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Let There Be Radio: Lebanese Evangelicals Launch FM Station

Persevering amid the world’s biggest economic crisis, BeLight has found an appreciative audience by offering hope and local Arabic worship.
Let There Be Radio: Lebanese Evangelicals Launch FM Station
Image: Courtesy of BeLight
Hosts of BeLight Christian radio in Lebanon

Radio first brought Nolla Azar fame. Then it brought her Jesus.

Today she uses it to bring others to him, via a new ministry.

“I know how to get women’s attention,” said the host of Listening to You, an afternoon talk show on Lebanon’s BeLight FM. “I use the same methods here, but for a higher purpose.”

Once working with Dubai-based MBC, one of the largest media companies in the Middle East, Azar returned to Lebanon in 2009 after desiring the warmth of home. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities she found in the local industry, she turned instead to social media and became a celebrated influencer.

Doing a podcast for women, she accumulated 275,000 followers on TikTok, boasting 17 million views. Still, she felt empty, complaining often to her mother about dissatisfaction with her finances, career, and love life.

In 2021, COVID-19 isolation sparked a spiritual search. Maronite Catholic by background, she read books about God, watched religious TV, stumbled upon a new and unheralded radio station, and gave her life to Christ.

Today, she is one of its top-rated hosts.

“When I first came [to BeLight], it was hard to balance between entertaining people and being ‘Christian,’” said Azar. “But it is God who brought me here, and when lifting people’s spirits, I redirect them to Jesus.”

She has contributed to the increasing professionalism among a motley crew that is quickly growing in popularity. BeLight began on Thanksgiving Day 2020 as an initiative of Arabs determined to launch a Protestant-led FM station in Lebanon. Many had backgrounds in TV production, but none in radio.

It began with 90-percent worship music, culled from English-language favorites and the mostly Egyptian-composed praise songs popular in Arab evangelical churches. Over time, BeLight increased its spoken content to almost 50 percent, at first through sermon recordings of Lebanese pastors and eventually developing its own unique programming.

And it has won itself an audience. According to an Ipsos advertising survey from last April, it now reaches 300,000 Lebanese, reeling from economic crisis and political turmoil. Its 7.5 percent market share trails the top-ranked pop music stations (which average 11 percent each), but puts it ahead of longstanding Catholic and Muslim offerings.

“We are trying our best,” said Mireille Eid, host of BeLight’s first talk show, Thought for Tomorrow, broadcasting five mornings per week. “People are happy listening to a message of hope, not just all bad news.”

She has grown with the job. With a sonorous voice but no radio training, Eid’s background was in theater and interior design. But her infectious style and transparent nature invites many to call in—requesting prayer or sharing their stories.

Lebanon boasts 18 official religious sects, with BeLight listeners hailing from many.

“Good morning, you beautiful hearts who live in the hope that everything will be more beautiful,” said Sarah, from the Lebanese Chouf, a mountainous region populated with heterodox Muslims called the Druze. “The best thing that happened to me is that I got to know you.”

Some speak of transformation, without the fear found in other countries.

“From my name you can tell my religious background,” said Hassan. “But there is a difference between the god I used to worship, and the one I do now—who took away my sin and shame.”

Officially registered as a cultural radio station, BeLight’s editorial policy is to criticize no religion, nor to issue political opinions. Lebanon’s evangelicals represent about 1 percent of the population, and often lament the nation’s sectarian realities.

So do many Catholics.

“In all theologies there are riches, reflecting Christ who is our only life,” said Fadi Jandah, a Maronite priest who hosts BeLight’s late night I am Thirsty, drawn from Jesus’ last words on the cross. “We are a mosaic, and if you remove a single stone, it is incomplete.”

Jandah’s presence also added to BeLight’s professionalism with 20 years in Christian media, including his church’s FM channel, Voice of Charity—a civil-war-era station that was bombed in 2005 despite its ecumenical nature.

His evening show focuses on prayer, as people finally relax after a stressful day.

“We need to break the fear we have toward each other. It only produces pride and strife,” he said. “It is my joy to represent the full beauty of the church.”

This vision is nurtured by Emad Dabbour, founder and CEO of Lighthouse Arab World, which owns and fundraises for BeLight. Originally from Tunisia, he has lived in Lebanon since 2012 and appreciates the religious freedom and diversity of his adopted land.

