Every minute they are listening to us is a minute they are not listening to them.”                                                                                      

– British Major-General Freddie Viggers, Multinational Division South West, Bosnia


A shepherd tending his flock on the outskirts of Kandahar City; a doctor so addicted he installed radios in all wards so he can listen while tending his patients; a listener considered crazy by those who know him because he never leaves home without a portable radio – many radio stations claim a diverse audience but few can match RANA 88.5.

The station, which means ‘light’ in Pashtu, draws an eclectic daily audience over the FM frequency and a wireless network across the city of Kandahar – young, old, professional and illiterate, all tune in for an alternative to the barrage of Taliban propaganda. But while the programming is in Pashtu and the music predominantly Afghan, the signal originates from an unassuming building in Canada.

In countries plagued by illiteracy, radio has long been a deadly weapon – look back no further than Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda or the anti-American propaganda of stations in Somalia. But in a region of Afghanistan where the battle for hearts and minds is complex at the best of times, RANA has opened a window to the streets of Kandahar beyond the sight of Canadian Forces, and permitted Afghans a venue to speak their minds.

The station began with modest intentions – its branding slogan was ‘the light of your life’ – but locals quickly adopted the phrase, ‘the voice of Kandahar,’ said Ivana Previsic, head of programming.

“We didn’t want to do make that claim because it’s arrogant,” admits station manager David Bailey. “But the listeners are saying, you are our voice in Kandahar. They’ve labelled us with it, which is a phenomenal success.”

The station offers a 60-40 mixture of music and talk, and is broadcast live from 6am to 10am local time (a challenge for the Canadian-based staff who have adopted mole-like behaviour to meet the schedule, Bailey says). But the steady stream of text messages and two-way phone conversations has prompted consideration of expanding to more talk radio.

“The success of the station is the interactivity at this early stage,” Bailey said. “At the moment in Kandahar, it’s quite difficult to go outside the wire, to assess people’s impressions and thoughts. And even if we could, peer pressure is severe. When somebody is dressed like Robocop, you’re careful about what you say. This way, we’re able to gauge what people are really thinking.”

To an outsider, Kandahar may not look the bastion of technology but the city has had wireless coverage for the past four years and Afghans are remarkably tech savvy. “When we started this, every expert had an opinion – ‘they won’t have radios; they’re not web-enabled or connected; there’s no power,’” acknowledges MGen Stuart Beare, commander of Land Forces Doctrine and Training Systems. “The irony is that it’s a cell phone culture, Kandahar is a wireless network and, despite the level of illiteracy, people are hugely networked.”

RANA has become a sounding board, a way for some listeners to express frustration that would not otherwise be possible. The station recently added news segments and provides information from either the CF or listeners on the location of IEDs or reminders about keeping a distance from military convoys. The CF also provides a Canadian context to why the force is in Afghanistan.

Bailey believes more open talk shows would enhance their credibility. “Right now they can send messages straight into the studio, say what they want, give their opinions quite openly and we actually talk to them – we give them their voice on air. They have not got the ability with any other radio station in Afghanistan to ring up anonymously and say what they really think. And they believe RANA at the moment. It’s still early days to know what we’ve got in terms of percentage of reach, audience hours, etc, but the early signs are amazingly exciting.”

While the station does not publicize its origin, neither does it hide it. When listeners ask, presenters are honest about where the signal originates and who is providing it. “We haven’t had anybody put the phone down [when they find out we’re Canadian],” Bailey said. “They feel quite comfortable with Canada at the moment but they are confused, because they don’t really see Canada in the streets – just another camouflaged soldier. They don’t see the Canadian flag.“

Though the station applies all the principles of commercial radio, there are no plans to compete for local advertising. “We have a format that would be easily recognized anywhere in North America,” Bailey said. “But competing for ads can become a huge negativity; you can be accused of destroying a growing independent media base.”

The Canadian Force’s first significant foray into private broadcast began in the Balkans as part of NATO’s mission in the 1990s. The CF may have been tasked with enforcing the conditions of the Dayton Accords but there was a tacit understanding of the need to encourage stability. Though the mission statement never changed, operations were adapted with a view to the future.

“We knew that we needed to target the next generation,” said Beare, who served in the UN Protection Force headquarters in Zagreb and as Chief of Staff in the Bihac Area Command in the early 1990s, and later as commander of the Canadian, British and Dutch Multi-National Brigade based in Banja Luka in 2003-2004. “We needed to create the compelling desire from within the people themselves to reject the status quo, to reject the legacies, to want something better and to compel their leaders to provide it to them.

“You don’t do that by being blunt and by being obvious. You do it by educating, informing, and by proving another thing to listen to. In the Balkans, we became good at broadcast and print operations. It allowed listeners and readers to think about different things, and to educate themselves.”

Not long after being deployed to Kandahar, the CF realize it needed a similar approach in Afghanistan. ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, operated a massive information campaign, which included radio, but it was Kabul-centric.

“It was obvious to those of us with experience in the Balkans that we were competing for the hearts and minds of those who could create the compelling demand for enduring change,” Beare said. “We needed to provide the people with an alternative that was not Taliban or extremist-motivated. We needed to provide them with something that allows them to consider other options, and do it in a culture that was theirs and a medium that was theirs. Broadcast became the one that for a small amount of human and financial effort created a big footprint.”

With the station’s early success, the CF is considering expanding that footprint beyond Kandahar City. “Frankly, we’re only limited by equipment,” Beare said.

Expansion, however, does not mean a move to Kandahar. “RANA belongs to the Task Force commander to use. It’s his tool, and the only reason it’s based in Canada is to balance the security component – the more successful you become, the more heat you might get.”

The Balkans media operation was just one component in a multinational mission – broadcast was a partnership with the British and the Dutch – but when the mission ended so too did the capability. That is an experience Beare does not intend to repeat. “We’re creating the baseline capability. Broadcast is involved in operations, but there is now a school house to support it into the future. And now we have a place in Canada to ensure we can sustain broadcast as a normal and essential operational tool for the future.“