Tuning in on life in Iraq

SWARTHMORE, Pa. – College radio reporter Amelia Templeton heard the gunshots from halfway around the world, and the sound still startled her.

And in a way, that was the point. Her telephone interview with an Iraqi citizen was meant to bring the conflict home to Americans.

For the past year or so, Templeton has been part of a small band of Swarthmore College students broadcasting “War News Radio” on the Internet and their campus radio station.

The weekly half-hour program is designed to go beyond the daily car bombings to examine the war more thoughtfully. It has generated so much interest that several public radio stations across the country have started carrying it.

“It’s sort of an exciting time for us,” said the show’s executive producer, Marty Goldensohn, himself a journalist for public radio programs including “Marketplace.” “My hope is to have 50 stations soon.”

Never heard of the show? That’s your problem. At least that’s the attitude Goldensohn tells his reporters to affect when calling potential sources. The approach seems to be working: “War News Radio” has landed some impressive interviews, including Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi and the chief executive of the Iraqi Stock Exchange.

The show also strives to give a voice to ordinary Iraqis, such as an aspiring Baghdad filmmaker and a university professor. Other segments feature American reporters, historians and religion experts.

“I’ve always taken this really seriously,” said Templeton, a 21-year-old senior from Portland, Ore. “We’ve earned some credibility and respect.”

Goldensohn is particularly proud of a piece that reporter Tev Kelman did on American checkpoints in Iraq. It was told through the eyes of a U.S. soldier asked to guard them and from the viewpoint of a father whose daughter was killed at one.

“That’s what we call real balance,” said Goldensohn, stressing that the program is not anti-war.

“War News Radio” was an idea hatched by David Gelber, a 1963 Swarthmore graduate and producer for TV’s “60 Minutes.” The concept found a strong foothold at the college, a small liberal arts school in suburban Philadelphia with a reputation for social activism. The first shows were broadcast about a year ago over the Internet.

The Swarthmore students who produce the program do not do any reporting from Iraq itself. They reach their sources in Iraq via Internet phone or conventional telephone, often tracking ordinary people down through a chain of friends.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, a think tank affiliated with Columbia University, said the show is “indicative of larger trends that are going on in journalism, in which citizens are becoming their own editors, and even their own producers, of news.”

It was while taping a phone conversation with an Iraqi student a couple of weeks ago that Templeton was stunned by the sound of gunfire. “Oh, my God!” she gasped on the recording.

Broadcasting everyday sounds – of walking down a street in Baghdad, of the Muslim call to prayer, or gunfire – is critical to giving listeners a sense of life in a war-torn nation 6,000 miles away, Templeton said.

“That is so much more powerful,” Templeton said. “You’re transported there.”

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