In Kabul, It’s Not MTV, It’s a Mission


By
September 18, 2011

Tom Freston is a pretty mellow guy, but sitting in the corner of a downtown Manhattan restaurant last week he was getting very excited as he talked about his new project. “Every time I go there, there are kids doing a bunch of new things, making all kinds of interesting programming,” he said. “The work they are coming up with is remarkable.”


Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Time
Tom Freston, formerly of Viacom, is more optimistic than others on Afghanistan.

Given that Mr. Freston ran and later oversaw MTV Networks for 17 years, building a channel that changed broadcasting and the culture at large, you might guess that he was plotting the next television youthquake. After all, people are still complaining that MTV simultaneously sexed-up and dumbed-down American culture. So what kind of caper is Mr. Freston fired up about? Here’s a hint: That very day, a missile had landed on the production facility he was going on and on about.

The missile strike was in Afghanistan, where Mr. Freston lived during the 1970s when he was in the clothing business. Now he is serving as a board member and adviser to the Moby Group, which owns a burgeoning string of television and radio networks in a country where simply owning a television was illegal not so long ago. Forget about wanting their MTV, Afghans just wanted their TVs.

The Moby Group owns Tolo TV, a Dari language network; Lemar TV, which beams out in Pashto; two FM stations; and Farsi1, a joint television venture with the News Corporation that serves millions of Farsi speakers in Iran as well. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it all but criminalized most of pop culture, so it’s remarkable that Moby is broadcasting shows in which men and women interact, often to hilarious effect, and the radio station has a male and a female D.J. bantering away the morning. And the audience apparently is there: Tolo TV has a 45 percent market share, according to Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby.

In Afghanistan, many women still wear burqas, and freedoms are limited, so working with the guy who helped bring “Beavis and Butt-Head” into public consciousness would not seem especially helpful. But Mr. Mohseni said Mr. Freston has been critical to the enterprise.

“He is a prolific e-mailer and always available for making connections for even the smallest things,” said Mr. Mohseni, speaking by phone during a visit to the United States last week from Afghanistan. He said that Mr. Freston had introduced him to Rupert Murdoch, among others. “When he comes here, he talks with the producers, the managers, the people doing the work,” Mr. Mohseni said.

In the ’70s, Mr. Freston ran a clothing company called Hindu Kush — “I had no idea what I was doing,” he said — out of Kabul and New Delhi. He developed a lasting crush on Afghanistan and now, more than 30 years later, he’s traveling there about three times a year.

He has time on his hands because in 2006 he parted ways with Sumner Redstone, the founder of Viacom, which owns MTV. The reason? Because Mr. Freston failed to buy MySpace. “One of the best deals I never made,” he said, smiling in retrospect. He now sits on the board of DreamWorks Animation and serves as chairman of the One campaign, the African poverty initiative co-founded by Bono.

In addition to working with Vice Media, he does consulting for Oprah Winfrey, a broadcast superstar who has discovered that starting your own cable channel has its challenges. But his work with Moby combines his enduring interest in Afghanistan with the belief that storytelling can help change a nation. “All Americans ever see of Afghanistan is the brown mountains in the war footage and things getting blown up, but when you spend time at Tolo TV, you get a feeling of what this place could be,” Mr. Freston said.

Unlike some foreign affairs analysts, he’s optimistic about the country’s future. “People assume that when the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will just resume control, but Afghanistan has become a different place because independent media has become an instrument of social change.”

A popular soap opera from Tolo TV, “The Secrets of This House,” has frankly discussed the gender inequality, domestic abuse and government corruption, all in the name of entertainment.

Cynthia P. Schneider, professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, said that it’s hard to underestimate the value of such programming, which the rest of us take for granted.

“Last year, 10 million people watched the finale of ‘Afghan Star,’ which is one third of the people in the country,” she said, referring to the Afghan version of “American Idol.” “You have men and women in a competition that is based on merit, which is unusual in a tribal society. And the results are settled by voting, which is very important.” She added, “In a country where nothing else seems to work, independent media has been a huge success story.”


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