Singer Launches Iranian Satellite TV Network

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zia Atabay sold millions of records as a pop singer in his native Iran. But he always wanted to be remembered as more than an entertainer.

So in March he launched National Iranian Television, or NIT, a 24-hour satellite TV station that broadcasts in Persian throughout the world from a North Hollywood warehouse.

"I think we can make a change," said Atabay, 57, chief executive officer of the station. "We're going to tell the truth, and I don't care if some politicians don't like it."

The station will officially launch its 24-hour format Thursday with a full slate of programming in Persian, including news, an Oprah-style talk show, a cooking program, cartoons and Iranian movies.

Although there are other local Persian TV stations, National Iranian Television is believed to be the first operating worldwide around the clock. The station's programming is available by satellite to an estimated 600,000 Los Angeles residents of Persian descent and millions more internationally.

This is not the first time the Iranian community has gotten into the media business. Last August, the Persian-language station KIRN-AM (670) began transmitting to Persian speakers in Southern California.

Parviz G. Afshar, a freelance television producer who has directed and produced programs in Iran and Los Angeles, said he welcomes the new TV station.

"If used properly, it can be very effective," said Afshar, 58, of Topanga. "In Iran, they close newspapers and people are not as informed as they should be. [Atabay] has taken a very good step."

Atabay, who has invested about $3 million in his enterprise, said he hopes to provide uncensored information to his countrymen in Islamic-ruled Iran, where satellite dishes are illegal, although many people have them anyway.

"Iranian people can't hear the news from their government," he said. "Everything is controlled."

Atabay estimated that 10 million Persian speakers, primarily in the Middle East and Europe, watch NIT, including about 7,000 in Los Angeles. He is in negotiations with cable companies in Los Angeles and England, he said, to offer the station's programming.

For now the stations's signal is not scrambled and viewers can watch it for free. But that will change soon when Atabay starts charging U.S. viewers $20 a month for the service to maintain the station's $250,000 monthly budget. A portion also comes from advertisers, such as the Los Angeles-based fashion designer Bijan.

Atabay's life is all TV, all the time. With Persian almond cookies at his fingertips, Atabay watches five TV monitors transmitting other Persian stations' programming.

"I want to know what they're doing. They're not my competition, but in business you have to watch what they're doing wrong so I don't do it," he said.

Before getting into the TV business, Atabay operated an office building for plastic surgeons in Los Angeles with his wife, Parvin, who still runs the medical business.

In Iran, he worked for CBS Records but lost his job when Islamic revolutionaries took over CBS offices in 1979. He fled Iran after the revolution, living in Europe before moving to Los Angeles in 1986.

But despite the effect of politics in his life, Atabay said he wants the station to be nonpolitical, which has drawn criticism from local political Persian groups that want him to take a harder line against the Tehran government.

"Why do I have to change the [Iranian] government?" he said. "The Iranian people have to change the government.

Yet avoiding politics may prove difficult when airing news, Afshar said. The station employs about 10 freelance journalists locally and overseas to file news stories.

"I don't think you can do a program that's informative and not be political," Afshar said. "When you talk about news in Iran, whether you like it or not, you get into politics."

Still, many of the station's programs are purely cultural. Nader Parsia is a host of its show "Cooking With Nader," which showcases Middle Eastern and Mediterranean recipes, such as different khoresh sauces served over rice.

"We're trying to show the good things of Iranian culture. We're trying to add some humor. People are really welcoming it," said Parsia, 47, of West Los Angeles.

Shahbal Shabpareh is founder and leader of the Persian pop band Black Cats and he has a show that airs live music and videos on the station. He said the station is important in uniting the estimated 5 million Iranians around the world.

"It's being shown in Iran, which is incredible," said Shabpareh, 59, of Westwood. "Some [Iranians] don't know where their loved ones are. We need it."

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