Hearts and Minds
Bert Kleinman ’63 leads U.S. efforts to connect with
people of the Middle East through television, radio
By Telis Demos ’04
The headquarters of the U.S. government’s campaign
to win the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East
is not in Iraq, Afghanistan or even the Pentagon. Instead,
it’s in a nondescript brown building in the leafy suburb of
Springfield, Va., a few miles outside Washington, D.C.
Inside is a busy and colorful news studio, which appears like
any other — until one hears classical Arabic, rather
than English, being spoken by the anchors delivering
headlines of the day’s news. The clocks don’t
say “Chicago” or “Los
Angeles,” but “Casablanca” and “Baghdad.” The
cut-out map glowing behind the anchor desk is of the
Middle East, not North America.
Bert Kleinman ’63 works to change the
media landscape in the Middle East.
This is where Bert Kleinman ’63
works. Kleinman is president of the Middle East Broadcasting
Network, a U.S. government-owned nonprofit corporation. MBN
broadcasts Alhurra, a satellite television network, and Radio
Sawa, an FM station in Arabic, throughout the Middle East.
Sawa and Alhurra have been called the “centerpieces
of the Bush administration’s public diplomacy” in
the Middle East. The 9-11 Commission Report, like many senators
and diplomats, argues that media in the region has played
a large role in “reinforcing the jihadist theme” portraying
the United States as anti-Muslim. Changing the media landscape
is considered critical to stemming the spread of radicalism
that can grow into terrorism.
It might seem odd that a former producer of Casey Kasem’s
top-40 hit show is running the media component of America’s
war against terrorism. Kleinman’s career, since graduating
from the College, where he was active in WKCR, has been in
commercial radio, where he produced and consulted for music
stations around the world.
But as Kleinman sees it, he has just the right
expertise for the job. A compact man with smile wrinkles
in the corners of his eyes, bespectacled and bearded like
the archetype of a kindly grandfather, Kleinman emphasizes
that cultural exchange, not politics or battles, defines
what he does. “I’m not a political person, but you don’t
have to be a political person to know that there’s a big disconnect
between people in the Middle East and the United States.”
Kleinman in Moscow’s Red Square.
The networks that Kleinman has helped to build are not political media outlets. They
don’t broadcast glowing reports of American life or long documentaries about
the wonders of democracy. In addition to BBC-like straight news reporting,
the stations broadcast Mariah Carey’s music, talk shows
featuring Arab pundits discussing Islam and the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, and travelogues from Europe or the Gulf states.
This variety, Kleinman hopes, will do more to show what American-style
democracy is about than fiery political rhetoric.
“One of the things about our country that is extremely
attractive around the world — and I’m not really
talking in political terms as much as I am in economic and
social terms — are the old ‘life, liberty and
pursuit of happiness,’ what we consider core American
values. Openness, respect, friendliness, decency, honesty … all
of these things,” he explains. “What we try to
do, beyond the content, is reflect in the character of the
stations what I would consider the best of American values.”
Kleinman meets the Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh
Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Kleinman’s role in American broadcasting to the Middle East began in early 2001.
At the time, the Broadcasting Board of Governors — Presidential
appointees in charge of America’s public broadcasting — decided
that what was being broadcast in the Middle East was dangerous. “The
media environment was hate speech, incitements to violence,
disinformation, government censorship and journalistic self-censorship,” says
Norman J. Pattiz, the governor in charge of the Middle East
and chairman of broadcasting conglomerate Westwood One. “It
was in that environment that the Arab street was getting a
picture of the U.S. government and American culture.”
At the time, Kleinman had just returned from Moscow. He began working in Russia
in the early 1990s, when Westwood One took advantage of glasnost and started
an independent commercial radio station, Radio Maximum.
When Westwood decided to sell the station, Kleinman left
the company and joined a team of Russian investors to buy
it. Together, they built a network of stations around Russia
based on the Radio Maximum model: a blend of American pop
music and Russian-language news designed to engage Western-oriented
youth struggling to reconcile their native culture with
the new world opening to them.
“You don’t have to be a political
person to know that there’s a big disconnect between people
in the Middle East and the United States.”
Kleinman’s interest in foreign culture dates to his College days.
