For most Tehrani children of my generation, the trip “up north” to the shores of Caspian sea was always magical. Leaving the smoggy and crowded streets of the capital, up one of the three enchanting and winding two-lane roads up through the Alborz mountains just to emerge from the other side into a sea of lush green forests, roadside waterfalls and eventually the scent of salty water in the fresh air of the coastline is forever etched into many of our memories. It is no wonder that even in our today's conversations, we speak of “shomal” trips with such affection, even if our last trip there established that the “sea” may have never been as beautiful as we had imagined it or at least years of pouring raw untreated sewage into it from all shores, has killed much of its magic.
For our family, the annual pilgrimage north had an added dimension. My uncle had been picked to launch the brand-new and seasonal Radio Darya (Sea Radio) station and their family, including two cousins around my age, would spend most of their summers up there. The trip to Caspian was an opportunity for us to spend time with them and also spy on the new undertaking. From a group of tents to eventually a few actual buildings, Radio Darya quickly became a huge hit and yet another reason to endure the snaking drive up and down the mountains and since the less robust car radios were only able to pick up the station as you got over the top, the little station acted as the soundtrack for at least half the trip.
Radio Darya was different from other regular state-run stations. It was hip and new, with a certain youth-oriented outlook reflected in its personalities and programming. Music was predominant and they played some of the younger less-established artists who still received no air time on the other stuffier stations and would also occasionally include some trendy world music, in a language or two that not many understood.
The highlight of my Radio Darya memories is from when we were taking the trip in a new car we had all liked and been particularly proud of. Without our knowledge, my uncle had asked the highway police to alert them when our car plate number made it through the famous one-way Kandovan tunnel. There were two small sub-stations on both sides of this old, narrow and very long tunnel, who scrutinized all cars going through, to make sure the often stifling air inside would not harm the travelers who may face car problems or other emergencies within.
On this day and as soon as we emerged from the other end, the announcer cut through the song being played to welcome the white Peugeot with XXX plate number to Province of Mazandaran. From that day on, we felt particularly welcomed every time we visited the Caspian shores.
Now, about 30 years later and perhaps in hope of rekindling some of those fond memories for myself and others with similar ones, I interview my uncle to get his side of the story and a more behind-the-scene look at our much-loved Radio Darya:
Tell us a bit about your background and experience?
I entered radio in 1959 as a producer of a variety of programs including children's radio plays, current affairs, and literary programs. For a while I served as manager of Radio Rasht and when I moved back to Tehran I worked for the External Broadcasting Services. Then after the merger of radio and TV and the formation of NIRT, I became the executive producer of the Morning News and Current Affairs programs. I went to the BBC for training for six months and on my return I became the director of Radio Darya. My services with NIRT continued until I came to the U.S. in 1975 to continue my studies at Michigan State University, where I now work and teach in Academic Computing and Network Services.
How was the idea behind Radio Darya instigated?
When I returned from London in 1971, I was talking to my friend and boss at the time, Mr. Touraj Frazmand, about the clandestine radios off the coast of England and their success in attracting listeners. He informed me that he had a similar idea for an entertaining radio station and that he has talked to Mr. Ghotbi, Director General of NIRT, about it, and would like to have my input if that project is approved. We had several meetings during which we decided on the programming and how to staff the center.
When did it start operation?
The land for a radio station in the Chalus area had been purchased well before there was the plan for Radio Darya. The land was on the coast and mainly devoted to rice paddies. Therefore, before being able to build anything on that land, it had to be dried up. So before the starting point in summer of 1972 (I am not absolutely certain of the year, but I think it is correct), we did not have any building there. The Engineering Department of NIRT was supposed to provide us with a remote mobile studio, but they were behind in delivering that on time. The program was supposed to go on the air in mid-Khordad (June 5th). At that time the Shah was in Nowshahr and apparently informed that this radio will start on that date. 48 hours before we drove to Chalous, and an FM radio mobile truck which was available was sent there which had to be dragged through the costal sand by two tractors. Anyway, the truck was there and we started the program for only 6 hours a day, filling the rest with just music. Of course at that time FM radios were not that popular and people did not have them, but we had started on time. So the program began in the truck with a microphone and couple of tape recorders. We had to work in warm, muggy weather in the middle of rice paddies with billions of mosquitoes and no protection. We were gathering straw and burning it to create smoke so that the mosquitoes would leave us alone.
Who was involved in that early stage?
At the start, the permanent staff were myself as manager and producer, Jamshid Adili as the main announcer, and his wife Molude Kanaani as an announcer as well (they are now in Australia managing a Persian language radio there). The rest of the staff would come for a week and then change places with others. They were being selected a week in advance, and I gave them full range of authority to be creative and bring something new with them the week they came to Radio Darya. They came up with excellent pieces such that we gathered three hours of them, and one Friday it was broadcasted from Radio Iran, pretending it was live from Radio Darya. It was fun!
As a seasonal station, what was the broadcasting format and schedule?
The broadcasting was from 7:30 am – 1:30 am the next day. The format was live, slow and romantic until 9:00 am Then we shifted gear to a fast lively pace until 12:00 noon. Then we slowed down again until 3:00 pm, after which we had another three hours of fast paced afternoon delight, then slowed down with traditional music and literary pieces. On the hours we had a short news segment that we were getting from Radio Iran, which we would write down and shorten as much as we could.
