War News Radio, Connecting with Real Iraqis

Some Pennsylvania college students, hungry for news from Iraq, decided they wanted to hear from Iraqis themselves — so they set up their own radio show, and connect with their interview subjects via the Internet. Alex Chadwick speaks with the producers of War News Radio, a weekly student-run news program at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia.

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CHADWICK: This is DAY to DAY I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand. Just outside Philadelphia, at Swarthmore College, some students have decided that they want to hear more about Iraq from Iraqis.

CHADWICK: So, each week they go to Iraq by calling and messaging over the internet and the results of that have become a weekly show, a radio show called "War News Radio, WNR" if you're on campus.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: From Swarthmore College, this is War News Radio.

EVA BARBONI, (War News Radio Reporter): I'm Eva Barboni.

WREN ELHAI, (War News Radio Reporter): And I'm Wren Elhai.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It' absolutely crucial that citizens figure out what they think about war and peace issues and...

CHADWICK: Joining us now, as part of our ongoing series of conversations about Iraq are two producers from War News Radio at Swarthmore, Eva Barboni, welcome to Day to day.

Ms. BARBONI: Hello Alex thanks for having us.

CHADWICK: Oh, sure and Wren Elhai, am I pronouncing that correctly, Wren?

Mr. ELHAI: You got it.

CHADWICK: Well tell me Eva, how did this project get started?

Ms. BARBONI: Well, the project was initially the brainchild of an alum of Swarthmore, who is now working at CBS and he was somewhat dissatisfied with the coverage of the Iraq war. And it was his idea that, you know, Swarthmore students might actually do a pretty decent job of covering this war.

CHADWICK: Wren Elhai, how does it go? How do you actually do one of these programs?

Mr. ELHAI: We try to do maybe about five minutes of news, of the stories you might have read if you were following the war and maybe a couple you missed. And then, we go and bring about three or four feature pieces that can be interviews with Iraqi citizens about you know how their lives are, with American soldiers who have come back.

CHADWICK: And, how is it that you find these Iraqis to talk with? I've read something about this, that you're dialing numbers, more or less randomly, from an Iraqi phonebook that you found online.

Mr. ELHAI: It's not quite as easy as that because there isn't actually you know an Iraqi white pages you can find on the internet and just start dialing. But there are some things that are almost as good. You know almost every Iraqi who we've spoken to has a Yahoo internet account, so we can go through the Yahoo member directory and find people in Iraq. And then there's this really interesting new technology that's called Skype that essentially lets you have a high-quality phone conversation over the internet for free. That service has a directory that let's us search for people who are in Iraq and who speak English.

CHADWICK: Tell me about an interview that stuck with you.

Ms. BARBONI: Well, I guess my favorite piece was one that I did with Wren over the summer. It was about Congressman Walter Jones. You probably remember him from when he called for the Congressional cafeteria to rename French fries freedom fries.

CHADWICK: This was before the war and there was a lot of debate about whether we should go in and whether the Europeans would go in with us. And the French said, "No, we're not going." And people in Congress said, "Okay, we'll get back you, we're not going to serve French fries anymore."

Ms. BARBONI: But you know, over the summer he really shocked everyone by calling for a timetable to withdraw from Iraq. And so, we were hearing this news and we really wanted to get to the bottom of why such a hawkish, conservative Congressman would change his position on the war. And one of the interviews for that pieces was actually with Sister Grace Campbell, who is at his church there in North Carolina.

CHADWICK: Oh, we heard that clip, we've got that I think. This is his sister responding to suggestions that Congressman Jones is a flip-flopper.

GRACE CAMPBELL (Attends Congressman Jones church): This is what they say about him. He was a Democrat, now he's a Republican. And I said, if they ever realized that he was a Baptist and is now a Catholic that would be it.

CHADWICK: He was a Baptist and now he's a Catholic. Wren Elhai, how about a memorable interview from Iraq that you participated in or just heard on your program, War News Radio?

Mr. ELHAI: There's one that I think really, shows like how we can find people on Skype and really get some interesting stories. And what we do is, you know just find people in Iraq and send them IM's and see if they'd be willing to talk to us. And there was one guy who just came through and I just started talking with him over Skype and really learned some things that I hadn't known before. He's a contractor there in Hilla in the south of Iraq, he's a Shiia. And he was talking to us about how reconstruction had been slowed down and stalled there mainly, not because of American mishandling of anything but because the politicians in Hilla are just corrupt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (Contractor in South Iraq): The coalition forces come to the very big mistake, they gave the money to the Iraqis and the Iraqis gave the money for their own benefit, our government. As soon as you sign to be a governor, has a brother who became a contractor and all of contracts went to his brother.

CHADWICK: Is your program an anti-war program?

Ms. BARBONI: No, I mean definitely coming from a college like Swarthmore, which is, you know a little bit notorious for its left-leaning students. We definitely have heard that question before and we try to approach a lot of different topics which don't necessarily have a political slant and we try to talk to people with many different perspectives on this war and just give as much information and as much context as possible, while at the same time acknowledging that people do have a position on the war. And that includes some of the people working on the show.

Mr. ELHAI: I think a lot of people have changed their positions from what they've learned working on the show.

CHADWICK: When you say that people there have changed their views on the war as a result of working on the program, how have they changed?

Mr. ELHAI: Well, I think what I've learned is not to trust any blanket generalizations that you might hear in accounts of what's going on. So, when they talk about, you know the Shiia's think this, the Sunnis' think this, what I have learned is that Iraqis themselves are just about as deeply divided on the question of what we should be doing as America is. Anything that purports to be a universal truth in regards to this war, I'd take with a grain of salt now.

CHADWICK: Well, I wonder about college campuses generally, whether in the absence of a draft, the war is that important a factor. I would guess that not many people who graduate from Swarthmore, maybe no people who graduate from Swarthmore, are going to enlist in the military and have a military career. And would then be threatened with going to Iraq.

Mr. ELHAI: Okay yes, Swarthmore is different I would say, than many universities around the country in that, we don't have ROTC or other programs that get people directly involved in thinking about the military in a more personal context. Where we have seen a lot of action is in say activism, people going down you know for the September 24th demonstrations in D.C., we had a few busloads of people who went down.

Ms. BARBONI: And it's also a really, a big topic within the classroom as well, a lot of professors will bring it up. You know not only in Political Science classes but also in history classes as a parallel to different conflicts that are being studied and in Anthropology classes as an issue of how to deal with other cultures, etcetera. So it's definitely a topic that is being talked about a lot on campus.

CHADWICK: Eva Barboni and Wren Elhai at Swarthmore College, both producers of the college radio program, "War News Radio". You can link to their show and listen to it from our website, npr.org. Wren and Eva, thank you both.

Ms. BARBONI: Thank you.

Mr. ELHAI: Thanks

(Music Soundbite)

CHADWICK: And, NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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