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  • Davin Hutchins

Empowering Future Arab Leaders: There’s An App For That





When Radio Sawa launched as an FM radio station network in the Middle East in 2002, the Arab world had not really experienced anything like it. In many Arab countries, restrictive state control of radio licenses stifled innovation in music programming. But Radio Sawa provided an alternative of a mix of Arab and Western popular music coupled with on-the-hour objective newscasts and magazine shows on social issues.


Launching in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and the Palestinian Territories, Radio Sawa was the “cool channel” on the FM dial at the turn of the century. As the decade continued, a liberalization of the broadcast landscape and local investment in media created lots of competition. In addition, in key countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, terrestrial FM distribution was elusive. Some markets had never even heard of Radio Sawa or its unique news brand.


Twelve years after launch, Radio Sawa needed a digital reinvention to become “cool” to a younger generation. The stations needed to reach markets that lacked a broadcasting tower. Content had to reflect the self-awareness of young Arabs and address their social concerns while being engaging at the same time.  What was needed was a “trojan horse” to influence future Arab leaders.





About six months ago, the MBN Digital department launched a major content initiative, major redesign and major product push. We digital journalists at Radio Sawa created a special alternative content team with one mission – to monitor the social conversations already taking place on websites and social media across the Arab world and to quickly create articles that started or expanded existing conversation about religious tolerance, minority rights, women’s empowerment and even pop culture. This content was showcased on the Have You Read This? page.


A few weeks after launch we saw immediate dividends in terms of increased traffic and engagement by phrasing our topics in thought provoking questions accompanied with tempting polls. Here’s a perfect example: reporter Abdelrahim Abdullah asked our audience who was the most influential Arab in 2013. Our staff selected prominent personalities like Nobel Prize winner Yemeni Tawakul Karman, Bahraini rights activist Maryam al- Khawaja and Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. To our surprise, the poll became a run-off between Ahmed Assaf, the Palestinian teen who won Arab Idol against all odds and Saudi TV personality Ahmed Shughairi, who speaks out for women’s rights and sectarian tolerance.






More than 812,000 people voted for Shughairi while more than a million voted for Assaf – a resounding cry for moderation and self-empowerment. To date, there have been over 1.9 million votes to the poll, and there have been over 2.5 million page views to the story on the mobile site and another 189,000 on the desktop site. This type of engagement content is the beating heart of our new initiative.


While this content was being generated, MBN Digital designer Hossam Elbialy worked on updating the look of Radio Sawa to match the new world which was created when Apple’s Jony Ive launched iOS7. Skeuomorphism, shadows and gradients were out – simple and flat was in. With a few minor CSS changes, server-side custom fonts and simplified graphics, Radio Sawa had a new modern look that matched the future-first content the journalists were writing.


But now, the real innovation can be seen in the Radio Sawa music, news and lifestyle app which launched this week, showcasing the new engagement content and award-winning radio journalism. MBN Digital partnered with the BBG’S Office of Digital & Design Innovation, who I worked with on the Online News Association (ONA) winning blog Middle East Voices, to design and build an app unlike any in the Arab market. ODDI Director of Mobile Will Sullivan’s team of developers and designers worked to make our pencil prototypes and Adobe mockups a reality by building a gorgeously design, touch-driven, mobile-only application which played to the huge popularity of streaming radio on smartphone devices.


The application is an audio-first experience, with newscasts and podcasts from Sawa’s journalists available on demand. The crown jewels of the experience are the seven Arabic live-streaming radio stations from around the Middle East and North Africa region. Arab youth can listen to music and news 24/7 and in the background while they read, play or use other applications.


Another fantastic feature of the app is the expanded Sawa Chat functionality. For years, Sawa journalists have asked people on the street questions about social concerns. With the app, users can now respond to weekly questions by recording and uploading their thoughts and sending them to our producers in a couple quick taps. These submissions will feed expanded Sawa Chat content on the air and on the app.


The Radio Sawa app is live in the app stores and available for mobile devices running Android 4.0 and above and Apple IOS 6 and above.


This six-month odyssey has been a tremendous learning experience for our content teams, design teams and developers because it is imperative that Arab youth have a platform they can call their own – a platform where anything is up for discussion, diverse opinions are welcome and the entire focus is on the future… a better future.