Life under lockdown: Lebanese start new radio station amid coronavirus outbreak

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Locked down in their respective houses under the shadow of coronavirus, a group of friends from a community space in Beirut have launched a radio station to help themselves and others pass the time in quarantine.

Radio al Hey, or “The Neighborhood’s Radio,” launched on Friday, with a group of around 10 DJs each working from their own houses – most of them in Lebanon, some living abroad – taking turns playing songs and sharing stories.

One DJ offered horoscope readings. Another played theme songs from beloved cartoon shows of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet another plans to give a recorder to his father and have him narrate his weekly walk in the wilderness, where he gathers wild herbs for cooking.

Read more: Coronavirus: Lebanon declares state of emergency, orders two-week lockdown

“The only rule that we have is to not talk about coronavirus,” said Majd al-Shihabi a graduate student of urban planning at the American University of Beirut, who organized the project along with a group of friends involved in running Mansion, a community space in Beirut’s Zoukak al Blat neighborhood.

“Basically, if you want news about the coronavirus you can just open any social media or turn on your TV,” al-Shihabi said.

“Anywhere you turn, you will find news about coronavirus, so this is a place where you can have a quarantine from the quarantine.”

Shihabi was inspired by an Italian friend who is part of the team running Radio Quartiere, a similar concept set up in Italy to pass the time during the quarantine. After consulting with his friend, the Beirut group set up their own offshoot using Radiojar, a software that allows users to create online radio stations.

“It’s very simple. [The DJs] don’t need any special equipment – it’s just whatever built-in mic they have on their laptop and they just upload the files directly,” Shihabi said. “Each one messages me, I give them the keys for the back end, and everyone brings their own musical taste, musical background.”

On Monday, the first day of official lockdown in Lebanon after officials declared a state of health emergency Sunday, one DJ shared his favorite recipe for bamieh (okra) and interspersed reminiscences about the stories his grandparents used to tell him about their youth, sitting on their jasmine-scented balcony, with verses of a ballad by classic Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez playing.

Read more: Restaurants and public life in Lebanon suffer amid new coronavirus measures

Another DJ, a Lebanese art student in the Netherlands, shared musings about the experience of living far from home in times of crisis as she played Tunisian composer Anouar Brahem’s piece “A Coutances.”

While most of the listeners are in Lebanon, some are tuning in from abroad. As of Sunday, Shihabi said, the station had about 90 people listening per hour, for a total of about 1,700 listeners throughout the day.

He encouraged others to set up stations in their own community.

“It’s meant to be a neighborhood radio,” Shihabi said. “I’m more interested in having many radio stations with a few listeners than having one radio station with a lot of listeners.”

As to whether the radio station will continue once the lockdown is over, he said, “I’m not 100 percent sure. Some people are suggesting that we should (continue), but it’s a lot of coordinating work. If I have a group of volunteers who would like to continue coordinating, maybe I’ll hand it off to a committee at [the artistic space] Mansion or something.”

Shihabi said he sees the station as an extension of the mission of Mansion, a formerly abandoned villa that has been transformed into a collective space over the past eight years, providing a residence and workspace for artists, researchers, and others and an open community event space. However, the future of the space is currently uncertain. Shihabi said he hopes the radio project will call attention to the role the space has played in the community.

“It’s a cultural center its open to anyone…Mansion is like the cradle that hosts projects like this, ‘Radio al Hey,’” he said. “[The radio station] is kind of a way of showing how the spirit of Mansion is so important.”

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