But his station’s editorial line concludes with clarity: Share the message of salvation with love and respect.

“Faith comes by hearing,” he said, quoting the apostle Paul’s message in Romans. “We seek to be an encouragement to believers, and a voice for anyone seeking to understand Christ.”

Dabbour is no stranger to professionalism. Since knowing Jesus he has broken ground as a Muslim-background media personality, neither fronting nor hiding his conversion. He has hosted programs on secular TV stations in Lebanon and Tunisia, with additional appearances in Algeria and Egypt. His feature-length movie Son of Her Tears, chronicling the North African life of St. Augustine, won awards at film festivals in the Mediterranean cities of Oran and Alexandria in 2017.

But being a cultural radio station, as opposed to religious, has a financial drawback—advertisements must be open to everyone. As such, BeLight is determined to remain commercial-free, save for its own programming and limited exchange with in-kind service providers.

One frequently aired is for insect extermination.

“We are kind of in survival mode,” said Noor Botrus, station manager. “But listeners tell us: ‘We are in the middle of the storm, and when we listen we feel peace.’”

It is a privilege now unavailable for their sleepless nights.

Last September, BeLight joined many other FM stations in scaling back broadcasting hours. Now static from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., the station is unable to afford the gas required to keep its four shared transmission towers running on generator power.

The Lebanese government, whose currency has devalued 95 percent since 2019, provides only a few hours of electricity each day. The World Bank has said the economic crisis is likely among the world’s three worst since 1850.

To some degree, BeLight is able to persevere because of its foreign dollar donations. But with a shoestring $800,000 yearly operating budget covering six full-time employees, the recent loss of a major funder has left them $300,000 short.

By comparison, Christian station Joy FM in Lighthouse’s registered base in Florida has $5 million in annual expenses covering 60 employees. But if BeLight’s budget could be exceeded by an additional $150,000 for a second frequency, not only would its near-complete coverage of Lebanon be strengthened across the nation’s crisscrossing mountains and valleys, Botrus said, but its programming could reach 60 percent of neighboring Syria.

The influence is already international. Saudi Arabia represents about 40 percent of podcast downloads of BeLight’s weekly show Simply Mom.

“If we only play worship songs, listeners will be believers,” said Botrus. “But we want to broadcast to everyone, and talk shows can draw them in.”

To keep it going, he has reached out to local pastors and ministries. Though modest in return compared to the overall need, Dabbour recognizes something unique is happening.

“It is a new thing: local believers are giving to another ministry that doesn’t belong to them or their denomination,” he said. “We will always need outside money, but we want to see the local church believe in what we do.”

The Horizons ministry gave a modest financial gift, as did the Pentecostal Resurrection Church of Antelias. An additional 10 congregations contributed food vouchers for listener giveaways, to be picked up in person as callers meet and greet the pastoral staff.

But Arab evangelicals lack a culture of giving beyond their local church, said Charlie Costa, head of Lebanon’s Baptist convention. While 95 percent of ministry projects run on foreign donations, near 100 percent of the collective budget of his denomination’s 27 churches are met through the tithes of its members at home and in the extensive Lebanese diaspora.

That is, until the recent economic crisis. Costa has fundraised abroad to help pay pastor’s salaries as congregations struggle to keep on the lights.

As the Arabic language representative for Chuck Swindoll’s Insight for Living, Costa has long nurtured an online presence through RadioAlive. But encouraged by the opportunity to get gospel-centered content on the local FM wavelength, he has joined others in providing BeLight with their developed programming free-of-charge.

Every bit helps.

“Radio is expensive,” Costa said. “But as a fact of life, we’re all dependent on outside support.”

As evangelical radio has always been in the region, said Jos Strengholt, author of Gospel in the Air: 50 Years of Christian Witness through Radio in the Arab World. A Dutch Anglican priest with 35 years of experience in Egypt, he said the prevailing business model was for Western ministries to purchase airtime alongside local initiatives—getting their headliner’s Arabic-translated message to a Middle East audience.

Lebanese Seventh-day Adventists made the first effort in 1953, with a Beirut studio broadcasting from Sri Lanka. The forerunner of the Middle East Council of Churches got into radio a decade later, from Ethiopia. And TWR (Trans World Radio) issued its Arabic signal in 1965, from the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean.

