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Post Taliban, Saad Mohseni Builds Media Empire


Afghanistan is still at war, but more than a decade after 9/11, the county is more open to the world. Nobody could make a cell phone call in 2001, and few people had access to TV. This month, Renee Montagne has been reporting from a country where the media are transformed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate the explosion of media that's overtaken Afghanistan since the repressive Taliban government was toppled. There are now scores of radio and television stations here. And TV has a 1950s feel with entire families gathering in the evenings to watch their favorite shows.

By far the biggest player is Tolo TV, founded by Saad Mohseni and his siblings nearly a decade ago. Along the way, Mohseni has incurred the wrath of politicians over his network's news reporting, and the country's mullahs over its edgy programming, like airing this young woman from conservative Kandahar singing and dancing on Tolo's version of "American Idol," "Afghan Star."


MONTAGNE: I sat down with Saad Mohseni at Tolo TV headquarters in Kabul, and it's a study in contrast. At the company canteen, young employees, including many women, mingle freely, even as armed guards keep watch outside. I asked Mohseni what Kabul was like when he arrived from years of exile back in 2002.

SAAD MOHSENI: It was eerie. It was very quiet. People didn't have electricity. And you have to remember the Taliban banned television, so there was no television, although there was radio. But radio was quite boring. There was no music or anything like that. So it was silent. That's how I remember the first few days when I was bas back in Kabul.

MONTAGNE: I gather one of your first broadcasters had been working for Radio Sharia, the Taliban radio. Doing what?

MOHSENI: He was the English news reader, and then...

MONTAGNE: And what was the news?

MOHSENI: Taliban news, you know?

MONTAGNE: What the Taliban are doing today?

MOHSENI: Just, you know, today we killed this many infidels and we've done that. So - but he actually is now heading our television station. And his transformation from this sort of government employee, reading the news for the Taliban, something he was totally unhappy with, to something he totally enjoys, is also the transformation of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about that. I mean, the notion of a transformation. When you went to put programming on the air, when you finally got Tolo TV up and going, what kinds of things were you looking to put on the air?

MOHSENI: We were probably more on the serious side initially. And then it dawned on us, people want to watch good quality...

MONTAGNE: Soap operas.

MOHSENI: Soap operas. Some may view them as junk, but for most Afghans they will basically entertain them from the evening.

MONTAGNE: So you brought in Indian soap operas.

MOHSENI: We brought - well, what we did was, you know, it seemed to us at the time that Indian soap operas would resonate. And they were phenomenal successes. Mullahs were asking us to change time of broadcast because they didn't want it to interfere with the call to prayers and they didn't want to miss the soap operas. So it had a huge impact.

And of course from then on, you know, we went and we've become rather more sophisticated in the sense that we have a lot of drama's from different countries, locally produced sitcoms, and reality TV.

MONTAGNE: Now, you got in a bit of trouble with the soap operas because Indian women will sometimes bear their midriffs. So you blurred that over. I mean, there were different ways in which you adapted to either the sensibilities or the severe criticisms. But you've gotten in trouble for something which might seem much more important, and that is your news.

MOHSENI: You know, we wanted to shake things up. A lot of our efforts, I mean thinking back, were futile, because when you do exposes on corrupt officials, nothing happens to them. But I think what it did was it bought us a lot of credit really with our viewers and the public. And as much as we've suffered, I think we remain a popular television station because people trust us.

MONTAGNE: How much have your suffered? There are stories of your reporters being arrested.

MOHSENI: The suffering is people going to jail, indictments, court cases, financial - potentially sponsors not sponsoring programs, We have survived. I mean, there are times we've compromised. There are times that we've prevailed. There are times that the government's been generous. I mean, Karzai, despite all his faults, has been very tolerant of free press. So the tolerance that his ministers don't have, his lackeys don't have - he seems to have that tolerance.

MONTAGNE: A couple of shows have been underwritten by USAID money.


MONTAGNE: State Department money.

MOHSENI: USAID, we treat them as a normal sponsor. For example, let's take the show "On the Road." It's sort of a travel, cultural show. So we wanted to showcase different parts of the country and basically reintroduce Afghans and part of Afghanistan to the rest of the country.

So we thought, well, the best thing would be to actually go up to the people who built the roads.

MONTAGNE: Which is the State Department.

MOHSENI: Initially we went to Louie Berger, which is a construction company, but the funding came from USAID. So then the USAID got involved. We're very open about these things and certainly some other the shows as well. Like, for example, our version of "The Apprentice." It's about development of private sector and all of things, and it sort of falls under the USAID.

So we have collaborated, and it's good, because it allows us to produce a program which would otherwise be too expensive to produce. It's sort of a win-win situation for everyone.

MONTAGNE: You've also put on a show like "Cops" in a country where the police are widely viewed as corrupt and inept. These police are heroes every week.

MOHSENI: Well, what happened was, there was a conversation I was having with Ambassador Kyle Eikenberry. We talked about the show "FBI," if you recall in the '70s. So the story I had read somewhere is that J. Edgar Hoover basically championed the show to basically improve the reputation of the FBI as the good guys. So I said to the ambassador, I said we should do something like this because it's got to be good for morale and this will be the benchmark for good policing.

So we created in the show this elite force within the police force. So we didn't lie. I mean we're describing all police officers as good, but these particular people are honest and they're diligent and they're hard working. And it does both. It raises people's expectations, and then it also forces the police officers to actually see themselves as potentially becoming these heroic, committed individuals. But it's also entertainment. I mean, at the end of the day, these shows - we aim to entertain people.

MONTAGNE: Looking ahead, this is your country, you've got a big stake in it. Looking ahead, are you optimistic?

MOHSENI: I'm optimistic for a number of reasons. You know, today the majority of Afghans reside in our major cities. People are totally engaged in terms of what's going on media-wise - news and so forth. Afghans have managed a travel outside the country more than probably any other country, mostly because they're refugees.

So they have a level of sophistication you wouldn't expect in a country as backwards as Afghanistan. And I think that the biggest fear we have is not so much security post-2014. The Taliban cannot come back to Kabul and rule this country. It's been too long since the Taliban times. The world is too engaged now. It's going to all come down to the economy. Sixty percent of the population is under the age of 20. What will happen to these young kids?

They have aspirations, they have hopes, they have been promised so much. Can we deliver? That's going to be the key challenge for us.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

MOHSENI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Saad Mohseni is the founder of Tolo TV. He spoke with us in Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.