Profile: Yahala Voice Radio, bringing America’s Arabs together
By Ray Hanania
There have been many efforts to launch a successful radio program for the Arab community but none has been as successful as Yahala Voice, a new radio station that is broadcast internationally online 24 hours each day and also on local Chicago radio on 1450 WCEV AM in English and Arabic.
The show offers a wide range of programming which may account for its success and popular appeal and is run by a partnership of three people, Taha Ateyah, a well known Internet developer, and Mohamed Ateyah, who is Taha’s brother and business manager, and businessman Ahmed Salem. Reyad Ajour, a longtime journalist and radio personality from Gaza, who worked in Gaza, Ramallah and Italy, also manages the programming. The morning show host, Dareen Salah, is an experienced journalist from Syria.
The radio station was launched in November 2012 online at www.YahalaVoice.com and this month is celebrating its one-year anniversary.
Three months ago, Yahala Voice Radio expanded to include a live radio broadcast of a segment of its online programming on WCEV 1450 AM Radio, programs that include hosts who interact directly with listeners.
Programs include live talk Monday through Friday between 4 and 6 PM hosted by Reyad Ajour and other co-hosts that dissect the day’s news or explore community events, or address topics ranging from the Middle East to health issues in Chicago.
Taha Ateyah, 39, explains the project comes from recognizing a community need to engage American Arabs not just in Chicago but around the country, even with listeners in many foreign countries including in the Middle East and Europe.
“We come from a technology background and my brother, Mohamed, and a third partner Ahmed Salem, got together and recognized that we needed a community radio voice for the Arab community. We have a good mix. We wanted to model it after American radio station,” explained Taha Ateyah, Yahala Voice’s Vice President running the day-to-day operations of the radio broadcast.
“We thought about what is missing from our community and what can we do from a technology standpoint to help us. We recognized that our community is missing a media component. The Arabic speaking community and the new generation need something to help them engage in their culture and their heritage.”
Originally from Yemen and born in California, Ateyah studied computer engineering and technology and then came to Chicago in 2003 where he launched his own technology business, eInteractive Solutions which continues to provide Internet and Web design and management services.
Taha Ateyah explains that the goal was to provide programming that offers something to everyone. He says that like any business with a commitment to the public interests, you can’t satisfy everyone, but you can try.
“We try to reach everyone but we recognize that some will like one thing and others will like something else. So we offer a variety of programs. And we think that is what separates us,” Ateyah explains.
“From the beginning we said we want to be balanced. We want to be more of an entertainment radio station rather than religious or political. The focus is to have a fun environment and to reach the new generation and get them involved in their culture and their heritage.”
Ateyah asserts what many American Arabs have been arguing for years, that after being in this country for more than 160 years, the community does not have a strong enough voice in American society.
The parent company is Yahala Media Corporation but it has four specific business subsidiaries: Yahala Voice, radio communications; eInteractive Solutions, web site design; Assist My Marketing; a marketing and advertising division; and, EatNow Network, an online ordering platform for restaurants.
In launching Yahala Voice, Ateyah said he and his brother Mohammed, and his business partners asked the key question that many American Arabs have also been asking for years, “Why don’t we have a successful media presence in Chicago or in this country?”
“We know we can do it from our side. We know we have the talent. We know we have the issues that need to be discussed and addressed openly with the community,” Ateyah explains.
Social media is a big part of the project, Atiyeh says. And the community has responded strongly with support and encouragement. Yahala Voice has a Facebook Fan Page that has more than 59,000 “Likes,” one of the highest of any regional Arab related Facebook effort. And the numbers of “Likes,” a system set up by Facebook to allow people to support projects through their online social media system, continues to grow robustly.
“Part of our ideas is to involve the social media heavily because it is the new generation and the new generation uses it on a daily basis. That is how they communicate and we have to communicate with them the way they communicate. That is a top priority of our radio, to be social drive,” Ateyah notes.
“We have great numbers from social media. That has been our best marketing tool we have used so far. Any business needs to use that vertical market of social media. It is a big, big thing for us.”
Ateyah says that Yahala Voice is now looking to expand and eventually offer separate English and Arabic language programming online and on radio.
“The 59,000 Likes on Facebook shows us that there is a need out there. We are targeting something for everyone. We are now coming up with an English station,” Ateyah says.
Live Radio segments will be broadcast on both, eventually when the online broadcast is separated into English and Arabic streams.
“We are almost there. We are working hard. And we plan to move to Step 2, to expand the station to a multi-station radio not just talk to multiple music offerings so we can have people listen to the type of music they like,” Ateyah says.
“By 2015, we are hoping to have 12 to 15 stations broadcasting all over.”
Yahala Voice is probably 70 percent Arabic language programming, Ateyah explains, but is expanding offering programing in English that targets younger American Arabs who speak Arabic but dialogue everyday in English. And English programming also targets non-Arabs, which is an important audience that needs media education about the true face of Arabs and its culture and religions.
“We have noticed we are still needing to reach that new generation which is mostly in English. The only way to reach them is to have a sub station that appeals to them in English. In two months we hope to offer an all English based programming for the new generation that doesn’t speak Arabic,” Ateyah argues.
“The Arabic language is a very strong value in our community. Our concentration will remain on the Arabic side. It is in big demand. They love it. But we think we have to expand and separate the two to reach everyone.”
The first step after launching was to coordinate a live radio broadcast.