Driven by Western ministries, each relied on Lebanese or Egyptian voices while beaming shortwave or AM frequencies from abroad to reach a wider geographical area. BeLight is flipping the model by fronting the costs and asking local ministries to participate in a national effort. Strengholt hopes it can work, but notes that being specific to Lebanon—with roughly 5.5 million in-country and an equal-sized or larger diaspora—targets a narrower foreign donor base.

He also hopes it can avoid the generic programming of the past. In his extensive archival research, every broadcast felt like John 3:16 with literal translations of copy-pasted Western anecdotes.

“To have such a station is amazing—but make it as contextual as possible to address the real issues in society through the lens of the gospel,” said Strengholt. “If they do, it will win respect for the evangelical community.”

Some content fits his concern. BeLight partners with Praise Live, a Minnesota-based contemporary Christian station expanding internationally. In Lebanon, it provides one hour of English-language worship and talk per day.

Overall, the playlist is only 52-percent Arabic.

Other imported material comes in cooperation with TWR’s Talmatha program, a half-hour daily series titled from the Arabic word for “discipleship.” English- and French-language worship songs are also mixed in throughout the regular airtime.

However, many Lebanese are trilingual, said radio sources, and very cosmopolitan.

But on its own, BeLight created Without Filter, aiming to break local taboos, and Stay Up to Date, discussing technology, film, and social media. It also broadcasts locally produced The Children’s Friend, introducing the youngest Lebanese listeners to Jesus.

It is bringing hope to many in what once was a prosperous nation. The middle class has been hollowed out, with 2 in 5 people reporting difficulty making ends meet and an additional 3 in 10 reporting they are always behind on basic expenses.

But at one church, the response of the poorest was overwhelming.

Saeed Deeb, pastor of the Burj Hammoud Church of God, invited Johnny Jalek, Lighthouse’s mission and development director, to present the sermon to his congregation of lower-class Lebanese and Syrian refugees. The love offering collected afterwards tripled the normal Sunday tithe.

The 3 million lira received, however, now equals only $60.

“So many rich churches can contribute more,” said Deeb.

One that has is Resurrection Church of Beirut (RCB), BeLight’s largest local supporter.

“BeLight plays a crucial role in spreading the diversity, unity, and beauty of the body of Christ, helping listeners connect to God,” said Hikmat Kashouh, RCB’s pastor. “Part of this is the expression of worship in our own dialect, which makes it more heart-felt, attainable, and real.”

Call-in listeners frequently inquire: “Where is Fr. Hikmat’s church?”

Among Lebanon’s largest evangelical congregations, RCB aims to preserve culture and employ struggling artists by offering discounted music classes to the public. Its own praise team has produced 18 original Arabic songs, many included in a 2018 album with a second CD due to be released this autumn.

The station has developed an additional 30 songs in the Lebanese dialect, giving airtime to what once was a relative musical desert. Apart from these efforts, and despite 150 years of evangelical presence, many Lebanese prefer to compose in Egyptian in order to access a wider market. (Egypt’s population of 110 million is the region’s largest, and its Christian proportion of 10 percent also gives it the largest Arabic-speaking community of Jesus followers.)

BeLight believes its playlist of 1,300 Arabic songs includes 90 percent of the highest-quality recordings available. Lebanese worship leaders produced about 450, but with only about 200 sung in their own accent.

For most of its history, the local church translated and developed hymns into standard written Arabic, which no one speaks yet resonated with the richness of biblical language, said Jalek, who is also a worship pastor in a Pentecostal church. Popular music resembled the parlance—including the quintessential Lebanese singer Fairouz—but while Catholics adopted the vernacular somewhat in their devotional paeans to Mary, evangelicals were very reticent.

“We separated our culture from our worship,” said Jalak. “But because we have a Lebanese identity, using the dialect is very attractive because people really relate to it.”

The station is even experimenting with scripture. In cooperation with the Lebanon Bible Society, Jandah provides oral readings of the Psalms, carefully translated from the original language.

The project is somewhat controversial. Some Lebanese say their Levantine tongue is its own language; others protest that proficiency in Arabic is fading altogether in the polyglot nation.

Dabbour is not a purist. Programs on BeLight reflect his linguistic professionalism as a published author—and others as a poet. The goal, either way, is to honor God with homage to Lebanon, bringing hope amid its many troubles.

“We are helping the local church and wider society listen and learn about Jesus from within the Lebanese culture,” said Dabbour. “This is as radio should be.”

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