Originally backed by the Iraqi National Congress, a moderate party led by Ahmad Chalabi, Karbala FM launched in October 2003 from a small home in the city’s Hussein neighbourhood. Karbala FM is now independent and is the most popular station in the city - particularly among its youth.
Karbala FM today broadcasts from a studio in the city and runs programming for much of the day, covering everything from culture to politics to religion. Its content frequently challenges traditions, raising eyebrows in this conservative city.
"We have limited experience, but we’re pushing for progress and creativity,” said Huda Amir as she clicked through a sound editing programme in the studio. Amir is one of three female producers at the station.
“I haven’t worked at other radio stations because they’re very religious and don't give women any opportunities," she said.
"Our independence allows us to have diverse programming,” said Hadi al-Rubai’i, who produces several Karbala FM shows. “The radio’s management is independent of any movement, party or Marji'iyyah ."
“We broadcast the beliefs and views of all people,” said programmes director Mohammed Fayhan. “We’ve even hosted Adnan Dulaimi (a hard-line Sunni lawmaker) because in our shows people from all Iraqi backgrounds get to have a voice.”
Prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, “there was only one ruler and one media. The radio stations would repeat the same speech over and over again. There was no space for criticism and transparency”, said Amir Makhif al-Omer al-Jubouri, who founded the station and directs Karbala FM’s board. “Today, there are many radio stations and satellite channels reporting on all topics, but most of them are party-affiliated and politicised."
The station’s “Good Morning Karbala” programme includes interviews with officials, phone-in discussions, coverage of social issues and even horoscopes. Its content is strikingly different from other broadcasters in Karbala, many of which are dominated by religious programming.
Al-Rawdha al-Husseiniyyah Radio, for example, primarily broadcasts what happens in the Imam al-Hussein Holy Shrine, including funerals, daily prayers, Friday prayers, some local news and Islamic entertainment programmes. Most of its audience are strict followers of the Grand Ayatollah, Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani.
Jubouri said that Shia religious values influence the station’s content, and that Karbala FM “covers religious occasions with respect”. But its content regularly touches on topics that are not normally addressed in public forums in Karbala.
“‘Shababik’ (Windows) tries to address the backward views of our tribes and negative tribal traditions,” said producer and writer Adil al-Battat.
“Birds of Love”, a night time call-in show about love and romance, was axed after a militia group paid a visit to the station “and asked us to end the show”, said one Karbala FM employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Evening Studio” has also ruffled feathers. The show plays samba music from Brazil as well as eastern and western pop rhythms but does not broadcast lyrics. Lyrics may include content out of line with Islamic beliefs.
Music has been a key issue for the station as it tries to strike a balance between popular programming and the conservatism of Karbala’s clerics.
Religious radio stations do not broadcast any non-Islamic music, making Karbala FM the only broadcaster in the area that plays classic modern singers such as the Lebanese diva Fairuz and the widely loved late Egyptian vocalist Umm Kalthoum.
Fairuz’s voice floats through much of the Arab world via radio stations every morning, but Karbala FM has to mute Fairuz’s voice so as not to offend the clerics.
"I wish I could play songs in all our programmes, but the city is under the authority of clerics and armed militias,” said Hamza Muhammed Feihan, a producer and editor at Karbala FM. He broadcasts rock and jazz music during his shows, as well as classic Arabic songs without the lyrics. “I may lose my life if I broadcast one song ," he said.
"Some clerics criticise because in their opinion, most of the music the station plays is illicit and the scholars can't accept it," said al-Jubouri.
Sheikh Mu'yyah al-Baydhani, a Karbala cleric, said that music is a point of dispute between Shia clerics.
“Some forbid it all and are even opposed to broadcasting the national anthem, while others consider classical music permissible,” he said.
The restrictions on music are a constant frustration for Jubouri, who yearns for a time when he’ll be able traditional national songs.
"If you ask me about what I aspire to, I’ll tell you that I wish I could broadcast all of the original Iraqi songs that made us sing for Iraq and love,” said Jubouri. “I aspire to broadcast songs in my radio station, but the sacredness of ... prevents me from doing that."
This article was written by an Institute for War & Peace Reporting correspondent based in Karbala.