He came to Columbia from Forest Hills, Queens, to study physics, but
like many students of the Core, was attracted to liberal arts. “After
taking Contemporary Civilization, in my second year, I took Oriental
civilization. I fell in love with India, China and Japan.” Since
then, he says, “I’ve
had a great sense for cross-cultural connection.” An alumnus of
the East Asian program, Kleinman studied with Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41,
developing sensitivity to foreign ways of thinking and a love of cultural
studies. Outside of class, he was WKCR’s United Nations correspondent
and a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune.
After a year abroad following graduation, Kleinman, who now has three daughters and
six grandchildren, had an excellent resume in broadcast production and
was married. He dreamed of being an adventurous foreign correspondent
in the Far East, but found that his love of radio — a
hobby since childhood, when his father hosted radio programs designed
for stay-at-home schoolchildren — kept drawing him back to broadcasting.
He began working as a producer at CBS in 1968, and then managed one
of the country’s pioneer album-rock stations, WPLJ in New York,
where he did content syndication in the days before satellites. He finally
landed at Westwood One with Kasem’s show before heading to Russia
In February 2001, Pattiz called Kleinman and asked him
to take a week off and travel with him to the Middle East.
They experienced firsthand much of the vitriol that many Middle Easterners
feel toward the United States. “Have you ever sat down with anybody
who really hated you?” Kleinman recalls. “I learned to keep my cool.”
Kleinman at a bazaar in Tunis.
They decided that the traditional approach of American media would not
work. The Voice of America’s Arabic Service, broadcast in English,
was the region’s NPR: sophisticated with didactic features and
documentaries about U.S. life.
But Kleinman and Pattiz saw that music-based commercial radio was expanding
in the Middle East, threatening to make Voice of America irrelevant.
The Arabic Service’s short-wave broadcasts were soon surpassed by
new networks of FM radio stations playing music and native
cultural content. And when satellite television
exploded, there were many Arabic-language news outlets that didn’t
carry the burden of an American perspective in a region that was becoming
increasingly hostile to Western views. Through the 1990s, Arab satellite
media became the dominant news source. Hundreds of channels were available
through the region’s intergovernmental
satellite broadcasting service, and satellite dishes
could be seen everywhere from cosmopolitan cafes
to Bedouin desert tents.
Pattiz and Kleinman agreed that the best way to get Middle Easterners to tune into an
American-funded radio station wasn’t to try to appeal
to the narrow slice of the population that trusted American media.
Instead, they wanted to apply tried-and-true methods
of audience-building (“private-sector expertise,”
Pattiz calls it) to generate a following for the
station, regardless of what the potential audience
thought of the United States. Women and young people, market research
and focus-group interviews showed, would be more likely to listen
to this new kind of station.
One of the most beloved shows on the Voice of America, Kleinman
loves to point out, was a jazz program. “You can’t get to
the mind before you get to the heart,” he notes, so he designed
a music radio station that plays Western and Arabic pop music side by
side. Most Arabic pop music sounds like easy-listening Western music,
so Kleinman built a rotation that plays artists
such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. He believes that alternating
Western and Arabic songs — rather than
playing a block of one then a block of the other, as it
was typically done — was a crucial improvement.
Kleinman was WKCR's United Nations correspondent.
“I was in a mall in Dubai, during one of my first
trips to the Middle East,” Kleinman recalls. “There was a
woman dressed in black, head to toe, very traditional. She has a kid
on her arm, and he’s wearing a New York Yankees cap and a Chicago
Bulls T-shirt and they’re walking into Chili’s to have lunch.
We can laugh and smile, because it seems like culture clash to us.
But in parts of the Middle East, it really isn’t culture clash.
They are synthesizing their traditions, the world of today and tomorrow.
One of the things that we realized about the younger generation is that
it is very engaged in trying to make decisions about how much of the past
to keep, how much of the future to embrace and how to go into the future without losing
Then, suddenly, Kleinman was no longer just
working on a project he loved. After 9–11, spreading American
cultural goodwill around the region became
a national priority. Within President Bush’s emergency
budgets, millions of dollars were set aside
to expand America’s government-sponsored foreign broadcasting.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, knowing
the importance of satellite television in the
Middle East, decided that the MBN would launch a regional network,
called Alhurra (Arabic for “the
free one”), and later one for Iraq, called Alhurra-Iraq.
Kleinman started with Sawa. The network went on the
air in March 2002, starting as two all-music FM stations in Kuwait
and Jordan. Within three months, the stations expanded to 24 hours
and started broadcasting news, and new stations
were launched in other parts of the region,
including Iraq. Sawa was a quick success: By
August, one survey showed it to be the most popular station in Amman,
Jordan, among young people. Today, it’s broadcast in six streams
to Egypt, the Gulf states, Iraq, Morocco, the Jordan–West Bank
region and Sudan.
