 2006

Radio is by far the most important media and the media most listened to. Contrary to TV and print media, it is nearly accessible to all in terms of cost and coverage. Even the uneducated can switch it on, listen and feel integrated into the new emerging Afghan society. Radio, thus, incites participation and may on the long term be able to create conditions for a more democratic society.
The establishment of 43 local radio stations in the last three years in Afghanistan offers a modern communication tool for the profound oral communication tradition which in Afghanistan has thousand years old roots. Each of the local radio stations has a different way of functioning and the program production defines their identity. Local radio program is to address crucial social issues at a local level. Afghan local radio stations provide a new arena for free expression and receiving of information. The radio stations not only alter global information into usable knowledge by contextualizing them; but they also enable listeners to participate. One of the most common ways of participation has been through letters, which are very artistically written with a combination of ideas, personal stories, drawings and common facts. The tradition of community and personal communication through such letters has existed in different parts of Afghanistan; but it has been extensively introduced into mainstream mass media only recently.
In a society where over two-thirds of Afghans over the age of 15 cannot read and write; and only 54% of primary school age children attend school, individuals volunteer to talk about love, social constructivism, recreation, politics, accountability, and other critical issues through local mass media.
The contribution of these same individuals and their letters to illustrate complex issues through simple words and drawing is important through a medium which is supposed to be the simplest form of mass media. Illiterate villagers prefer simple language, even when it comes to the most serious issues; that is perhaps why metaphor and simple stories are used to explain religious doctrine which enjoys popularity and wide understanding.
Children and Adult Drawings:This is a collection of twenty seven letters sent to local radio stations across the country. The letters are collected randomly from among 450 letters, sent to different programs, ranging from children to entertainment and current affairs. Most of the letters are from male audience who are in their 20s. They have had some education but most of them haven’t graduated from high school. A majority of them runs their own private businesses and has shops; others are skilled labour or farmers.
Little differences in style and content could be noticed when it’s a woman writer; or even when men write to women radio presenters or vice versa. Drawing has been used as a form of emotional animation to express honesty and belief in the written content, as low educated writer can’t articulate adequately ideas in written format. Unlike popular western culture, emotionality in letters are seen genuine and generally letters are passionate and animated. Topics that are presented in a neutral or objective way are seen as less credible, and the motives of the presenter may be questioned.That makes the following letters a unique look into Afghan culture and a persistant proof of its creativity.
The most obvious projection of the letters is normality, a word that might sound strange to foreigners in war-torn Afghanistan; normal life in these little villages and towns nevertheless exists; or at least a tendency to return to it. Passion and zeal for community, religion, and family could be sensed in the letters in a peculiar pattern, but probably more than a lot of other parts of the world. Sincerity and respect has been expressed through words, drawing, and calligraphy.
Normality follows a different pattern here; it’s a different way of self identity and dignity. This is the Afghan way of living. The life in Afghanistan and especially in Afghan villages still remain a mystery for a lot of outsiders; the only knowledge the public has is a bias and over simplified picture painted by media and out of little information. The letters are to show: how do villagers communicate, what do they communicate and how do they get to understand others and through them recognise their personal boundaries. These letters are not only words and drawing; they represent a subculture of communication.
The contribution of this same individual and their letters to illustrate complex issues through simple words and drawing is important through a medium which is supposed to be the simplest form of mass media. Illiterate villagers prefer simple language, even when it comes to the most serious issues; that is perhaps why metaphor and simple stories are used to explain religious doctrine which enjoys popularity and wide understanding.

