California Brothers Run Afghan TV Network
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Here at NPR, about 400 people work in our news division. We create a lot of programs, but not enough to fill 24 hours. Well, this next story is about an international 24-hour TV network in multiple languages. It's run by four brothers, age 31 and younger, with a little bit of help from their friends. It's called Noor TV, and its studios are in an industrial park just south of Oakland, California.
The programming caters to Afghan-Americans, and recently went global, broadcasting to Afghanistan and around the world.
Nate DiMeo recently paid a visit to Noor TV.
NATE DiMEO: Yama Yousefzai is the president of an international broadcast company. But if he needs to be the gopher or event planner or PR guy or receptionist, fine.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Mr. YAMA YOUSEFZAI (Co-founder, Noor TV): Noor TV. Hold on one second.
DiMEO: It's all in a 14, 16-hour day's work here at Noor TV. A few years ago, he was law school. He says after September 11th, everyone in the media was talking about Afghanistan. But the Afghans weren't doing any of the talking.
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: Well, I've been wanting to do something big for the community. What can we have to have a voice? And the only way that we could send our voice will be through media, TV. And I had no knowledge or experience or anything with broadcasting.
DiMEO: But his brothers did. His two youngest were starting out in video production. His oldest brother was doing some on the side, when he wasn't working his good software job in Silicon Valley. So they were all hanging out one night, and Yama made a suggestion. They'd start a TV station. They produce all their own shows. They broadcast all over the world. The two youngest were in. Fayaz, the oldest, wasn't so sure.
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: Fayaz had his doubts in the beginning. He said, you know, we not - well, how is the community going to take it? Were they going to be supportive or not? I mean, look at us. We don't even speak a word of Farsi, or, you know, proper Farsi to be able to pull off.
Mr. FAYAZ YOUSEFZAI (Co-founder, Noor TV): I told him, well, listen...
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: That's Fayaz.
Mr. F. YOUSEFZAI: Why are we trying to get into this? We can have regular jobs, you know, nine to five, where you don't have to worry about the headache.
DiMEO: Since their family fled Afghanistan and the Soviet army in 1981, they'd hustled, strung together odd jobs and small business ventures and eventually made it in America. Their parents own a house. All the kids have finished college.
Mr. F. YOUSEFZAI: Our family had gone through so much struggle over the years, that now, there's a time that we can just settle down and take it easy for a little bit.
DiMEO: But Fayaz, and importantly mom and dad, were eventually convinced that the brothers can make this work, even if some people were skeptical.
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: I start soliciting the elders of the community, and they all have doubts. They said, look at you, you're half of our age. How would you be able to pull that off?
DiMEO: But Yama argued that their relative youth - the oldest brother is only 31 - was why they could pull it off. He said that the existing Afghan programs came from an older and maybe outdated perspective. He said they brought their tribal identities and ethnic biases with them to the U.S. But for their kids, those old divisions broke down, thanks to things like high school and American pop culture. Plus, the broader culture sees them only as Afghan-Americans and can't be bothered to learn distinctions of tribal identity or ethnicity. Yama wanted to bring this perspective to Noor TV and make some money doing it.
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: So now I switched to this: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6...
DiMEO: Noor TV launched last summer with a something-for-everyone schedule. There were shows in the major languages of Afghanistan, or even a couple of Uzbek, because no one was catering to the Uzbeks. There are kid's shows, music shows, history shows, five or six shows about Islam.
Mr. Y. YOUSEFZAI: So the religious guys, usually when they, you know, recite the Koran, they want like a little echo...
(Soundbite of chanting)
DiMEO: At the control panel today is Omar Popau(ph). Monday through Thursday, he's at the studio working the cameras, the lights, the sounds, pretty much everything for up to eight live programs every day. They're usually call-in shows, like radio programs on TV. And they make liberal use of their chroma key, that technology that allows your local weather man to look like he's standing in front of a weather map or a blizzard on your TV at home. So with a push of a button at Noor TV, a musician appears to be singing in front of an audience. This Koranic scholar appears to be sitting in a vast library.
Mr. OMAR POPAU (Staff, Noor TV): Well, I can put him in Hawaii, even, if you want.
DiMEO: On Saturday nights, Popau is in front of the camera.
Mr. POPAU: Hi five. Cool. Another wonderful show. I feel you guys watching in Afghanistan. Excuse us, but our Farsi not that good. Yeah. (Foreign language spoken)
DiMEO: He's the co-star of "The Timbo(ph) and Opi(ph) Show," in which Omar Popau, TV's Opi, mostly stands around with a friend in front of a computer-generated background and laughs at inside jokes.
Mr. POPAU: Eighty percent of the people out there in the Afghan community, either they've been a car salesman, or they're a mortgage guy now. So we've done skits on both of those.
DiMEO: Popau assures me that the skits kill if you're Afghan, and the show is something of a hit.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
DiMEO: A mother has brought her two small girls into the studio to take a picture with their favorite TV star.
Mr. POPAU: Everybody gather around.
DiMEO: Opi is starting to get fan mail and phone calls from Europe and Afghanistan. He's an international celebrity thanks to four Afghan-American brothers and their TV station in an industrial park in Hayward, California.
Mr. POPAU: Thank you, guys. You guys made me feel like a rock star.
DiMEO: From NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.
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