By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
The head of a burgeoning Afghan media empire looked down at his new BlackBerry, vibrating against a table in Washington earlier this week. "Afghan civilians injured in Gereshk suicide bombing," read the e-mail headline.
Another day, another suicide bombing in another town. Another too-typical news event for Saad Mohseni's stations to broadcast across a country where prime-time programming is scheduled to fit the nighttime hours when electrical generators are switched on.
Mohseni, director of the Moby Media Group, was in Washington for meetings at the State Department and with U.S. media and business counterparts. His five-year-old company -- which got start-up help from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- owns two of the most-watched television networks in Afghanistan, an FM radio station, a video production house, an ad agency, a music label and a small magazine.
In addition to his nightly news program and a "Good Morning Afghanistan"-style talk show, Mohseni's Tolo TV network runs popular Indian soap operas, has a singing-contest show a la "American Idol," an amateur stand-up comedy show where comics get laughs in Persian Dari, a satire program that shows lawmakers in embarrassing situations and will, this fall, begin showing dubbed episodes of the Fox thriller "24."
In some ways, Mohseni, 41, is the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan.
Not only is he an entrepreneurial media lord with Australian roots who buys his soap operas from Murdoch's Indian Star TV network, his programming has been criticized as sensational, lowbrow and corruptive to the culture -- much as Fox's "The Simpsons" was panned when it hit the U.S. airwaves. And, like many of Murdoch's programs, Mohseni's are wildly popular. Both points of view came through in interviews on the streets of Kabul this week.
"Tolo TV is one of my favorite TV networks," said Wahidullah, 37, a former teacher. "I like most of its programs, especially the evening news and 'Dahlez Ha' " -- a current affairs program -- "which has already disclosed many secret things." On the other hand, Amanullah, 43, a car salesman, said: "Tolo TV . . . encourages people to immodesty and is really in contradiction to Afghan culture. My children are not allowed to watch it. If I had the ability to stop it, I would have stopped it very early."
Traversing Afghanistan's culture -- in places deeply conservative but youthful and surprisingly wired, wracked by a history of occupation, civil war and religious oppression -- can be as rocky as navigating the country's renowned moonscape terrain.
"We are mindful of the mullahs and clerics," Mohseni said during his Washington visit. He said that his network is the only one that the Taliban talks to, because it is seen as unbiased, yet it also broadcasts Afghanistan's most popular -- and Western-style -- entertainment programs. Tolo even had a dustup with the Afghan attorney general this year that resulted in some staff members being arrested and briefly detained.
"You can kick-start social change with TV," Mohseni said.
Women and men work alongside each other at Tolo (translated as "sunrise" or "dawn"), something that was forbidden under Taliban rule. Though some female contestants on Tolo's "Idol" show cover their heads, Mohseni said it is because they are following custom, rather than harshly enforced religious law.
"The thirst for freedom in Afghanistan that existed in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the Taliban is most evident in the explosion of media these last six years," Said T. Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, wrote in an e-mail this week. "More than 17 TV stations, 50 radio stations and 300 publications are contributing to a vibrant discussion of politics, culture, entertainment and religion, as well as women's and civil rights."
It's a high-stakes, high-risk market, but lately, Mohseni has been wrestling with a more prosaic problem: How do you schedule your prime-time programming around Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began yesterday and requires the faithful to fast until sundown each day?
"You wouldn't want to get between an Afghan and the dinner table after fasting," Mohseni joked. Consequently, to hold on to viewership, he is moving back his nightly news broadcast several minutes past sundown during Ramadan.
In a country as war-torn and sparsely modernized as Afghanistan, it is impossible to know exactly how many people watch television. Mohseni said his research shows that almost everyone can see it who wants to, but not necessarily at home. TV watching is more of a community experience, he said, with groups gathering in public spaces. Tolo can now be seen in 15 Afghan cities.
Like many expatriate Afghans with a plan, Mohseni came to Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion loosened the Taliban's turn-back-the-clock grip on Afghanistan's business, technological and cultural life.
Mohseni is the son of an Afghan diplomat who was stationed in Tokyo when the Russians invaded his country in 1979. His father resigned his post, moved his family to Melbourne, Australia, (coincidentally, Murdoch's hometown) and settled down.
Mohseni dropped out of college and sped to the business world, becoming first an investment banker in Australia. When that proved too tame, he moved to Uzbekistan in the mid-'90s, as that country was flexing its capitalistic muscles after decades of Soviet control, and became a commodities trader.
After a few years in Central Asia, and a cultural reconnection with other expat Afghans there, Mohseni headed back to Australia looking for opportunity. It came in the wake of the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks . With no media background, Mohseni was not specifically looking to start a media business when he hit the ground in Kabul, but that's where he found the market gap.
By March 2003, Mohseni and his two brothers had launched Afghanistan's first privately run radio station, Arman FM, with their own money and a $228,000 grant from USAID. When Mohseni started Tolo in 2004, USAID kicked in another $2.1 million. The Mohseni brothers say they have so far invested more than $6 million of their own money.
The Afghan media market is rapidly growing and increasingly competitive, with plenty of start-ups like Mohseni's seeking the country's undertapped media consumers.
Aside from a lack of disposable income, Afghanistan has a demo Western advertisers would kill for. Sixty percent of the nation's 32 million residents are less than 20 years old. Illiteracy is widespread, so video and music have little competition from print for consumers' entertainment time and money. And there are more than 3 million cellphone customers in the country; users can vote for their favorite Afghan idol by text message and send video of themselves performing.
"Talk about market opportunities -- he's got the first TV and radio stations in a country where they had banned TV and radio," said Tom Freston, the former Viacom chief executive who has befriended Mohseni and introduced him to Western media moguls, including Murdoch.
Before he helped invent MTV in the early 1980s, Freston ran clothing businesses in Afghanistan and India and lived in the countries. When Mohseni's girlfriend (now his wife) wanted to open a clothing business in Afghanistan after the Taliban left, she tracked Freston down -- and also introduced him to her boyfriend.
Tolo TV "reminds me of MTV in the early days," said Freston, who has not invested in Mohseni's company. "Everyone there is under 25 years old, there's a lot of energy. The people who work for Saad are really motivated and emblematic of what a new Afghanistan could be. It's probably one of the only success stories since the fall of the Taliban."
Special correspondent Qudratullah Haidarzai in Kabul and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this article.