ALEPPO, Syria: “Gooood morning, Vietnam,” Wael Adel joked as he prepared to greet his listeners halfway around the world from Fresh Air of Syria radio in the war-battered northern city of Aleppo.
“I’ve always wanted to say that, ever since I watched the movie,” said Adel, aged 30, referring to the 1987 Oscar nominee in which Robin Williams played an unorthodox DJ broadcasting to American troops.
Sitting in his studio, the walls soundproofed with empty egg cartons, he shuffles his papers, rehearses the news bulletin once more and starts to record.
Adel and his six colleagues in Aleppo can’t broadcast live, so they prerecord everything and send it by Internet to another team across the border in Turkey.
“We would have loved to do live shows, but that’s impossible because we don’t have a sound engineer or the means to do it,” said Adel, an Arabic literature graduate who directs Fresh Air of Syria.
Aleppo, Syria’s second city and once its business hub, has been rocked since July 2012, when rebels first assaulted it, by endless fighting as government forces try to retake it.
It is now divided into pro- and anti-regime neighborhoods, with large swathes of it having been destroyed.
Nine months ago, Adel and some of his friends living in exile in Turkey decided that people there needed to know what was going on, and that’s how the radio station was born.
“In Aleppo, there was no electricity, no TV. People didn’t know what was happening either here or elsewhere in the country,” he said.
The 12-man operation, its numbers evenly split between Aleppo and Turkey, broadcasts 24/7 on the Internet and over the airwaves on 98.5 FM.
As well as keeping listeners up-to-date on the revolt against President Bashar Assad, Fresh Air also gives them moral support during bombings, Adel explained.
“Many people listen to the radio so that they don’t feel alone,” he told AFP, proudly adding that he’s heard accounts of “whole families locking themselves up in a room to listen.”
More than 26,400 people have “liked” the radio station’s Facebook page, contributing immensely to its growing popularity.
“We weren’t very well known in Aleppo, because unless you had Internet, you couldn’t hear us. Slowly, our audience has grown,” Adel said.
He said that he spent days painting the radio’s logo on Aleppo’s walls, so that residents would become familiar with it.
“I have friends in regime-held areas [of Aleppo] who tune in every day,” Adel smiled.
“But it’s the taxi drivers who listen to us most, because they spend their whole day listening to the radio. And when they recognize my voice, it makes me feel proud of my work.”
But the first months weren’t easy for Adel and his team.
“Because of the frequent power cuts, we couldn’t send our reports to our colleagues in Turkey,” said 22-year-old Baher, a former pharmacy employee who now works at Fresh Air.
The station broadcasts three weekly programs, along with regular news bulletins. The rest of the day is filled with Arabic music.
The first program hosts local rebel leaders, the police, fire department and utilities chiefs, who talk about problems in the city.
Another hosts “a doctor who talks to citizens about health. It’s a good show, but because there aren’t any phone lines in Aleppo, people can’t call in to ask questions,” Adel said.
Instead, the team invites participants to come into the studio to share their views.
But the most successful show is a satire starring two comedians – Wadih and Mutiq – who quip about daily life in Aleppo.
“People love this one because it brings lightness into the war, and at times like this, it’s not easy to laugh,” Adel said.
Taxi driver Abu Ali surfs the airwaves looking for the station.
“I love this radio station because, last winter, it was the only one my family and I could listen to,” he said.
But not everyone has been so cooperative, says 20-year-old Abu Hasan, another member of the Fresh Air team.
Few people agree to go on air to voice their views, “because they think that if they cross over into the regime side, their voices will be recognized and they will be thrown in jail,” the journalism student explained.
“As if the regime had nothing better to do than listen to the radio.”
There are other problems.
“Last week, the [rebel] Free Syrian Army threatened to arrest us because we were asking people questions on the streets. They accused us of being spies,” Abu Hasan said.
But Adel and his team carry on.
“I’d love to set up a television channel, though I know that it’s complicated,” Adel said, as he put on his headphones, getting ready for another show.