BROOKE GLADSTONE: The topic dominating news in Iran this fall has been the World Cup Soccer Finals. This is no casual matter, because celebrations after the games have turned into political rallies against the ruling conservative clerics. To tamp down that unrest, police have confiscated all of the satellite dishes they can find. Increasingly, Iranians have relied on these dishes for news and entertainment from around the world, and in Los Angeles, a city with hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans, expatriates with money to burn are broadcasting a heady mix of music and politics to the home country via satellite TV. From KPCC in Los Angeles, Rachel Myro reports.
RACHEL MYRO: It's 8 in the morning in North Hollywood, home of National Iranian TV. While most Angelenos are stuck in traffic on their way to work, Zia Atabay is broadcasting live to Tehran where it's 7:30 p.m. prime time. [CLIP FROM SHOW W/ZIA ATABAY GREETING VIEWERS] With eyebrows dancing up and down, the 59 year old host of You and Television holds court each Wednesday and Friday for two hours at a stretch. His long monologues are punctuated by music videos, interviews and phone calls from viewers around the world. Sometimes the program goes on for longer. Sometimes it stops short, which doesn't seem to matter since Atabay owns the network.
ZIA ATABAY: I owed that country, because I had the best here when, when I was single -- best life, best money -- everything. And now that I thought I have money and here I could live peacefully very good. And I was!
RACHEL MYRO: Before the 1979 revolution that deposed the late Shah of Iran, Atabay was a successful singer and executive with CBS Records' Tehran affiliate. Over here, he and his wife amassed a new fortune with two surgical clinics. They bought homes. They went shopping in Europe. But something was missing.
ZIA ATABAY: When I'm dying, what happened? [SNIFFS] My children will say my father was singer, famous singer and died -- or -- they can say my father made something that didn't exist in our history. My father made independent global network in television for freedom [of viewer]. [CLIP FROM WORK ON BROADCAST]
RACHEL MYRO: For Atabay this is clearly a labor of love. The operation functions out of just one studio space and two control rooms the size of broom closets. Programming is a folksy blend of music, news, sports, old films and cooking shows. While he manages to run the network on just 220,000 dollars a month, Atabay's losing 140,000 a month. A year and a half into the venture it's not clear how much longer this self-styled Ted Turner can keep his dream alive. Atabay doesn't even know how many viewers he has. That will change, now that he has begun to charge subscription fees to viewers in North America and Europe. Satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, but Atabay is counting on another revolution to change that.
ZIA ATABAY: Imagine: if tomorrow Iran would be a free country. We have 72 million. If 10 million of them, and I'm sure there's more than that, but if 10 mil--10 million of them -- they pay me not 10 dollars per month - not 20 - one dollar - would be 10 million dollars per month. So this is a big company with a good future.
RACHEL MYRO: In "Tehrangeles" as some people joking call it, the community has long supported several local radio and TV stations and ITV was the first to broadcast to a worldwide audience 24/7. And now, believe it or not, there's competition. [SINGER/BAND] On a recent Friday night in West Hollywood about 250 people paid 250 dollars a plate to see local musicians perform and hear from community celebrities like Maccabi[s] Mohadjer, the host of Spotlight, a youth-oriented talk show on Tapesh TV.
MACCABI[S] MOHADJER: I want to thank the people that are giving us a chance to go global. It is our responsibility as Iranians to teach our kids about our 7,500 year history; to teach them to be proud of being Iranian but at the same time to respect all others. My heart does beat, every second of the day, for this network. Thank you so much. [God bless] [...?...]. [APPLAUSE]
RACHEL MYRO: Tapesh TV like N ITV is convinced that its programs fill an urgent need back in Iran, but Mehram Kamrava, a political professor at the California State University at North Ridge, says that's less true now than it was 30 years ago.
MEHRAM KAMRAVA: The cultural atmosphere in Iran is not as closed as it used to be.
RACHEL MYRO: Kamrava visited Iran 11 months ago after 22 years away. This man whose job it is to know what's going on in the Middle East says he was shocked to find Iranians engaged in sophisticated political debates and clamoring for tickets to local musical concerts.
MEHRAM KAMRAVA: Many of the Iranian expatriates who live outside of Iran are unaware or at best are superficially aware of the very significant cultural dynamics brewing underneath the surface in Iran, and so it isn't as if you have a culture or a society that is starved of any sort of musical or artistic outlet.
RACHEL MYRO: Black market satellite dishes in Iran have been pulling in foreign broadcasts for years. CNN, BBC, ArabSat, Al Jazeera, the Voice of America -- even the Iranian government's own network, ParsTV. According to Kamrava, the market is already saturated with sophisticated news and entertainment. But Ali Reza Merhosami, Tapesh TV's creative director, argues there is a niche for Farsi programming that isn't government-sponsored. He knows the competition is tough, but he's also willing to bet that his ace in the hole is a talent pool schooled in the ways of American TV.
ALI REZA MERHOSAMI: And the people who live in the United States, there is a thing in their home called "remote control," so if you don't do a right job, they click you and instead of watching you guys, they watch Jay Leno or they watch, you know, David Letterman.
RACHEL MYRO: In other words if you can make it in L.A., you can make it anywhere, be it Berlin or Kandahar. The thing is Merhosami doesn't have much time to test his theory. He says the network has enough funds and enthusiasm to last only about 6 to 8 months. Tapesh TV isn't going to work unless it attracts big advertising money, and back at N ITV, Zia Atabay admits it hasn't been so easy to do that.
ZIA ATABAY: I don't understand then why Pepsi Cola doesn't give me the advertising to survive, man! [LAUGHS] Why?-- I don't know!
RACHEL MYRO: If you could deposit optimism in a bank, N ITV and Tapesh TV would have no problem. Their challenge now is to prove there really is a hunger for independent Farsi TV beaming direct to the world from sunny Southern California. For OTM, I'm Rachel Myro in Los Angeles.
"There Is No Greater Love"
by Courtney Pine