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Swarthmore Broadcasts 'War News,' Using Sources From the Ground Up
Swarthmore College freshman Aaron Schwartz has already spent about 20 hours over the course of a week fashioning a radio piece about an Iraqi skeleton sledder who tried, but failed, to make the 2006 Winter Olympics and represent his embattled country on the world stage.
Now its Thursday afternoon, and Schwartz' deadline looms. The studio for the college's "War News Radio" program pulses with frenetic activity. Some students are there until late into the night to put the finishing touches on the half-hour program that combines news updates with in-depth features on the Iraq war.
Each Friday, the weekly radio show is uploaded onto the Web, where listeners worldwide can access the program, which is also made available on the Public Radio Interchange. At present, about a dozen radio stations, including one in Australia, run it.
Schwartz, 18, is anxious - a biology test looms - and no one has given his story a final edit.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the college program has gotten so much media attention of its own that several reporters, photographers and even a TV cameraman have squeezed into the small, two-story stone cottage that houses "War News Radio."
The Race to Find an Editor
Finally, Schwartz - a Bryn Mawr native whose family belongs to Adath Israel in Merion Station - realizes that one of the producers - senior history major Amelia Templeton - is free. He rushes between a narrow aisle that separates a jumble of computers and phones to grab her attention. A few minutes later, they're upstairs in the cramped second floor that serves as an editing center and recording studio.
In the recording, 26-year-old Faisal Faisal - the dejected athlete - speaks to Schwartz by cell phone from Dubai on the route back to Iraq. "We have a right to be part of the world," says the man, the heartbreak of failing to qualify audible in his voice.
Later, Schwartz explains that Faisal's journey is indicative of his countrymen's hopes to normalize a nation that was cut off from the world during the Saddam Hussein regime, and where death is now such a large part of daily life.
"He'd never seen snow, and he wanted to represent Iraq. That was a great interview," says this fan of National Public Radio, who listened to the channel as a student at Friends Central High School. "We are actually a group of students who want to find out what is happening in Iraq from the people in Iraq."
Since January 2005, the student-run show has attempted to get behind the headlines - and daily casualty reports - that dominate news about the conflict. Staff members have landed interviews with Iraqi Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, with the chief executive of the Iraqi stock exchange, the head of Iraqi Airways and American military personnel in charge of training Iraqi troops.
The radio show's the brainchild of David Gelber, a 1963 graduate of Swarthmore who is now a producer at CBS' "60 Minutes."
"Iraq is a huge issue, probably the biggest foreign-policy issue since Vietnam. We're talking about trillions of dollars and a lot of lives lost," says Gelber, who sits on Swarthmore's board of directors and convinced the college to fund the start-up program. "I was feeling some frustration with the quality of coverage in the electronic media."
To find sources and story ideas, students prod their professors, and pour over books, blogs and mainstream media.
They pester anyone with an Iraqi friend, and use lots of calling-card minutes. They also depend on a computer program that allows them to talk for free with anyone around the world via an Internet connection.
Another trick of the trade: Several Iraqi phone books are posted on the Web.
Schwartz found the Iraqi athlete the easy way: through a Web site. After an e-mail exchange, he reached the man on his cell.
For the Next Generation
Marty Goldensohn, a veteran on-air personality at National Public Radio who was hired by the university to oversee the show full-time, says three of the students speak Arabic, and can act as translators. Often, though, reporters are limited to interviewing sources who speak English, and have access to a computer or phone line.
But Goldensohn is quick to point out that journalists on the ground in Baghdad are also limited, and cannot leave the American-secured green zone without risking their lives.
"The students are passionate to understand Iraq more deeply and to relate to Iraqis as real people," he states. "As a member of the media, it feels good to pass on my skills to the next generation."
Still, with the public at its fiercest over the debate about whether or not the United States should pull out of Iraq, how does Schwartz feel about all of this?
The freshman explains that he got involved partly because it seemed like a "cool" thing to do, but he also wanted to deepen his understanding of Iraq and the struggle to turn it into a stable democracy. He admits that he probably has more of an interest in Middle East politics than the average college student.
"Maybe that could be rooted in being Jewish and knowing about Israel," says Schwartz, who traveled there with his family in 1999. "But with all this Iraq work, I've been concentrating less on Israel."
So with classes like organic chemistry on his transcript, does Schwartz, who has not declared a major, have any notions of pursuing radio journalism as a profession?
"I'm not sure that journalism is for me," he says.
He pauses, then adds that he's weary of always "having a deadline hanging over me."