Getting Alhurra off the ground
would prove to be much more difficult. When the satellite
network’s first president didn’t work out,
Pattiz turned to Kleinman. Though he wasn’t a television
expert, Kleinman was known for building
audiences, which the network desperately needed. “I wanted
someone who was bright enough to know where we were
going,” Pattiz recalls. “When
it comes to understanding programming and
how to attract and maintain an audience,
Bert is a genius.”
Kleinman started running both Sawa and
Alhurra in August 2003, and he made improving
the popularity of their news broadcasts a top
priority. By then, the Afghanistan and
Iraq wars were well under way, and Middle Eastern attitudes
toward the United States were at a low point.
But Kleinman and Pattiz, now joined by Mouafac
Harb, a Lebanese journalist hired as the company’s vice president
and news editor, believed they had a formula
that worked. “Our job is not to promote U.S. policy,” Pattiz
says. “Our job is to present policy accurately. Our mission
is to be an example of a primary element
of democracy, a free press.” Though
editorial decisions fall to Harb, he and
Kleinman work in symbiosis, calling each
other “habbibi,” an untranslatable Arabicism meaning friend,
buddy or darling.
Kleinman with Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) (left),
the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
and Norman J. Pattiz, the governor in charge of the Middle East
for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, at Alhurra's
Alhurra works on the same basic principles as Sawa, but without
music, movies or sitcoms. It is a “nonfiction” station,
as Kleinman puts it, and features news, travelogues, entertainment reports, sports
and documentaries, but nothing that could be construed as
propaganda designed to “sell” America.
Instead, it focuses on news and life in the Middle
East, discussing it with an American-style
openness and candor, staffed almost exclusively
by Middle Eastern journalists and anchors.
“Any research you do, or anyone you talk to, will tell you that
you’re not going to get a lot of young people to listen to
a lot of news discussion,” Kleinman says. “We try to
balance as best we can our need to broadcast news and entertainment.”
Overall, the channel’s feel is not like a 24-hour news station, which
the Middle East has plenty of — most notably Al Jazeera,
often blamed for inciting anti-American sentiment. “It’s
like a cross between PBS, Bravo, Discovery, A&E, Fox, CNN and
NBC,” Kleinman says. “We are in a distinctive market position, and people
call us a ‘news channel with variety.’ ”
The purpose of Sawa and Alhurra is to present accurate
and contextual news and information about the region, including about
what the United States is doing there. Alhurra covered
Iraqi voting and the Iraqi parliament’s
first sessions in much greater depth than
other stations in the region. It doesn’t refer to suicide bombers
as “martyrs” and doesn’t call American troops
“occupiers” or insurgents “resistance
fighters.” It also doesn’t lecture or dictate, preferring
to explore tough issues through talk shows
and man-on-the-street features rather than
While the station doesn’t shill for American policy
nor have any editorial restrictions placed
on it by Congress, Alhurra has a distinctly Western feel and perspective. “We
think things like voting and human rights activists are important,” Kleinman
says. “Do we give these more weight than other channels?
Is Alhurra succeeding? That is difficult to measure, because studying audiences in the
Middle East is not simple. The standard methods of random interviews are near impossible
in a region with spotty phone service and few Arabic speakers trained to do interviews.
One of the few surveys that have been done, by AC Nielsen, found that majorities in most
Middle Eastern countries think Alhurra’s news is at least somewhat
reliable, although more still think Al Jazeera and the region’s
other big network, Al Arabiya, are more reliable. But
Alhurra has been ranked well behind other television
networks in terms of viewership.
Harb, however, is patient with the two-year old network; he says that what distinguishes
Alhurra — respect for the audience — will make it a more appealing choice
as movements for openness and democracy gain appeal in the region. “I
believe there is Jazeera fatigue,” he says. “We hope by providing
good journalism, we can make Arab channels more like us. The more that movement
grows, the more our audience grows.”
“This ain’t just a job,” Kleinman says. “It energizes
me. I am extremely fortunate, and certainly the work that I’m doing
now is among the most important that I’ve done in my life.”
Telis Demos ’04, former Spectator editor-in-chief, is a
reporter at Fortune Magazine.