“Adding WCEV 1450 AM gave Yahala Voice credibility. We took a prime time slot between 4 pm and 6 pm. The two hours every day is very challenging. It is very costly and it requires a lot of personnel and hosts to make it work. But it also sent a strong signal to the community that we are serious and want to do this professionally and successfully and that opened the door to more support.”
Ateyah says Yahala Voice offers a total of 14 unique shows on radio and online. Much of the programming features Arabic music from Fairuz to Fusion interlaced with talk and specialty discussion programming.
“We are fortunate to have creative people here. We hire creative people here. Our hosts have many years experience in radio from different countries,” Ateyah says pointing to Reyad Ajour who was well known in Palestine through his journalism and radio work in Ramallah.
“I think Yahala Voice’s success is the result of a mix of things; belief, dedication, performance, independence, technology and marketing, meaning we at Yahala Voice believe in the power of media. It is importance and it has a great influence on our people,” Reyad Ajour explains.
“Our message is to inform and educate. We believe in this message. We gathered together a professional young crew, who has passion for media and for the community to make this happen. It’s a crew that believes in the same message and we all have dedicated our efforts and talents to deliver this message.”
Message is everything, Ajour says.
“Our performance when doing anything at the radio is tied by that same message and gathering all efforts to bring something useful and unique in the same time to our audience. Add to that, that we do not work for any side, organization, person, or any political party in particular. We are independent, we follow the journalism and human ethics, our ideology is we are made by the people for the people,” Ajour explains.
“We don’t forget marketing. Because if you do all these good things and make all those efforts but nobody knows about you, then you will not achieve anything, so we went marketing and promoting Yahala Voice very heavily. So, really in the end I believe it is a mix of belief, dedication, performance, independence, technology and marketing.”
Ajour explains that the staff and talent at Yahala Voice spend a lot of time thinking and planning what can be offered.
“When we plan on doing anything on the radio, first thing we put ourselves in the listeners’ shoes and we ask ourselves, will they like it? Will they relate? Will they benefit? If the answer is yes, we go ahead and do it,” Ajour insist.
“We don’t stop there, we are constantly closed to our audience, we always listen to them because if it weren’t for them, we don’t exist. Also Yahala Voice is a Radio station not one single show as previous attempts. it is a complete radio station with 14 different shows plus music.”
Some issues are tougher to talk about than others, both Ateyah and Ajour agree, noting that although we are “Arab,” many cultural and national and political differences are reflected in the American Arab community.
“We did run into the problem of sensitivities and opposing views in the beginning but we try to diffuse it, not take sides and allow people to express themselves,” he says.
“We bring the sensitivity to the listener and at the end of the day, they bring their opinions. We also bring in experienced people and authoritative people to talk about the issues. In the beginning, we were getting that emotion but we learned to diffuse it very quickly. Now, as we have become bigger, it’s not out of the question. We still get some of that anger and emotion but it’s not as big as it was.”
Atiyeh says audience response and public needs help define which issues are discussed in the radio programing each week.
“We get great feedback from listeners, through Facebook, through email and through the telephone. The feedback varies. Sometimes it is sensitive. Sometimes it is sad and emotional. Sometimes it is happy. But that’s why we get so many likes. The community wants to address these issues. We know we have issues in our community so why are we not talking about it,” Ateyah explains.
Atiyeh says that it is sometimes more difficult to address controversial issues in the Arabic language community than it is in the English speaking community.
“It can be challenging,” he shrugs.
Knowing your audience is important and Yahala Voice is identifying its audience through the interaction it receives from listeners, advertisers and through Social Media and face-to-face contacts with listeners.
“Our numbers show the audience is al over. Primarily it is 80 percent based US with 40 percent from the Chicagoland area and the remaining is catered across the United States. Our hope and efforts is to continue to expand and broaden to Michigan, New York and do heavy marketing in each state,” Ateyah says, noting that the next big market they plan to hit is Michigan, where radio programming continues to lag behind.
“The key is to take care of the local market first and get us much listeners as we can and then take it to the next level. Our numbers are very encouraging.”
The good thing about Yahala Voice is it is not just Chicago. It really is the Arab community.
“It can be heard in Palestine, Yemen and every Arabic country and even in Europe. We get listeners from Japan, China and Saudi Arabia which is big numbers for us,” Ateyah says.
“The combination of Arabic language and English language and the variety of the programs we offer is what has made us successful. We talk about the negatives and the stigma in the Arabic community. It is the combination of the two languages. We are stronger in Arabic but adding English has been very important.”
Ateyah says that the little things are important in the media business. The details. The organization. And the product.
“It’s really a fun radio but still serious and can talk about the issues at the end of the day with a nice delivery. Maybe that is our niche. We deliver it in a fun way to all listeners,” Atiyeh says.
“We are always looking for new talent and to bring them in and develop them and teach them and work with them. The technology helps a lot and we stream a lot of that process and it makes it easier for the partners.”
Ajour agrees, concluding, “I think our slogan says it all – ‘Connecting the Arab voice globally.’ Yes, it sounds exaggerating, almost impossible, but again we believe it.”
If you don’t try, you will never know or achieve anything, Ajour says.
“I hope Yahala Voice can reach to every Arab American, Arab German, Arab Italian, Arab Australian, etc. Connect them together, link them with their homeland, wherever it is,” Ajour explains.
“This is a huge thing to achieve. It is our first year in the market now, and we want to be the voice of every Arab American no matter who that be, what religion, what background, what ideology they might have. Yahala Voice is the voice of every Arab American with no exception, is what we hope.”
(Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist, author and former radio talkshow host. He is the managing editor of The Arab Daily News online at http://www.TheArabDailyNews.com.)