How did Radio Darya build such a quick following?
The main reason was novelty and straight forwardness. We were right then and there on the beach and on the street. People would see something happening in front of their eyes and a few minutes later were listening to it from Radio Darya. We had priority for the new songs that were coming out, without waiting for them to be approved for broadcast at Radio Iran. The performers brought their songs that were supposed to be on a record or cassette prior to their distributions. So many songs were played first at Radio Darya. Our transmitters were two 10 KW, but we had listeners from the south of Iran, even Tehran, despite the mountain ranges. We really were surprised to receive letters from Kerman or Zahedan and sometimes from Bushehr. I admit that our main cause of success was being in possession of 15 years of bound copies of Towfigh magazine which gave us the humor necessary to capture the listeners.
Was there an attempt made to include local Mazandarani-Gilani content and local participation?
Not in particular. Since I had been Radio Rasht manager for a couple of years, I would ask people like Poor-Reza to send us interviews and local tunes. Other than that, it was interviews in the street and bazaars or things that we thought were interesting for the vacationers. We found villages that were self sufficient in everything. Their food and clothing, their cultivation, their instruments, their carpets, and their means of warming or cooling their homes. It was fascinating and interesting for us dependent people of the big cities.
How long was it before you actually had a real building to work from?
I think it was during the second year that the buildings started to go up. That was a luxury that created a whole lot of volunteers who declared their readiness to serve at Radio Darya. Mind you, it was still lots of work but at least it made for pleasant evenings making bonfires by the sea and enjoying them.
Why did you leave Iran and when?
I came to the U.S. with a group of NIRT employees for a term of study at Michigan State University. When I saw the campus, the memories of my undergraduate days at Tehran University were rekindled and I decided I wanted to be a student again. So I applied for the Telecommunication Program and did my Master's degree there, and then I stayed on to complete my PHD. Then, as you know, things changed back home and I remained here in the U.S.
Do you know if the station continued growing after that?
Yes, it certainly was functional up to the 1979 revolution. I do not know whether it followed the same format or if it was changed.
And what happened to it after the 1979 revolution?
I do not know. Certainly it could not have survived in the form of olden days. It is possible that the transmitters were being used for religious teachings.
Are you still in touch with anyone from the old team?
Unfortunately, no! I have a couple of colleagues from those days who are teaching at Indiana, Ohio, and Boston. Some are in Southern California and some are in Canada and Australia.
With all the negative publicity surrounding the topic and as an expert, what is your view of the Persian language broadcasting in exile?
I have always wished that this powerful group of Persian broadcasters that are gathered at one place could join hands and create the most powerful Persian media in this country and elsewhere as matter of fact. The fragmentation and lack of sufficient financial support is the main cause for resorting to cheap programming and the source of all criticism. Maybe that is why Iranians are excellent in individual sports such as wrestling but are bad in team sports such as basketball or football. We are not trained to be team players.
Can a station or other media outlet financed by a foreign government be truly independent?
No! The greatest example is Foreign Services of the BBC. The Home Office will pay for it and dictate how things should be said, no matter how much the BBC declares independence. The Voice of America is the same, as well as Radio Free Europe … etc.
What are your thoughts on the new age of globalization and major media being controlled by fewer and fewer hands?
Globalization is both good and bad. For the big media it is bad. The total big media in this country is controlled by five entities which more or less have the same world view. This is why people in this country are not getting the full exposure to world affairs. Small media on the other hand is thriving. Blogs are popping up. Podcasts are starting to come on. These will evolve one day and change their entertainment characteristics into a more serious form of media. Younger generation is paying more attention to small media and this may have an effect in the future.
Where do you see the future of broadcasting headed?
In my opinion it will be moving more and more towards personalization. Highly specialized fields aimed at a very particular audience. The way cable TV is going now but far more specific to the needs of a smaller group of listeners or viewers.
You must have many memories of your radio and television days in Iran, any you wish to share?
In the mid-1960s, one of the producers of radio programs, Shahrokh Naderi, was reprimanded and the organization decided to transfer him to Ahvaz as punishment. Having the air of the sixties in our young heads, a group of us decided to strike, not knowing that it is forbidden by law for telecommunications employees to strike. Therefore, we were having our meetings in my home. A friend who became aware of this fact instructed us to declare sickness for the reason of not attending work. That is what some of us did, while others would go and do their work and then come to our meetings. A few days later, the official doctor of Radio Iran, Dr. Bassiti, was dispatched to check on me. He came to my home while I was out and knocked at the door. My father opened the door and said hello, and asked what he can do for the doctor. The doctor asked him, “Are you Mr. Moallemian?” and the answer was positive. He asked, “Are you okay?” and my father says “Of course.” Doctor Bassiti then said, “Okay, thank you,” and left. A few days later, I received a letter saying that I was feigning an illness. Then I had to rebut that by saying the doctor had examined my father instead of me. This created a lot of fun for us in telling the story and joking about it.
Pedram Moallemian is a Canadian-Iranian activist, writer and blogger currently based in California. A former political prisoner of the current Iranian government, he blogs at www.eyeranian.net and his first book on 1979 Iranian revolution will be published soon.