The Arab Advisors Group has just released an informative report on the Arab FM radio market. From the press release:
Not unlike the Sat TV boom, the Arab World is undergoing an FM radio station boom. The FM radio industry, which is local and not pan-Arab by definition, still has some regionally focused operators. The landscape is made up of local FM stations for the most part and the numbers are projected to sky rocket as more countries allow private FM radio operations in the coming few years. UAE and Algeria have the most crowded state-owned FM radio environment in the region. The UAE leads with 19 radio stations operating under five networks. Algeria follows UAE with 17 radio stations operating under the states Radio-Télévision Algérienne (RTA) network. On the privately owned stations, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq lead the region with 23, 17 and 10 operational private FM radio stations respectively.
This highlights what has always been one of the major flaws of the Radio Sawa pop-music driven project (besides the fact that there is no evidence that it has any impact on political attitudes, and that it helped kill the VOA). Sawa succeeded initially at attracting audiences - unlike the disastrous al-Hurra TV - because it filled an open niche: good pop music on the FM band, which was hard to find in many Arab countries. But success breeds competition. When Sawa was launched, I predicted that within a couple of years local competitors would emerge which would have just as good music, but without the problematic American government connection. That now seems to be happening.
The first time I heard Sawa playing in a Jordanian taxi, I asked the driver what he thought about listening to an American-funded radio station, and he looked at me like I had just asked him how he had liked that donkey-excrement sandwich he just ate... but then admitted that he did like the music, so to heck with the politics. I'd expect that he's now listening to - or will soon be listening to - a local station, once he can get the music he wants there.
Meanwhile, the BBC has just signed a joint production deal with the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, which will allow the Beeb to broadcast on the FM band in Egypt for the first time. It will be interesting to see if that fills the void created by the VOA's death, giving politically minded Egyptian elites an FM radio station with high quality news and reporting. Something the US no longer offers.
UPDATE: Lina's comment is so useful that I'm elevating it to the main post:
Two years ago I did a survey on campus that included 150 students on their radio station preferences, and back then it was almost a tie between Sawa and our local Fan FM (which was launched sometime after Sawa with the same if not better pop music base). Now however, I don't think I'm exaggerating if I tell you that Sawa is almost out of the competition; the FM station boom in Jordan has been very interesting to observe...today that taxi driver would probably be listening to Sawt Al-Ghad, a lebanese-owned station broadcasting in Amman, one of many new choices.
Fan is still quite popular, then you have Majaz, Rotana, and the English-language stations Mood FM, Beat FM, Play FM... and those are just the ones I can remember!
Personally I hope the next step will be to have more content-based local stations, not entirely music-centric. AmmanNet is doing that nicely, so let's hope they're successful enough to spur some competition.
Anyone in other Arab countries with an opinion on the local FM offerings - please share!!