About the Letters:
Indirectness is the preferred style of writing. It’s perhaps because the writer assumes, this will make it easier for others to disagree and have the chance to refuse writer’s point of views without confrontation, or to avoid a subject which others might not want to think about.
Then again religious and traditional customary letters are direct, especially when it concern others who are not from the same age group, ethnic group or social structure as of the writer of the letter.
A very controversial topic is presented with poems, flowers on the edges of the paper and maybe another topic or idea is mixed with it, and the writer also shows a high level of ignorance about the topic to avoid confrontation and possibly the consequences.
Topic of the letter affects emotionality of the content, drawing and animation . Personal stories and opinions are more passionate. When the letter is written by a group of more than two with homogenous age and same sex a high level of emotional expression could be noted.
You’ll notice when the letter is about religion or traditional costumes drawing and pictures are not made; it’s perhaps because they are predetermined and undisputed topics where feeling might not be needed to support its accuracy. This could also be seen in a letter below from a well-known elder and poet who is respected widely.
A common request in the letters to the radio stations is to broadcast the letter and/or the entire letter and not part of it which the radio editorial prefers. The lack of broadcast time is not internalized by the writer. The common perception is we have all the time to say whatever is needed to be said. There is no rush to finish; and if we finish there is nothing more important to move on to and even if there is, it’s only equally important and we could take care of it later.
The longer the letter, the better it is; length in writing and drawing is considered wise and good. In a couple of letters below the writer promises if his full letter has been broadcasted he’ll write a longer one next time. The most loyal writers are the one with the longest or biggest letters and the radio stations frames and hang the long letters on their studio walls.
Summarizing and not broadcasting of letters is seen critically; the youths general don’t get too disappointed, but if it repeats for more than three times they might stop writing to the radio station and this is what they are mentioning in their letters. however, with elders and religious characters this may be interpreted as arrogant and uncaring behavior.
Letters are in both national languages, Farsi and Pashto; small Blocks marked underline has been interpreted on the opposite page in italic. The literature of the language influences the writing and content. in Farsi letter-writers attempt could be noticed to make sentences sound nicer and singly and it’s indirect as a result; while Pashto letters could be emotional and animated passion element might make it indirect.
(It’s interesting how else so much feeling and shared identity could be communicated. The style and blueprint of visual perception of objects and thoughts could be seen in the letters in a society where TV and other forms of contemporary media don’t exist. A different communication pattern could be seen through these letters where the writer and audience still put their interest in narrated stories with descriptive drawings and see things in their minds. There is a wide attention span which is independently able to imagine and visualize sophisticated issues.)
Participation as social capital:The importance of locally governed mass communication could be realised only if the interest of individual for free expression is understood. Individual’s interest for self expression leads to better access to media resources; allowing local community to incrementally gain ownership and to voluntarily and willingly contribute to the resolution of issues. For example in the western world today, we have realized the reluctance and disinterest of individual to participate in social communication. This will result in a decrease of social capital which is a society with a lesser shared identity and trust. Communication companies are investing heavily in social and technological innovations for providing better access to resources, leading to informed participation.
When talking about 34 licensed radio station broadcasting with a 150 watts transmitter. They receive around 70 letters, on average, daily from a footprint area of 70000 people.
At the start of their operation the number was double and impossible for the radio station to deal with them all and the radio stations separately from each other thought of regulating or in another words reducing the number of letters to the level they are capable to handle and they don’t comprise too big fragment of the programming. The fear was, too many letters based programs might alienate the big part of audience who are not writing to the radio station.
Most of the radio stations introduced radio envelopes which costs around 5 Afs (around 2 cents) and this turned out to be a good source of revenue for the local radio stations. They make on average around US$ 80 from the letters. Letters which are not in the station envelope will not be read out on the air.
Although the significance of letters plentiful is a sign of community tendency to participate in the local radio station, it seemed to be the only; later we found out it was the only or at least the most preferred way of audiences’ mass communication and self expression. The audience seemed to be way too shy or discouraged to talk about contradictory issues or/and personal feelings they brought up in their letters.
Thinking, writing and broadcasting about issues around which high levels of social stigma and locked perception are created can be a first step towards their social acceptance. Especially when these locked issues such as marriage, diseases and politics are brought up by individuals who are directly affected by them, therefore has the most knowledge about them. Some programs were designed to bring the most frequent correspondents to the radio station so they can talk in person about themselves and their colourful letters and the motives for writing those letters. But it seemed they could not express themselves only through words, perhaps because self expression seemed rather unusual. Letters seemed to be more explanatory of what they were saying. Persistency in sending the letters emphasized their believe in the topic they were raising while it can’t be done through words, and also their words lacked the drawing and visual communication. The fact that they put so much effort on making them is a sign of commitment. I was always thinking about finding some way to show these letters to the mass audience in an attempt so they really feel their fellow villager.
A major challenge for local radio stations as a medium which lacks visual images remains elucidation of underlying concepts of these letters into audio format compatible for radio programming. This could be through designing programs which could deliver the concepts in these letters or by involving the writers of the letters. My fear is that a lack of creativity in program designing of local radio stations might only allow the flow of such letters to the station and the ideas and feelings in these letters might become repetitive and lose their originality.)The present choice of letters illustrates a look into Afghan society westerners rarely get the chance to see. What we see and read may surprise or even irritate some of us, since it is in clear contrast to the usual clichees we receive through the daily media coverage on Afghanistan. If so, it could only mean that our picture is yet incomplete.

January 3, 2006

January 2, 2006