The letters that arrive at the three-room studio of Radio Karabagh are small works of folk art. They come on elaborate stationery, covered with glitter applied by hand, pictures cut from newspapers and small bits of metal foil applied like gold leaf in patterns. A flower seller named Shahrwani, who implores the station to play a song from a cassette he has included, has covered the back of his letter with 15 red plastic daisies, surrounded by hand-drawn hearts.
More important for Radio Karabagh, a tiny provincial station north of Kabul, are the envelopes the letters arrive in. Sold by local merchants for the price of four afghanis -- about 10 cents -- the envelopes raise revenue for the station. They contain requests for music, praise for the station and sometimes facts offered in the interest of the greater general knowledge. But they are also sent in hopes of hearing the letter read on the air, and given that it costs four afghanis for the privilege, the writers often include long lists of names to be recited: friends, relatives, fellow students and merchants whose shops are close to each other.
Radio Karabagh may be a microscopic study in how to build a wide, proprietary interest in one of the essential pillars of democracy, a vigorous media and a free press. As Afghanistan has prepared for its first national elections, to be held tomorrow, small stations such as Radio Karabagh have borne much of the burden of educating the populace about the candidates, the process and importance of voting. But they're also part of a deeper construction of local identity.
The station's office and transmission tower sit on a dusty stretch of the Shomali Plain, a war-tattered region where new mud bricks seem to be rising in about the same proportion as old mud bricks are falling from years of fighting and neglect. Next to the station stands the remains of a bombed-out telephone building, and between the two lies the hulk of a Soviet armored car.
Founded in February with help from Internews, an international nonprofit group, Radio Karabagh is a primary source of information in an area of the country where illiteracy averages, by one local estimate, about 70 percent. According to Abdul Hamid Mobarez, the dapper, French-speaking deputy minister of information and culture, stations such as Radio Karabagh are signs of a media boom in Afghanistan. In Kabul, he says, at least five daily newspapers are published, 70 private publishing houses have opened and several radio stations, including one for women, vie for attention. But Kabul is not Afghanistan, and even in Karabagh, little more than an hour's drive away, media of any sort are a rarity.
"We have difficulties," says Mobarez. "Only 6 percent of the people have electricity. The others must buy transistor radios and batteries. After 24 years of war, we have no economy, no production and our land is covered by mines." So even batteries are too expensive for many people. And Radio Karabagh, which must run its own generator, is limited to three hours' broadcast in the morning and a few more hours in the evening.
Just after sunrise, the Karabagh station starts its broadcast day with a news program produced in Kabul and distributed to small stations. The announcer says China has just given $1 million in sports equipment to Afghanistan and will rebuild a major road. Election equipment and supplies are arriving in the provinces. People who notice infractions of election rules should go to the local office of the joint United Nations-Afghan election monitoring organization.
Mohammad Ehsan, 26, is standing in an open-front shop that sells nails and locks and other hardware, listening to Radio Karabagh. Asked if anything has struck him as particularly interesting during this morning's broadcast, he recalls a statistic: One out of six children in Afghanistan will die before age 5.
"It is surprising," he says, because he doesn't think that many children die in his region. But Afghanistan is a large country. "It shows us that [in other provinces] they do not care enough about their health."
Fraidoon, 24, who runs a grocery across the street from Ehsan, says he trusts the station absolutely -- both its local programming and its national news. His shop is one of two that sell the envelopes that raise money for the station. A green box with the station's name painted on it sits outside his shop, where completed letters are collected. The station has moved to put more boxes out, in other villages within its estimated 35-mile range, and listeners writing to the station demand even more boxes. Altogether, station officials estimate, about 5,000 Afghans per month participate, raising about $100.
For stations such as Radio Karabagh, "It's all about scraping together pennies so you can afford a generator and fuel," says Hugo MacPherson, who works with Internews in Afghanistan to set up and support radio stations until they can be self-sufficient.
"We hope not to be here in the next year," he says.
According to Mobarez, the deputy minister, there are now 47 stations operating in Afghanistan: some with national reach, some government-run, some private concerns and many small, local independents, as with Radio Karabagh. With the rise of these more far-flung stations, Afghan villagers are being introduced to one another on two levels: news of the nation is penetrating deeper into the countryside, and the countryside is becoming a subject for its new, local media.
Mohammad Yonous Karabaghi, 42, the deputy manager of the Karabagh station, points to a gift from a listener, plastic flowers in a vase sitting in the station's waiting room. The letters that help support the station sit in stacks near the entryway. The broadcast booth is Spartan but has the essential equipment. Ahmad Zaker Hashimi, a young man who rises at 4:30 a.m. to power up the station's generator for the morning broadcast, is sitting at a computer, editing his own program, "My Village."
Karabaghi, a geologist by training as well as a teacher and a local election supervisor, says he was selected to help run the station by the local shura, or village council. His education gives him particular status in the village (albeit a village of about 100,000 people). He explains the station's popularity -- and it seems genuinely fanatical -- as a response to the decision to broadcast in simple language, take lots of requests and cater to listeners' curiosity. One of the most popular programs encourages people to send questions -- about celebrities, local events and, apparently, basic factual information about the world. The station does its best to answer them.
"If we don't know the answer, we research it," says Karabaghi. "We have a book."
He means "a book" literally. It's a thick book, called "General Information," that is something between a world almanac and a one-volume encyclopedia. On the cover are small pictures that suggest its scope: airplanes and Franz Schubert.
"First of all," begins a letter to the station, directed to the popular question-and-answer program, "I like to offer my heartfelt greeting to my dear announcers, their teachers, and all the other technicians of Barg-e-Mursal." The letter's author goes on to help out, apparently, with an answer to a previous day's stumper.
"Yuhan Ghosburg was born on 1398 A.D. and he was the inventor of print," the writer continues. The date and other details suggest that Yuhan Ghosburg has made it to the plains of Afghanistan, transliterated from Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type.
This simple fact, garbled as if in the game of Telephone from 500 years and a continent away, stands out poignantly among the letters. Everything is scarce here, even basic knowledge. The same with movable type, newsprint, electricity, television, batteries, water, food and a clear vision of the country's future.
But something is coalescing in this part of Afghanistan, where things are stable and enthusiasm for the upcoming elections is high. It isn't necessarily what politicians in the United States would like to think is coming together -- a stable, democratic Afghanistan -- but something more elemental, a low-level, broad investment in institutions.
Radio Karabagh isn't yet proof of a vigorous free press. While the station was recording the proceedings of a local celebration for educators, someone started going on about a warlord, Ismail Khan, whose fiefdom is on the other side of the country. The station decided not to air the man's remarks, which caused him to complain to someone in Kabul (it's not clear who), which led to Karabaghi having to defend his decision. It's a tangled story Karabaghi is telling, the upshot of which is that you can get into trouble for censoring, and for not censoring, and the first instincts of some disgruntled listeners is to use whatever authority can be mustered to cow independent media.
As with the elections about to be held here, it's possible that the resemblance of the new Afghan media to media in the West is entirely misleading. It may well be the germ of an entirely different kind of media, with different values and different goals. Right now the national agenda seems to reflect the need to involve the population in creating a reassuring self-image. A radio station that goes too far down that path won't do much local muckraking. But after 24 years of war and suffering, it's understandable why stirring up new problems may not be part of the village game plan.
A video of the operations at Radio Karabagh by washingtonpost.com's Travis Fox can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/world.
News researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.