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September 22, 2005

Iranian.com turns 10

The following is the original text of Afshin Molavi's email interview with Jahanshah Javid. See the Persian translation in Washington Prism:

What prompted you to start Iranian.com?

In 1995 I was 33 and living in New York, working for a monthly magazine called Iran Business Monitor. I was also the presenter of an Iranian cable TV show about culture and travel in Iran called "Majalleh-ye Aftab" (Aftab Magazine), which was recorded twice a month in a small studio in Manhattan.

Both outfits were funded by the Iranian government. This was at a time when my ties to the Islamic Republic had been reduced to a few former supporters of the revolution like myself. I wanted a complete break and move forward.

My intense desire to be independent, as well as the vast possibilities presented by a free and open society like the United States convinced me to start a magazine of my own. I had already been a journalist for almost 15 years and completed my degree in media studies at Hunter College in Manhattan. This was a chance to start a publication without government interference, to discuss things we Iranians never discuss for political, religious or cultural reasons.

I saw a very large Iranian community spread out in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia which understood English better than Persian. I knew many were longing to tell stories of survival and assimilation, as well as homesickness and nostalgia. There was no outlet for them; no newspaper, magazine or TV station. I thought in this environment a professional news & lifestyles magazine could easily take off and be very successful.

The problem was that it is very expensive to staff and print a decent magazine. Also how was I to reach potential readers? There were no (and still aren't) reliable mailing lists and many expats live in areas where there are no Iranian stores.

Fortunately 1995 was around the time the Internet was becoming big. Amazon and Yahoo had just been launched. For someone like me, the ability to publish cheaply on a global scale with a click of a button without censorship was nothing short of magic. And I've been spellbound ever since!

My cousin Karim Ardalan had just started MIS, Inc., one of the very first Internet publishing companies in Albuquerque, New Mexico and his help was vital in bringing iranian.com online in the first year.

The first issue of THE IRANIAN went online on August 27, 1995, if I'm not mistaken It was initially updated every two months, then monthly. And I think for the past 8 years or more it has been updated almost every day.

Last year I dropped "THE IRANIAN" (inspired by the The New Yorker) in favor of plain and net-friendly iranian.com.

What has been the greatest challenge to running Iranian.com?

The greatest challenge has been to stay financially alive. The readership has steadily grown every year to presently around 400,000 unique visitors per month. If I spent a fraction of my time taking care of the marketing and business side, I would be able to generate a very nice income, probably more than $100,000 per year -- but I don't. Last year I made about $30,000 and that was a good year! My focus has always been on content. So for good reasons, I'm always worried about next month's rent.

What has been the greatest surprise?

That I have not been shot -- yet.

What has been the greatest satisfaction?

We are ruled by a bunch of thugs who commit all sorts of crimes and stupidities against individuals, society and the world at large -- all in the name of religion. So the moment I drop the image file for a cartoon making fun of Ayatollah Khamenei and publish it online for the world to see, it gives me enormous satisfaction.

But politics aside, I actually get more satisfaction from sharing the personal stories of Iranians in every corner of the world, to give a voice to people who may know nothing about politics or literature but are frank, sincere and in general much more real than what you would find in the pasteurized mainstream media.

Or maybe I'm just fooling myself. I might give you a very different answer if you ask me the same questions tomorrow. The only thing I'm sure of is that I love what I do and I'm so immersed in it that I rarely get a chance to sit back and think about what I'm doing. I'm a child with his dream toy.

The greatest controversy?

Believe it or not: Googoosh vs. Aghdashloo. A few months ago their fans had a fierce exchange over something one of them said about the other. It was very entertaining to see people getting so worked up over something so trivial.

The biggest political debates have been theocracy vs. democracy, national sovereignty vs. Western imperialism, and the Shah vs. Mossadegh. There's very little talk in defense of the Islamic Republic; almost everyone wants change in some form or another.

The dispute is over how to change, and how quickly. It ranges from those who would love America to bomb the ayatollahs out of power to those who would prefer the ayatollahs over any foreigner. A large chunk of people right in the center want neither Bush nor the mullahs. Democracy is on the tip of everyone's tongue. And that can't be bad.

Other controversies in iranian.com have been about the extent of free speech especially regarding explicit material. Many have questioned the appearance of adult stories. I would guess most iranian.com readers wouldn't mind some censorship but have become increasingly tolerant over time, or so it seems.

The most widely read story?

That's a good question that I do not have an answer for. In the early days I used to keep track of how many hits each article got but now there are so many articles to track... My automatic stat counter has the record but it needs some digging.

If I were to guess, I would say Siamack Baniameri is the most read author in Iranian.com. His humor is as frank and funny as you can get and he has built a large following over the years.

Where do you see Iranian.com going in the future?

Not very far from where it is now. There was always the thought that it would turn into a normal magazine with an office and a dozen staff writers and... but it's not going to happen. First of all, the revenue isn't there. But more important: I'm having too much fun just the way it is.

I'm currently working with a friend to turn iranian.com into a database. It would automate a lot of the publishing operations, allowing me to publish more, more easily. I'm also starting a formal weblog in a couple of months. It will be on the bottom of the front page under the heading "Tahneshin" or "Tah Deeg"... Nothing too serious.

Is there a successor to the great JJ in the wings?

Nah baba... az een khabaraa neest... I'm going to play and play until I can play no more. Then it's up to iranian.com's readers. The site can be automated to allow people to publish any text, image, audio or video without the need for an editor. And with automated ads, it would self-sustain. Or maybe readers can vote for volunteer editors for a limited period of time and take turns at running the site. Or a combination of both or...

See the Persian traslation in Washington Prism

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