Istanbul radio station stays defiant despite crackdowns
After a failed coup in 2016, the Turkish government closed 169 newspapers, publishers, and TV and radio stations. Thousands of reporters lost their jobs, or worse. Currently Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.
This is on top of recent terrorist attacks, millions of refugees entering the country, and a president who has been consolidating more and more power.
But one Istanbul radio station remains a beacon of free speech: AçıkRadyo. That’s “Open Radio” in English.
I spent the fall in Istanbul, and I wanted to see what it was like to make radio in a country that shuts down media outlets.
A lone voice
After I take a ferry across the Bosphorus — that’s the waterway that divides Istanbul — I walk up the hill to the station. It’s noon, and a music program called “Rambo Mozart” is playing from one of the two small recording studios.
There are years of old framed station schedules and posters all over the building, featuring the station’s frequency, 94.9.
As I walk into the kitchen, I find Utku Zırığ relaxing with a coffee.
His show Yeşil Bülten (Green Bulletin in English) just ended. Today they were talking about the effect of a new coal power plant in northwestern Turkey.
He says most locals are opposed to the government project because of its environmental impacts.
I ask if other places are talking about the issue.
Zırığ thinks. “No TV, no radio. But three opposition newspapers. That’s all.”
Those three papers are some of the few remaining independent news sources that are fighting for survival in the country. The rest are one-sided in favor of the government led by President Recep Erdoğan.
“The government says: if you against a power plant project or mine project, you are terrorist,” Zırığ complains. “They always say this about every issue, about every project.”
But in recent years, the restrictions have gotten worse. Much, much worse.
Back in 2013, tens of thousands of demonstrators pushed back during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. During that spring of demonstrations, Açık Radyo wasone of the main sources of information.
When other reporters were restricted at their home outlets, they could speak freely on the station. Once the protests ended, the government continued to tighten restrictions. After the failed coup in 2016, all but a few independent media sources were silenced.
Zırığ hosts his show here for an hour every Thursday as a volunteer, but he used to be a full-time journalist.
“In TV I was doing four hours of live show daily,” he says proudly. “I liked it.”
That was on IMC TV, a station that had Turkey’s first transgender TV reporter. It was shut down by the government in October 2016.
Since then he’s been writing corporate PR; that’s what he says many journalists have had to do to make money. Açık Radyo gives him a place to stay on top of issues, hoping that he’ll eventually be able to get back to work.
“In these days in Turkey, Açık Radyo is like a island,” explains Zırığ. “Staying together makes us more strong. That's why it's important.”
"Hey dad, why don't we start our own radio station?"
Upstairs is General Manager Ömer Madra. His desk is filled with Turkish periodicals and pamphlets from the station. Madra hosts their flagship current affairs show: Açık Gazte (Open Newspaper).
The program is “intergenerational, in between the lines, and intercontinental. Always in between,” he says.
For the last 20 years, Madra spent two hours every weekday morning interviewing people about what’s going on in Turkish politics and around the world.
This morning, they talked about how the Turkish courts aren’t independent from the authoritarian government.
“I talk about wars, you know genocides, and whatever,” he explains. “I throw all these things upon the listeners. And there you are: let them solve it!” He starts laughing. “You know, global warming!”
Madra is always smiling, always telling stories. And if you stick around long enough, he’ll likely end up roping you into hosting a show on-air.
He starts telling the story of how he started the station back in 1995. “It was totally accidental, as very many things in life are.”
This is Madra’s second career. Before running a radio station, he had spent years as a professor researching international law and human rights. But he grew disillusioned with restrictions on academic freedoms in Turkey.
The airwaves were opening up, though. Before 1993, the government hada monopoly on all radio and TV, but then they let private groups start their own stations.
It was his son who came up with the idea. “My son said: ‘Hey dad why don't we found our own radio station?’ And, being even crazier than he is I said: ‘OK, why not! It will be a free independent radio station. It would be progressive. This is crazy.’”
There had never been a listener-supported station in Turkey before. Like public radio stations in the United States, this one also holds regular fundraising drives. Staff at the radio station say they’re still the only one in Turkey that does this.
“Probably the highest priority goes to being independent,” says Madra. Without financial independence, they wouldn’t have control over what went on air. One of the ways the government has controlled or shut down other media outlets is by finding ways to limit their funding.
Future of Açık
In the United States, NPR stations have each other to get content and support from. They’re part of a network.
For AçıkRadyo — it’s just them.
There is a government-run national radio and TV network, similar to the BBC, but editor IlksenMavituna says they only support president Erdoğan’s government.
He calls it “propaganda.”
Mavituna has been at the station since 2005, and hosts their other main daily program: AçıkDergi (Open Magazine). It’s two hours of arts and culture every weekday afternoon.
I asked Mavituna if things had changed for the station over the past five years.
He hesitates, then says, “Looks the same to me.”
He says that many radio stations have been closed, but that Açık Radyo has largely escaped that fate — so far. (The station was temporarily closed down by the government for 15 days a decade ago because they read a Charles Bukowski poem on air.)
When I mention Açık Radyo to people around town, everyone first says that they love the station, then they say they’re surprised it hasn’t been shut down yet.
Mativuna tries to brush off those fears. “We hear that very very often. I don't get it— why people are just that pessimistic. But they're right as well. I don't know, maybe we're waiting our turn? We'll see.”
I ask him if he’s scared it might happen.
“Of course," he says. "As a person? Yes. But as a part of Açık Radyo? No. I'm not afraid. Why should I be afraid? They can stop the broadcast, but that doesn't mean the end of Açık Radyo. We have books, we have big electronic archives, we have a memory shared with the listener.”
But then he talks about what it's like to live under the constant threat of being shut down.
“Every month or every two months every one of us got into a depression,” he says. “You know, having nightmares. But, this is normal in these times. What should I say?”
Some people I spoke with said that Açık Radyo might still be open because closing them would be more trouble than it’s worth. That there might be a lot of international pressure if anything happened to them.
But their listenership is on the smaller side: only 40,000 daily listeners in a city of 15 million.
When I ask Omer Madra about the station getting shut down, or the possibility of getting arrested, he quotes a Turkish folk saying:
“Fear won't help you with the Grim Reaper.”
But he doesn’t really want to talk about the possibility. “That’s a nightmare. Let’s forget about it. We'll do our best; 22 years has passed," he says. "We have made our mistakes, but we never change our ways and we never will.”
Madra changes the topic and opens up a book written by a nine-year-old fan. “So the main hero of the story,” he explains, “is a radio station and they're struggling against a corrupt king ... And they win! This is fantastic!”
He tells story after story, talking about the community of thousands of guests, programmers and friends who have come through the station since 1995.
Staying enthusiastic, and staying defiant.
This story was originally published in February 2018.