A revolution on the airwaves: after Al Qaeda, radio in Yemen's Mukalla is experiencing a renaissance

More than 12 new radio stations have popped up across Mukalla since UAE-backed forces ousted Al Qaeda from the city

During epidemics or cyclones, local health officials turn to local radios to disseminate vital health information. Saeed Al Batati for The National.
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When Al Qaeda stormed the city of Mukalla in Yemen's south-eastern province of Hadramout in April 2015, there were two community radio stations: one government-run, and the other a private health radio called Salamatik. Those stations were shut down during Al Qaeda's year-long reign over the city.

But much has changed in the three years since the city was liberated, and one of the most important transformations has happened on the airwaves. A total of 12 radio stations now operate in Mukalla, reaching thousands of listeners across the city and further afield, in the coastal areas of the province.

Muna Hassan, a fresh media graduate, works at health community radio Salamatk. Saeed Al Batati for The National.

Journalists at those stations say their programmes mean they can spread awareness about vital issues such as education and disease, and prepare locals for destructive cyclones that often hit Yemen's coastal areas.

Located in a 24-square-metre room in downtown Mukalla, Nama was established in June 2016, two months after Al Qaeda was ousted from the city.

Majedi Bazyad, the radio's manager, is proud of the organisation, boasting that they broke the "one voice policy" the state-run radio station had dictated for the five decades it monopolised the airwaves. "Nama has not only attracted a large number of listeners, but has become a training centre for dozens of budding journalists," Bazyad says, adding that the station primarily appeals to the city's young people, and has given them a platform to discuss their daily worries.

Majedi Bazyad, centre, the manager of Nama radio station, with two of his journalists. He says community radios in Al Mukallah have played a critical role in spreading important information about diseases.  Saeed Al Batati for The National

However, three years after its inception, the room that hosts the station reflects the difficulties it is facing. There is no soundproof booth and a female broadcaster is speaking near a noisy door, as the editor, Bazyad, sits in the same room with an audio mixer engineer and other journalists. "We have been moving from one place to another over the last three years due to financial problems," Bazyad tells me. "At the beginning, I asked for financial help from the former governor of Hadramout to build the radio. I worked with five journalists. The broadcast schedule lasted for three hours."

But annoyed by the radio's criticism of the state, the governor cut off the financial subsidies and Bazyad was forced to consider closing down the station.

In the end, a much-needed bail out came from an international organisation, which Bazyad preferred not to name.

"[They] agreed to come to the aid of Nama when they heard about our role in spreading awareness in society," he says.

Salah Al Amari, Salamatik's manager, says his radio is in need of funding to replace the radio’s current FM transmitter with a bigger one that would cover the entire coastal area of Hadramout. 

The fund is being used to pay for the building rental, which has increased each year, and 10 journalists who keep the radio on air from 8am to 2pm daily. But for Bazyad to expand the radio's coverage and broadcast hours, he needs at least a further 300,000 Yemeni rials (Dh4,401) per month, and a new FM radio transmitter.

But Nama is just one example of an increasing number of radio stations that have emerged in Mukalla over the past three years. One reason for the rapid growth in new stations is the peace and tranquillity that residents of Mukalla and other neighbouring cities have enjoyed since UAE-backed Yemeni troops ousted Al Qaeda militants in April 2016. It has also become cheaper to establish a new station, thanks to new affordable Chinese transmitters and easier licensing procedures.

During the heyday of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, journalists were asked to send their licence application to Sanaa. Most of them were rejected. "They just simply tell you: 'we cannot allow you to set up a radio. It is a sovereign decision,'" Bazyad tells me. But now, local journalists can apply for a licence at the provincial office of the Ministry of Information in Mukalla, and get their application approved within a short period of time.

Community radios in Al Mukallah discuss in their daily shows issues like skyrocketing fish prices, long power cuts, underage marriage and shortage of fuel. Saeed Al Batati for the National.

Suher Saleh, a journalist at Nama, has been presenting a live programme for the past three years. She feels indebted to the radio for honing her skills and putting her in touch with listeners. "Without Nama, I would not have been known to the public. Working here is enjoyable. We spread peace, love and happiness," she tells The National.

Not far from Nama, Salamatik is another community radio station playing a role in disseminating health messages to the public. Salamtik is Arabic for "hope you feel better". Established in 2013 by the Hadramout Cancer Foundation, an NGO funded by local charities, Salamatik enjoys slightly better facilities than Nama.

There's a soundproof booth and a small room for mixing, editing and recording, there is also a separate room for recording interviews. Salah Al Amari, Salamatik's manager and a former director of the province's office of the Ministry of Information, says the radio focuses on spreading messages on health, education and development through its broadcasting time of 4pm to 8pm.

"We aim to promote awareness about cancer and drugs, innovations and local traditions," Al Amari says. Like Nama, Salamatik has trained dozens of local university journalism graduates. "We trained 75 journalists in 2018 and 2019," he says proudly. "Those journalists are now anchors at Hadramout TV and other media outlets."

In October, Salamatik will extend its broadcasting times to include five more hours in the morning, to extensively cover activities related to the annual breast cancer awareness campaign. But the station isn't without its struggles, and more funding would always be welcome, to improve the quality and quantity of what is being produced.