When Palestinian social entrepreneur Maysoun Odeh and Swiss businessman and philanthropist Yann Borgstedt conceived the idea of establishing the first women’s radio station in the Arab world, and of all places in Ramallah (Occupied Palestine), many were sceptical.
Odeh had already cut her teeth in the radio business, having established and managed the first English-language radio station in the region, with studios in Ramallah and Jerusalem. It was 93.6 RAM FM, a South African Project, that sought to create a bridge for dialogue, in a neutral language, between the two sides in the conflict.
After being on air for two years, like so many noble initiatives, it met a premature end. Odeh even landed up in a prison in Occupied Jerusalem, before the eventual closure.
Yann Borgstedt’s Womanity Foundation came with a reputation for successes in Afghanistan, India, Brazil and Morocco in supporting women empowerment projects. Partnering with Odeh, he launched Nisaa (which means woman in Arabic) FM in June 2010 — a radio station that entertains with Arabic and English music, informs on women-related issues, inspires with success stories of local and diaspora Palestinian women, but most of all, empowers a segment of Palestinian society by providing it with a media platform.
“Radio Nisaa has connected sisters in a land occupied and divided by walls and checkpoints”, Odeh, the managing director says, adding, “We are not a feminist station but this is a patriarchal and male-dominated society, so change has to come about by addressing men as well. We consider men equal partners in a common struggle and not competitors.”
In a short time, Nisaa FM has not only found a niche market but also has become a station of choice for a wide spectrum of Palestinian listeners because of an element of professionalism manifest in its programming and content, which others are now emulating.
As Odeh explains, “By focusing on diverse issues — from labour laws and women rights, celebrity gossip and poverty to taboo subjects such as honour killings — the station now leads the way.”
Odeh attributes this success to the team: “We are all passionate and committed. Personally, I am the manager, programme supervisor, marketing and sales executive all rolled into one.
Our presenters do their own producing and operate the studio equipment all on their own, which we do not view as a burden but as serious empowerment.” She adds, “We operate on a small budget with a lean and mean team and we are making a success of it.”
The popular breakfast show, “Qahwa Mazboot” is presented by Nisreen Awad, who comes from Kalandia Refugee Camp. Trained in all aspects of radio by an expert, Awad nowadays does her own research, production, engineering and presenting, and proudly says, “I am a one-woman show!”
Borgstedt, the chairperson of “Womanity Foundation”, does not want Nissa FM to become yet another Palestinian NGO, dependent on donor monies and slipping into complacency, stating emphatically, “I want it to grow and be a self-sustaining business, leading the way in a difficult economic environment. I have provided only the seed-capital and it is imperative that the business generates its own income soon.”
The reality is, in Occupied Palestine the FM frequency is saturated, with signal deficiencies caused by local and regional stations, and businesses survive in extremely difficult circumstances.
Therefore companies’ budgets for radio advertising are minimal, with many stations vying for it. For Odeh, these difficulties are challenges. “We at Nissa feed on these difficulties and perceive them as the source of our creativity and motivation,” she says.
In the past two years, Odeh has become an Ashoka Fellow and a Synergos Arab Social Innovator for her achievements, and the presenters have been recognised for their efforts, with sponsored overseas visits and training. Recently Odeh was accorded membership of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Plans are in place to increase staff, with additional programmes. Odeh explains: “Presently, we provide ‘news headlines’. We have women community reporters in various West Bank villages, including one in Gaza City, who provide us with news reports. But we would like to set up our own newsroom with independent news. That is a costly exercise and it requires funds, which we do not have at present, so we have put this on the back burner.”
According to Odeh, radio has had a new lease of life with social media. “We stream on www.radionisaa.net and our Facebook page is pretty active. I believe that people today have become news producers and no longer only consume. This is an interesting development that we at Nissa are working on to maximise,” she says.
On the day I visited the station, Nissa FM was full of female university students studying media. “We provide on-the-job training and it’s a win-win, as we have also discovered talent that is now employed at the station,” Odeh told me.
Since its beginning, many notables have visited the station, but Odeh says, “Our most important guest was Ambassador Melanne Verveer, appointed by President Barack Obama as the first American ambassador for women affairs.” She adds that Ambassador Verveer was highly impressed with such an initiative in Occupied Palestine.
On the business side, it has been an uphill battle for Nissa. Odeh, always undeterred, says, “We now seek companies in the region, which have an interest in the opportunities that Occupied Palestine provides, to advertise on Nissa FM, especially as women are the decision makers in purchases here.”
In reality, the challenge for Palestinian women is unique. Their struggle is twofold: the obstacles they face within society itself, intertwined with the daily pain of living under the harsh Israeli occupation, and Nissa FM is just the tonic they need — entertainment, information, inspiration, and hope for a better future.
Borgstedt and his Womanity Foundation have been so impressed with the success of Nissa FM that they seek to replicate the model elswhere in the Arab world. Plans are at an advanced stage to do so, beginning in Cairo.
Rafique Gangat, author of Ye Shall Bowl on Grass, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.