Saeed Ghaemmaghami gets up early. While it’s still dark out, he sits at his kitchen table, sips tea, and smokes his first cigarette of the day. By 6 a.m., he’s at a nearby recording studio in the San Fernando Valley. He takes a seat in front of his microphone, flips a few switches on the control panel and begins another episode of Radio Sedaye Mardom, Farsi for "The People’s Voice."
Ghaemmaghami greets his audience. “This is Los Angeles, California, in the United States of America,” he says. “This is Sedaye Mardom Radio. I am hoping that all of you are doing well and have started a new day, a new night and a good evening wherever you are in this world. We are going to start another week in your company.”
Sedaye Mardom broadcasts live, five days a week, to millions of listeners around the world.
“This radio is alive, living with the people,” Ghaemmaghami says. “Because every day it’s something new happen. A new way of connection. New voices, new subjects.”
After an update on world news, he opens the phone lines, and for the next two hours the calls stream in.
“Hello, Bardia,” Ghaemmaghami greets an underground reporter from Tehran, who’s a regular contributor to the show. For his safety, Bardia doesn’t give his last name.
“He’s one of the major sources of information in Iran,” says Ghaemmaghami.
“He has been many times in middle of the action in the street, in a very, very dangerous situation, close to our government arrest him, but he insists to continue his relationship with me and our radio.”
Through a translator, Bardia explains why he risks his life to report.
“This government throws acid on our faces when we come to the streets,” he says. “The only thing that I can do is to get my voice out there, through the radio, and let the world know that this government is not my representative.”
Bardia’s information is critical because of Iran’s heavily censored media, according to Majid, who calls in from Europe.
“It was my only connection to other protesters who were thinking like me,” he says.
Majid doesn’t give his last name because he was involved in anti-government activity. Two years ago, he had to flee Iran. Today, he lives in Europe, and volunteers as Sedaye Mardom’s technical director.
“This radio is my everything,” he says, his voice full of emotion. “It’s my everything because I can do something for other people in Iran.”
Ghaemmaghami's been doing something for Iranians since his career began in 1961. He was only 18 years old when he happened to walk past the national radio station in Tehran, just as auditions for on-air talent were taking place.
“And among 1,300 people they accepted me,” he says proudly. “Just me.”
Ghaemmaghami was a natural, and he loved his job. He brought live programming to the airwaves, and when he organized toy drives for a children’s hospital, thousands participated. He was named senior director for the state-run radio and television, and traveled to rural provinces to set up new stations. Then in 1978, he helped establish Radio Tehran, the country’s first FM station. Radio Tehran opened up a window to the world for his listeners.
Reza Kouhnavard was a teenager in Tehran at the time. “He would do things nobody else had done,” he recalls. “He would play Western music, he would play Barry Manilow out of nowhere, and we would say, 'Wow, this is different,' and we would tell our friends, 'You gotta check this out!' ”
Kouhnavard laughs. “Because of his influence, he could do whatever he wanted, no one would say anything to him.”
But for Ghaemmaghami, the freedom to do whatever he wanted ended in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution, when Iran became the world’s first Islamic state.
“And after that they arrested me, they interrogate[d] me, they torture[d] me,” he says.
He spent the next three years in and out of prison. Unable to continue work as a broadcaster, he became a carpenter. But the government harassment continued.
“Finally they forced me to run out of Iran, to come to exile,” he says, pain evident in his voice.
With the help of smugglers, he and his family escaped across the border into Turkey, and eventually settled in Los Angeles. With its large Iranian population, L.A. was a good fit, and Ghaemmaghami was able to resume his work in radio. But he didn't always see eye-to-eye with his new colleagues.
“I find out that if I work for others, they don’t let me do what I wish,” he says. “They didn’t want to make too much noise about the government.”
And Ghaemmaghami couldn’t remain silent following Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when the government cracked down on peaceful demonstrators. So, with his own money, and donations from supporters, he began Radio Sedaye Mardom in 2011. Listener donations also help displaced Iranians, and those in need of medical care they otherwise could not afford. And once again, Ghaemmaghami has the freedom to speak his mind.
“To persuade Iranian people to challenge the government in nonviolent, peaceful action,” he says. “Coming to the street, without blood, without killing, without hate, just asking for freedom.”
And this weekend, as Saeed Ghaemmaghami celebrates the Persian New Year, he says he hopes that the current nuclear issues do not overshadow Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses.