War News Radio

by Abdulla Mizead, Swarthmore College

IMG_7381.jpgWar News Radio (WNR) is an award winning, student-run radio show produced by Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. It is carried by over thirty-seven radio stations across the United States, Canada and Italy, and podcasts are available through our Web site. It attempts to fill the gaps in the media’s coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing balanced and in-depth reporting, historical perspective, and personal stories. Since its founding in 2005, WNR has greatly enriched US media coverage of the Iraqi and Afghan war by giving voice to Iraqis and Afghans living daily in a war zone. But it has also had a significant impact on Swarthmore and its students, and has even motivated students and teachers beyond the college to seek out new ways and technologies to tell stories that are left out by the mainstream media.

Starting WNR
It would have been difficult to conceive that a group of college students would be able to report about a conflict 6,000 miles away without leaving their peaceful campus. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably the most important events in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, but unlike the Vietnam War, the recent wars don’t have a direct impact on students’ lives, though they will witness the effects for years to come. Dissatisfied by the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflicts, and a sense that Americans weren’t getting the real story about the impact of these wars on ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, a group of dedicated Swarthmore College students launched War News Radio in January 2005.

The brain behind this program was David Gelber, a 1963 Swarthmore graduate, and senior producer at CBS’ 60 Minutes. Gelber, who is also a member of the college’s board of managers, says he was “particularly irritated by the quality of network coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq and of the war itself in 2003 and 2004.” He felt the US media wasn’t really doing a good job at bringing the conflict closer to home, and that there was more to it than just reporting about the everyday violence, suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and the death tolls. There was more to it than just the stories coming from reporters embedded with the military and covering military tactics. He wanted the students to get involved and broaden the scope of the media coverage.

After the idea won support from several college administrators and faculty members, came the first challenge: how to teach the students the basics of journalism. Swarthmore College does not teach journalism, and if the students were to report about the wars, they definitely needed the basics. So Gelber and several other producers organized an intensive journalism workshop for the thirty students who joined this new project, some of whom became founding members of War News Radio. One of those students, Aaron Strong ’06, remembers the event, “Four years ago on a snowy day in January, fresh from a lengthy winter break, a small group of Swarthmore students, myself among them, huddled in an office space and started talking about media coverage of the Iraq war. We had all signed up to be a part of this new project–a radio show covering the “untold stories” of the Iraq war, and, well, we knew what we wanted to do, but we had no idea what we were doing.” The vision for the program was clear: to tell the stories of ordinary people who experienced the conflict firsthand, and were living with its effects. But how would these undergraduate students find these people and interview them?

That turned out to be easier than expected. With Google and online phone directories, it was fairly easy to find Iraqis living in particular parts of the country. In fact, Robert Fisk, one of the best journalists covering conflicts in the Middle East, described this as a kind of “hotel journalism.” “More and more Western reporters in Baghdad” he writes in a survey of media coverage in Iraq, “are reporting from their hotels rather than the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities.”1 If the journalist in Iraq could prepare his or her reports by relying on phone interviews, Swarthmore students could do that as well. And they did. The first shows ranged from pieces about challenges getting a decent phone line to Iraq to conduct an interview to anti-war protests and profiling government contractor companies.

Challenges in Developing WNR
Initially college administrators and faculty explored the idea of incorporating War News Radio into the college curriculum, where students involved in the program could receive credit for their broadcast work. Students took courses through the film and media studies department and completed required readings on the Middle East. However, it was hard to do both things at the same time and the college stopped giving credit, which made the show more focused on reporting. And then it became clear that an experienced journalist was needed to guide the students.

Marty Goldensohn became WNR‘s Journalist-in-Residence in 2005. Goldensohn, a veteran award-winning broadcast journalist, with a career in radio spanning more than three decades, shared his rich experience with the students. He instilled in the young student-journalists the confidence to call up US senators and generals, Iraqi politicians, and complete strangers–ordinary Iraqis and Afghans–asking them to share their stories about living every day in a war zone. Hansi Lo Wang ’09, a senior producer at WNR, says that to have the confidence to do such interviews, Goldensohn asked us to “ordain ourselves as journalists,” and to “mumble with authority.” Students took these words to heart, and that gave them the confidence a journalist needs.

Goldensohn was also innovative in employing new technology to connect the students with Iraqis and Afghans. He introduced Skype, allowing students to make free voice calls over the Internet. Another great feature of Skype is that one can search for users by country and language, which enabled the students to reach out to even more people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students captured the audio from those interviews through software called Audio Hijack. This made it possible for students to conduct interviews using just a Mac computer. Though this technology was very effective, it also had limitations. Students could only interview people who had access to the Internet, for example. And without translators, students could only interview English speakers, which limited them to the well-educated middle class, whose opinion wasn’t necessarily representative of the larger society.

Despite these issues, the students were becoming better reporters and the show became more professional as it moved to a weekly format. Stations throughout the U.S. began to take interest in what WNR was covering as the shows were uploaded to Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a Web-based platform for digital distribution, review, and licensing of radio programs. Students’ reports were now being heard by thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. With this publicity, students felt increasingly responsible for meeting weekly deadlines and producing a high quality program. Currently staff members contribute more than twenty hours of work into every show, and Thursday nights often extend into early Friday morning, as students refine their pieces and collaborate on producing a twenty-nine-minute show that is true to the program’s mission.

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Photo of a staff member sound editing an interview. (Swarthmore College)

War News Radio is a huge undertaking for students. It requires a sizable time commitment that sometimes interferes with coursework. Interviews often take multiple phone calls over several days to complete because it is difficult to get a decent phone line and record an audible interview. Calls often take place after midnight because it is nearly half a day later in Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes things even harder for students are the frustrations they face in reporting about a conflict that is increasingly harder to grasp in its complexities.

The biggest challenge, however, remains financial. WNR continues to be funded by Swarthmore President’s Office and the College’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and has not yet raised much new money to support itself. But as Vice President Maurice Eldridge notes, the program has done much for the college. In addition to placing Swarthmore on the map, it has boosted the number of applicants. WNR is “one of two or three things that have influenced applicants to the college, so that people who want to come to Swarthmore and have to write the essay: “Why Swarthmore?” one of the most frequently cited things in the last few years has been War News Radio,” Eldridge says.

Educational Impact at Swarthmore and Beyond
For the students involved in the project, the rewards are clear and keep them going during their everyday frustrations with logistical and production issues. Part of it has to do with the uniqueness of the program. Eva Barboni ’07, a former producer of the show, felt it enriched her academic studies in international politics. “In my political science classes, I was exposed to the arguments of prominent political thinkers about the war. At War News Radio, I could speak directly with the everyday Iraqis, American soldiers and politicians who were making the news about which these thinkers were writing. These two parts of my education, working together, gave me a fuller understanding of the war and international politics than I could have gotten just in the classroom.”

Wren Elhai ’08, a former host of WNR, believes the program has exposed students to one of the most important geographical areas in the world today, but also influenced the way they communicate information to the larger public. “War News Radio has shaped the way I write, the way I talk, and the way I think. Every time I put aside a fancy, unnecessarily dense turn of phrase for a simpler one, or ask myself ‘how would you say that in plain English?’ I thank War News Radio,” Elahi writes.

The experience has also influenced students’ professional choices. After working for a year and a half, Reuben Heyman-Kantor ‘06 is now a broadcast news producer at CBS. “Without the skills and direction I gained from the year and a half I spent at War News Radio, I would not be where I am today,” writes Heyman-Kantor. The use of the Internet in journalism has been particularly important, as Alan Smith ’05, who worked on the show from its inception, is quick to emphasize. “What we in some ways pioneered,” says Smith, “has become commonplace: the idea of using the Internet to re-make the way stories are told and to re-imagine who gets to be the storytellers about a war. Thinking about the Internet, and how it is changing and will change journalism, has become the focus of a television show that I produce ever week with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, and it has become one of the most important and highly debated concerns in the journalism industry.” Other WNR staff members have gone to work for 60 Minutes, Marketplace, and WNYC public radio. Amelia Templton ’06, who was part of the program from the start, has taken a different direction. She now serves as a refugee policy analyst for Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization, with a special focus on the plight of Iraqi refugees.

War News Radio has also inspired like-minded projects on other campuses. It served as a model for students to investigate the conflict in Sudan through Sudan Radio Project, Chinatown Youth Radio Philadelphia, and most recently the Swarthmore Migration Project, an online multimedia project raising awareness about migration issues. Zachary Fryer-Biggs, who volunteered to work for WNR in 2006, founded The Epoch, an international affairs magazine with funding from his school, St. John’s College, a small liberal arts college in Annapolis. He says his magazine was about “applying War News Radioon a global scale.” In 2006 students in the “Global News Analysis” class taught at St. Lawrence University created The Weave, a public intellectual project that brings together a range of perspectives on local, national and global issues and on mainstream and independent media coverage of those issues. War News Radio inspired them to create The Weave.

War News Radio has also become an educational tool for both high schools and colleges. Social sciences teacher Jeff MacFarland uses it in his classes at Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, PA. He writes: “I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy that Americans are not getting many of the real stories on the ground in Iraq and I use [WNR] to show the students there are many different perspectives on issues beyond CNN or Time. I pattern the class’s unit project around a War News Radio report and ask the students to portray their unique viewpoints through an online technology called VoiceThread. This allows them to be reporters crafting the story behind an issue they research and back up this story with poignant visuals. In short, War News Radio is central to my teaching on the war in Iraq.” Dr. Brad Nason, a media professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology is also a fan. “I’ve played it in my classes before as an example of quality, in-depth journalism. Second, it offers a perspective that traditional media don’t give.” It’s been cited in THiNK, a textbook for undergraduate students in logic and critical thinking, by Judith Boss. Asked why she used the show, Boss replies, “I used War News Radio to illustrate creative thinking and innovation in the use of the media, as well as the limitations of traditional mass media.” WNR is even listed as a resource on the Foreign Policy Association Web site, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the American public to learn more about the world.

It is remarkable and gratifying for us to see how influential WNR has been in just four short years. In fulfilling a simple mission–to make some kind of difference in the world by giving voice to those who would not be heard otherwise–WNR has been particularly effective in empowering students and motivating them to empower others. It serves as medium to expand beyond the abstract experience, and to bring some of the most abstract experiences into concrete realities. It has deepened the liberal arts learning into one full of self-discovery and increased the potential for communicating information to a large public in very exciting and challenging ways. WNR is the product of some innovative thinking, generous institutional support, and very dedicated students. With those simple ingredients, projects like War News Radio can happen in any liberal arts setting.

Notes
Interviews for this article were conducted by several WNR staff members through the Internet. I conducted the interviews with Vice President Maurice Eldridge and David Gelber.
1. Robert Fisk, “Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand as the press shelters indoors,” The Independent, January 17, 2005, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/hotel-journalism-gives-american-troops-a-free-hand-as-the-press-shelters-indoors-487023.html. [return to text]

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