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Bringing music to Iranian people
For thousands of immigrants in the southland, Persian-language station KIRN-AM is an entertaining beacon to their homeland

By Dana Calvo
Los Angeles Times
March 29, 2000

On the ominous date of Friday, Aug. 13, a radio station premiered with a staff of one (general manager John Paley), music (a two-hour loop of Persian pop songs) and three commercials (recorded in one take by a Farsi-speaking nutritionist who Paley had just met).

Several miles away from the new station, Farzad Fadai, 45, was searching for an afternoon ballgame when his dial scratched over a familiar sound.

"Somehow I heard Persian music. I said, 'Wow!' and then the woman's voice said, 'If you want to place advertising, call.' "

Within hours, hundreds of Persians and other Iranians in the area had called in to the new station, KIRN-AM (670), "Radio Iran."

It was so hectic in the small office on Sunset Boulevard that Paley turned to the nutritionist and asked her--in a panic--when she could start full time. He also asked the phone company to expand his voicemail box from 20 to 80 messages.

Most of the callers were just like Fadai who had been scanning the dial for news and had accidentally drifted into the distinct sounds of Iran, a country that was forever changed when Islamic Fundamentalists overthrew the government in 1979 and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini.

At that time, Fadai was already in the United States finishing up his schooling, but thousands of his countrymen who had been uprooted were resettling in Beverly Hills and Irvine and trying to monitor the developments in Iran through English-language media.

There were only a few opportunities to hear uncensored news in Farsi, much less everyday programming and entertainment. In the next few years several Persian-language television and radio programs across the United States cropped up. But the radio programs were transmitted on a closed circuit--a signal that can only be picked up by a $ 25 adapter affixed to each radio.

The Federal Communications Commission does not track foreign-language radio licenses, and a representative on the Near East desk of the Department of State said officials there do not monitor Persian-language radio broadcasts. But scholars, members of the community on both coasts and Alireza Morovati, president of Radio Sedaye Iran, which has been transmitting its closed-circuit programming from Wilshire Boulevard since 1989, say Radio Iran is the country's only Persian-language station on the regular radio dial.

Though the station's primary listener base is the Persian Iranian community, increasingly KIRN draws expatriates from the country's many ethnic groups, such as those whose primary language is Turkish or Armenian.

The notion of starting up a Persian-language radio station in Southern California seems like common sense.

After the 1979 revolution, the largest population of Iranian immigrants in the world settled here, with official estimates hovering around 600,000. Almost one-fourth of the students in the five schools in Beverly Hills Unified School District are Iranian.

Dariush and Mona Soofer's three school-age children are part of that statistic. The couple left Iran in 1980, and in 1982 he opened Sadef, a wholesale Mediterranean food business in Los Angeles. "Most of the media gives us the news," said Dariush Soofer, who listens to Radio Iran for its combination of entertainment, culture and news shows.

Mona Soofer said she listens to the station in her car, a luxury she hasn't had in 20 years.

"What we were missing was entertainment 24 hours a day," she said.

In December, the Soofers bought commercial time on KIRN, with five one-minute spots daily. They join a group of advertisers that include Persian doctors, lawyers and salesmen, like Fadai, who have wanted to increase their visibility in the Persian community.

Fadai, a manager at Goudy Honda in El Alhambra, also saw a commercial opportunity in the radio station.

"I open my Goudy Honda commercial with a poem, because it's very deep in our culture, and they like it," Fadai said. After the poem, Fadai says his full name, a move that prompted long-lost friends from Iran to call the car dealership and reunite with Fadai's family.

The commercial has also created a mistaken identity scenario for listeners who think Fadai is someone else. The often-comical situation reveals just how eager members of the Persian community are to reconnect with fellow Iranians.

"I get two or three calls a week from people who think I'm someone named Farzad Fadai who went to a high school in Tehran, but I'm not him," Fadai said. "I went to Price Club and presented my Price Club membership credit card, and the woman asked me if I was the one who lived here or the one who lived in Montreal. So, now, when people call, I tell them he lives in Montreal. It's a small world."

Radio Iran broadcasts international, U.S. and local headlines as well as weather and business reports. There are also special shows, like the 11 p.m. to midnight program featuring "Stories of the Night," which are literary bedtime stories.

Paley and owner Howard Kalmenson insist the station is an independent, nonpartisan entity. Kalmenson's company--Lotus Communications, which also owns Spanish- and English-language radio stations in the Southwest--also have plans to broadcast Radio Iran over the Internet, so that anyone in the world with Web access can tune in.

Radio Iran seems to have a supportive, vocal following, but it is difficult to estimate the size of the audience because the station does not subscribe to traditional listener profile surveys.

Today, seven months after Paley launched Radio Iran, the staff of about 18 receives flowers and cakes from listeners on a daily basis. Afshin Gorgin, the station's program director (whose first day was Feb. 11), said listeners come to the station or call in to demand a healthier mix of poetry, talk shows, news and information.

Like many of the employees at Radio Iran, Gorgin's immaculate clothes and controlled demeanor belie the treacherous trip out of Iran two decades ago. His colleagues tersely refused to detail their trip out of Iranian territory, and Gorgin would give only a sketchy narration.

His father, a famous television personality, managed to leave the country in 1979. Six months later, after Khomeini had already taken power, the 15-year-old Gorgin was smuggled over the Iranian border in a jeep. He eventually made it to Paris, where he could use both his Farsi and French. One year later, at age 17, his family moved to Southern California and he began to learn English.

Gorgin ended the retelling of his departure from Iran abruptly.

"Our responsibility here as a Persian-language radio station is to get the real, uncensored news."

It's a task the Iranian government would probably stop if it could. In early February, Iranian officials jammed election coverage on Persian-language programs carried in Europe by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC.

The three other Persian-language radio stations that operate in Southern California rely on closed-circuit transmission and do not have an FCC license, an expensive privilege that allows a station to broadcast over the open airwaves.

Experts say that even though the Persian community here is among the best-educated and wealthiest immigrant groups in the United States, raising funds to acquire an FCC license for any radio station has not been a priority.

"The Iranian immigrants here tend to be wary of political organizations taking over radio and TV stations and using them for their own partisan purposes," said Iranian American Houchang Chehabi, a professor of International Relations at Boston University. "For that reason, it's difficult to raise money because people get suspicious. . . . 'Who is he raising money for?' "

Lotus, a successful radio network, backed the entire venture and always envisioned Radio Iran as an FCC-licensed operation.

Somes listeners, such as Fadai, believe those other stations are geared to older, less-assimilated Iranian Americans.

"It's all name-calling," he said, adding that his mother listens to closed-circuit programs throughout her day. "I don't want to get involved with this group, or that group, because it's like opening a can of worms. Believe me, you don't want to get involved in Persian politics. KIRN is more relaxed. They're here to entertain."


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