Building togetherness on the air

Dubai Today presenter Jessica Swann wins accolades for sharing the airwaves with prominent people who have insights to share, an approach which has turned out to be a powerful way to help build a sense of community in a bustling metropolis.

Dubai , United Arab Emirates- February, 7 , 2011 ;   Jessica Swann, radio presenter  pose during the interview at  the Studio City  in Dubai.  ( Satish Kumar / The National )
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DUBAI // On broadcast days, the host of Dubai Eye's popular morning show Dubai Today says she has to be an "ueber-multitasker".

Jessica Swann, a 36-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, regularly juggles her on-air duties on the daily radio news and current affairs programme with running her production desk and planning for future shows, prepping studio guests, and interacting with listeners over the phone, via text message and on Twitter, where she has more than 2,600 followers. She also serves as deputy head of programming for the radio station.

Sitting down after wrapping a recent edition of her show, Ms Swann could not help but smile.

"I love it so much," she said. "This job has been amazing and it has given me so many opportunities. It has been the best experience."

When she took over as the primary host of Dubai Today last year, she wanted the show to give the city a sense of "togetherness" she felt was lacking.

"The only way to do that was to bring the community into the studio," she said. "So I decided to take a different co-host each day and give people the chance to talk about what they wanted."

Now her regular co-hosts include Samineh Shaheem, a cross-cultural psychologist, Alexander McNabb, a blogger and techno-geek and Dr Raymond Hamdan, a clinical and forensic psychologist.

Wael al Sayegh, a cultural consulant, and Lubna Habib, who presents 20 Something and City Wrap on Dubai One, have also appeared on the show.

Recently, when one of her co-hosts cancelled on her on with less than 24 hours notice, she turned to Twitter - a tool she uses extensively and believes has "revolutionised the way of doing talk-back radio" - to find a replacement. Her followers voted for Mohamed al Awadhi, founder of the popular shawarma restaurant Wild Peeta.

"Social media has played a huge role in broadcasting," she said. "I got on Twitter two years ago and I said from then that it was the way forward."

Although tabloids were the first to pick up on Twitter, she said, broadsheets and 24-hour news channels are increasingly using it for a variety of purposes. "Now even the more discerning media are using it," she said.

Ms Swann believes that two keys to radio success are knowing when to be quiet and striving to look her best on the job. "A good presenter needs to know how to listen," she said. "What you wear is also important, it has a direct impact on the way you communicate with people and the words you choose. It doesn't matter if people can't see you. It's like when you can tell someone is smiling on the other end of the phone."

Her show is broadcast from 10am to noon, Sunday to Thursday, from Studio City to 110,000 listeners, she says.

One of her favourite guests so far has been Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of the American Muslim civil rights activist Malcolm X.

Mr Shabazz spent several years in juvenile detention on manslaughter and arson charges in connection with the death of his grandmother, Malcolm X's widow. He was on the show last November after completing his first Haj pilgrimage and again this week for a show about activism.

"I was able to delve in to his history and his life," she said. "We talked about the FBI, the Nation of Islam and how he did time for killing his grandmother Betty Shabazz. It was fascinating."

Alan Devereux, the executive producer on Business Breakfast, which precedes Dubai Today, praised his colleague of four years for maintaining "an open mind, seeking new ideas" and her ability to stay calm and unruffled under pressure.

"Professionally she is a terrier and an extremely ambitious one," he added.

Vasti Raftopoulos, producer for the Business Tonight programme, called Ms Swann a friend and a colleague.

"I absolutely adore her," she said. "She is inspirational and intelligent and extremely dedicated to her work."

Ms Swann has a double major in media, communications and business marketing from Swinburne University in Melbourne, and interned with ABC in Salt Lake City before moving to the Middle East. She also plans to earn a 12-month post-graduate diploma in arts research, then pursue doctorate that will examine how Islam and Muslims are represented in the mainstream media.

"I have always been fascinated with religion, politics and anthropology," she said. "Post 9/11 I remember being extremely disheartened with the mainstream press. I expected more, especially of the business publications, however all I saw were words like fundamentalism, jihad and extremism. The basic angle was that Islam and Muslims were systematically taking down the world. I knew inherently it wasn't right."

That interest in the region grew and in 2004 she moved to Bahrain to work for Gulf Air, later going on to join the staff of a Saudi sheikh in Riyadh.

"It was like being handed a golden goose," she said. "It was getting to the heart of my area of interest. I could feel the history around me and I soaked up the atmosphere. I even wore the niqab for a while to experience what it was like. It was fascinating."

After a brief stint in London working for the Saudi ambassador for Spain, Ms Swann returned to Dubai at the end of 2006 and landed her broadcasting job with Dubai Eye.

"I don't expect to be a change catalyst, just a cog in a wheel, but each little bit helps," she said. "I think you have to believe you are part of a collective and if there is something you are passionate about, then why not do it?"