Radio show targets younger Muslims
By Raja Abdulrahim
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — As jazzy music played overhead, radio hosts Amir Mertaban and Mohamad Ahmad chatted casually with their guest, Isaac Yerushalmi, setting a relaxed mood.
The show could have dissolved into a heated argument between two Muslims and a Jew, but in the inaugural run of "Boiling Point" on what's billed as the nation's first Muslim talk radio station, Mertaban was absorbed with more mundane matters.
Still wearing his burgundy Fairplex shirt from his day job as a manager for the Los Angeles County Fair, Mertaban looked over the show's introduction. He glanced at Yerushalmi's biography and a few reminders he had jotted down.
"OK, I can't use the word 'freakin,'" he said to no one in particular.
In the control room, Nour Mattar, one of the founders of One Legacy Radio, clicked off some of the banned words. "I mean we're cool, but we still have Islamic character and morals, especially we have a lot of kids, 16, 17, listening in. We don't want them to think this is OK."
The hosts of "Boiling Point" — a show that purports to take "taboo topics to the boiling point" — are allowed one "What the heck" a show, said Ahmad, a UCLA law school graduate.
One Legacy Radio is an online broadcast that officially launched on www.onelegacyradio.com in November from a nondescript studio in an office park off the 5 Freeway in Irvine, Calif., with four weekly shows. Its three founders — Muslims in their late 20s and early 30s who grew up in Britain and the United States — have slowly increased the station's programming while trying to strike a balance between religious sensibilities and a more edgy, youth-driven conversation.
Although some of the programming is conventional, such as a show about converts and one devoted to parenting, "Boiling Point" and the religiously challenging "Face the Faith" are more provocative. The station owners are even working on a Muslim version of "Loveline," the often sexually charged syndicated, call-in show.
It's an area the American Muslim media largely avoids and one the station owners' parents have shied away from or deemed un-Islamic.
"One Legacy is the fingerprint of the young Muslim ummah (community), it basically personifies the kind of ummah that we have right now," said Yasmin Bhuj, 31, a founder and marketing director who is married to Mattar. "If the generation before us did a radio station, it would be unrecognizable to what One Legacy is."
Mattar said the station receives e-mails daily from young Muslims thanking them for tackling issues that are relevant to them.
"These are taboo topics that people don't talk about, but in Islam you are allowed to talk about it," Mattar, 32, said.
"Taboo" is a word heard often around the studio. The goal of the station and its founders isn't to ruffle religious feathers — though that might happen — but to create an outlet for the younger generation of Muslims in America whose parents mostly emigrated from parts of the Middle East and South Asia in the 1970s and '80s.
Saeed Khan, a history professor at Wayne State University who specializes in Muslim identity in the West, said many first-generation immigrants believed that Islam would act as a sort of divine shield against societal ills such as drug abuse and infidelity within the Muslim community.
Outlets like One Legacy, he said, have cropped up because of the limits of existing Muslim media.
During a January taping of "Objection!" — about political issues and civil rights — host Reem Salahi interviewed a man whose brother, a U.S. citizen, has been held for several years in solitary confinement awaiting trial by the U.S. government. In the control room, Mattar and his brother Sami Matar (who spells his last name differently) sat at the console while browsing an online store for better radio equipment.
The studio has a slightly thrown-together look: prayer rugs draped over regular office tables and mismatched chairs. Most of the walls are painted deep purple and covered with sound-absorbing foam. Electric guitars, two ouds (Middle Eastern guitars) and a Middle Eastern drum lean against a rack.
On a wall there's a print by British street artist Banksy of a smiley-faced grim reaper, which with a long black veil pulled over its head resembles a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
In an adjacent office, Mattar runs his online company, which sells laptop computer parts and funds the station's slim $7,000-a-month budget — enough to pay for three part-time employees. They hope to begin selling radio ads soon. Someday, they hope, the station will be profitable.
Mattar, Bhuj and Mohammad Harake, the third founder, formed One Legacy Media in 2008 to publish Islamic books, CDs and DVDs and hold educational seminars, the first of which was a marriage seminar.
That's when they came up with the idea of a Muslim radio station. Years ago, they considered broadcasting from a low-frequency radio station with a maximum radius of 40 miles before deciding it wasn't practical. In early 2009, the partners decided to take advantage of the rising popularity of online broadcast and cellphone radio apps.
For much of the first year, the station streamed only Quran and religious lectures.
"Seven to 10 listeners a day, max," said Harake, 26, sales and promotional director.
"A day? A month," Mattar said.
Since then, they have added iPhone, BlackBerry and Android apps. Mattar wouldn't disclose listenership numbers but said they have doubled each month and that about 4,000 people have downloaded one of their cellphone apps.
The boldest addition to their lineup is likely to be what Harake likes to call "Muslim Loveline." The show would be far less raunchy that the syndicated show but would address things like pornography and premarital sex, both banned by Islam.
The hosts have a laundry list of topics to get their listeners riled up: polygamy, temporary marriages, Shiite and Sunni relations and finding a spouse.
Had they expected listeners to object to their pro-Israeli guest on their first show, though, the feedback was entirely positive. The conversation mostly revolved around recent events at the University of California-Irvine between Muslim and Jewish students but ended in a non sequitur.
"Before you go, we talk about all the differences, we took it to the boiling point, the house is burning down right now I have to call the fire department, but let's talk about something that is very similar," Ahmad said to Yerushalmi.
"You're not doing this, for crying out loud," interjected Mertaban.
"I am doing this, I am gonna go there," Ahmad said and launched into a long-winded, meandering introduction that ended with a simple question to Yerushalmi; "Is your mother trying to find you a good Jewish girl?"
Mertaban jumped in: "Check it out, actions to words. You should marry a crazy Palestinian woman that is hard-core anti-Israel just to make a statement."