Growing up, I never paid much attention to the Los Angeles-based Iranian expatriate media. As a child, my earliest memory of hearing Iranian programming was in northern Virginia, where my uncle had a short wave radio that picked up Persian language programming. This radio was a constant fixture in his home and business — it would be left on all day while my uncle went about his tasks, and remained on into the evening when everyone would come home eat dinner, and accompany our dinner conversations.
I thought it was fascinating that he had an 'Iranian radio', and found it odd that that my parents did not, but attributed its absence to geography and decided (exempting my family and their friends) Michigan was too far for anything Iranian to be present. As far as the programming was concerned, I was oblivious to it as a child.
Later on in life, as I went through the turbulence of teenage life and began individually reflecting on my identity, I remember awkward dinner parties in which watching the latest Noruz videos were the climax of the evening. Being an Iranian teenaged male is an awkward social role because you are too old to play with the children happily yelling and running around, and too young to be taken seriously by the adults. Bored by adult conversations and lacking peers my own age, I would sit on couches in different homes and watch the endless videos for lack on anything better to do.
Something about the austere sets, faux-blond hosts, loud and tacky clothing, and awful camera and lighting direction help me realize that US-based Iranian television production had a long way to go until it was like 'normal' American television. It was so embarrassing, as if it was done on purpose–the music sucked, the strobe lights were incessant, and the hair awful.
In high school, my equally academically-halfhearted friend Arshia and I would lighten the looming dread of report cards with our sixteen-year-old humor. The joke was that if we hit anymore speed bumps on our way to medical school, we could always become famous Iranian pop stars, because a pulse and tight pants seemed to be the only prerequisites for stardom.
College came and went, and with it the surge of national pride and cultural-soul searching that I think is a rite of passage for many youth with non-European roots who have come of age in the US. Independent of my parents, I was the cultural ambassador of my Iranian heritage and I strove for ways to relate and differentiate my experiences as a child of Iranian immigrants to my peers and professors. I delved into books, conversations, cultural nights trying to understand what it meant to be 'Iranian', and tried my best to share those resources with those around me.
My classes on the African-American and Latino experiences in the US inspired new questions and ideas about identity in me, and provided me with a framework in which to place my thoughts and feelings. African-American literature in particular fired my imagination — Richard Wright, Alex Haley, and James Baldwin spoke a language I understood and was desperate to hear from voices in my own community. Hip hop artists like Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, and KRS-One gave me the belief that culture can be created from the ground up, that the stories and lives of everyday people can be captivating and empowering. I felt the possibility of defining my own experience, and bringing my heritage out of the museums and away from the distorting glare of American media.
Full of this new-found passion, I turned with a new enthusiasm toward Iranian-American culture and media. It was at this time that I discovered Iranian.com, and read for the first time the words of people who felt as I felt, lived as I lived, and understood my hybridized and hyphenated experience. Reading Laleh Khalili's writing was transforming-her words electrified and energized me, and for the first time in life, I felt being Iranian was no longer a personal abstraction and that indeed I was part of a community.
Sadly, respectable Iranian media outlets are few and far between, though I have been encouraged by the launch of some interesting web sites in recent years. Where we still continue to lag, pitifully so, is in broadcast media.
Recently I was at a family friend's house in Maryland, and she had installed a satellite dish that receives Iranian channels. Over a delicious Khorramabadi dinner, she told us that there has been a surge in programming and that she received well over ten different expatriate Iranian channels, which shall remain nameless. After dinner, we sat down, and I asked to see what these channels were like, and was excited by the possibility of varied Iranian programming.
Wow. Wow as in, I can't believe how bad it was. It was as if I was reliving the year 1989 all over again. It was the same cheap and flimsy sets, with the same too-bright fluorescent lighting, with the same phony and inane chatter, and the same fake blond bangs and hairspray. Only this time, it was multiplied by a dozen channels.
What the hell is going on? One would think that in almost twenty years, there would have been some basic improvements, some modest innovations; unbelievably, there hasn't been. In fact, I think that the quality has deteriorated even further if that is possible, judging by a music video I watched with the same strobe lights, generic electronic keyboard riff, and guy with tight pants, only this time, the dancers were wearing Arabian belly dancer costumes and the camera focused on a decidedly non-Iranian blond blue-eyed woman awkwardly dancing in the foreground. Even Univision, the Spanish-language channel that is somewhat comparable in its mediocrity, has improved somewhat over time.
Is this the best we can do? We have emerging young artists, educators, actors, writers, scholars, poets and politicians in our ranks, but watching Iranian ex-pat TV, you would think that most Iranians are blonds with silicon-augmented breasts and surgically enhanced noses. Are the current narcissistic, shallow programs on these channels representative of what we are as a community? Is our strongest advocate for political change a self-deluded criminal who beams his revolution and strange political missives into Iran via his own television channel? I really don't think so, and I feel that the Los Angeles-based Iranian expatriate media have failed miserably in providing a voice to the new faces and realities of the Iranian-American community.
Reform and self-criticism seem to particularly challenging concepts to Iranians, therefore I will steer clear of that course in this matter. Rather, I wish to propose a new idea, an idea whose time has come — at least open a discussion on it. What if there was an Iranian expatriate channel that didn't suck? What if there was a channel that actually had more than three camera angles, four hosts, and five programs?
Seriously, what if there was a channel that had a proper news program, which had programs that catered to the large and growing population of Iranian-Americans who have spent the majority of their lives outside of Iran? What if there were shows that you could watch that featured the common aspects of life we all experience and the concerns that we share? Imagine programming that examined issues from a youth perspective that allowed for the creative expression of identity and exploration of culture in terms that a larger audience could relate to and learn from. Such shows could address sex and drugs in a way that is educational and necessary in our sometimes repressive culture.
Programs could be in English as well, to reflect that we speak more than just Persian, and for many it is their stronger language. There could be an Iranian version of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, travel shows, history and language programs, original documentaries that would be made by the many Iranian-American filmmakers bringing to light issues we take for granted or know little of.
There could be music programming as well, but expanded well beyond the tired old 'Tehrangeles' tunes, which would actually provide a platform to promising Iranian-American musicians who perform a variety of styles, or American artists influenced by Iranian music. Let's put the channel in New York, just to emphasize the center of gravity shifting, and how different it will be from the crop in Los Angeles. Oh yeah, in case there are rich investors reading this, I have a lot of other ideas too.
The impact of such a new channel would be huge and the time has come for something better. To me, it would represent a continuation of the self-maturation and blossoming of diasporic Iranian culture started in part by media like Iranian.com. There may not be any change in the foreseeable future, but good ideas have a way of taken on a life of their own. There are too many talented yet untapped people who could be creating something amazing. Imagine what could happen if there was one roof to gather them all under.
The LA-based channels have become too comfortable doing too little, and need to stop looking into their self-congratulatory mirrors and wake up. To them I offer the following two bits of advice: First, put the peroxide down! Then, innovate or die.