Jul 25 1:00 PM

Wajahat Ali: I’m joining Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream”

I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

As a 32-year-old male, this should ensure a premature mid-life crisis, mockery by my peers, and several dateless nights (thankfully, I’m married).

All I know is that I’ve wanted to tell stories ever since I was a 10-year-old, overweight, left-handed kid with turmeric and lentil stains on my OshKosh B’Gosh shirt.

I want to share stories that are “By us, for everyone” — narratives that illuminate relevant issues and communities, ones that are often marginalized, neglected or simply forgotten — for a diverse audience across America and overseas.  I want to entertain but also edify, and at the risk of idealistic pretention, perhaps even bridge the divides.

Over the past few years, I’ve been privileged to subsidize my existence doing just that — through writing essays, commentary pieces, a play, short stories, screenplays, speeches and an investigative report. 

My career has been accidental, fortuitous and labyrinthine. I was forced to write my first play about a Pakistani American Muslim family in order to pass my UC Berkeley English class.  After graduating law school, I was unemployed for eight months and began blogging, writing commentary pieces and doing journalistic interviews to avoid going nuts sitting at home slowly transforming into Jack Nicholson from “The Shining.”

Thankfully, the angel of serendipity smiled upon me, one opportunity led to another, closed doors started opening, and since then I’ve been able to ride my pen and travel around the world– mostly in economy with broken, crappy headphones and ornery passengers.

The pen has now taken me to my current stop: as the new co-host of Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream”.

But let’s rewind for a moment.

Earlier this year, I moved from glorious Bay Area, California to Virginia to be with my new wife — the better half. (Quick marriage Yoda wisdom for all: “Happy Wife, Happy Life. Unhappy Wife, Messed Up Life. Lesson?  Keep Wife Happy.”)

A few weeks after arriving, I received a call from the producers of the award-winning Al Jazeera English show “The Stream,” a fast-paced, groundbreaking, topical news show that uses social media to integrate a global online community with the hosts and guests to discuss the day’s subject and provide a variety of fresh perspectives.

For some context, about two years ago I was a guest on Al Jazeera English’s “The Stream”, which was then hosted by the superstar duo of Derrick Ashong and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin out of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The vibe was loose, fast and energetic. I sat on a gaudy, colorful, orange couch and answered intelligent questions from the hosts and online community. The conversation was engaging, thoughtful and did not devolve into simplistic sound bites and meme-riffic points spewed by slick talking heads or establishment pundits.

I was impressed and continued watching the show as it handed the hosting reigns to Imran Garda and recently to the fantastic, lively duo of Femi Oke and Malika Bilal, who will continue hosting the Al Jazeera English version of “The Stream.”

The show’s producers said they’d been following my career and appreciated how I used social media to engage diverse communities and create content. They told me Al Jazeera was branching out to American markets with a brand new network entitled Al Jazeera America, and they were planning on launching the American version of “The Stream.” They invited me for a try-out, which consisted of wearing makeup and doing an entire mock episode with the show’s host, Lisa Fletcher, an award-winning investigative journalist whose professionalism and skill is matched by her friendliness and remarkable ability to tolerate all my awesome mistakes with a Zen, vegan calm. We both got along, the producers liked what they saw, and they sent the audition video up to the executives.

I met with the executives in New York for my final interview. An offer was made, and I accepted.

I’m used to joining things that begin from the ground up – it’s often chaotic, messy and experimental, but it also allows opportunities to break the mold, mix it up, throw risky ideas on the wall to see what sticks, and discover and play in exciting new playgrounds.  Al Jazeera America is a bold venture building upon an existing brand name’s impressive history of delivering facts-driven, content-focused, passionate, thorough coverage of often under-represented issues, communities and regions – such as Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

I’ve been promised that these principles and traits which have made Al Jazeera a respected global leader in news will be guiding the Al Jazeera America channel as well.

That’s why I joined Al Jazeera America.

Like most Americans, I’m tired of complex narratives and storylines being reduced to tokenism, sensationalism, fluff pieces and shameless political pandering. I’m also tired of Americans outside establishment circles not having a seat at the pow-wow.

At “The Stream,” each viewer has the mic through social media and is invited to join our conversation.

This is the power of new media, a language spoken by a new generation.  All of us are becoming multilingual.

We no longer just talk. We email. We text. We video chat, g-chat, yahoo-chat, instant message, Google hangout, Skype, tweet, re-tweet, post, re-post, blog, tumble, YouTube, Hulu, upload, download, Facebook update, E-vite, E-greet, E-meet, and it all repeats.  Some of us even Poke (a few more than others.)

At “The Stream,” we embrace the power and hope of new media as the great equalizer leading to the democratization of news. It is a more effective means of engaging with national and global communities as well as a tool that empowers viewers in helping write, re-write, frame, and re-frame the evolving narratives.

As an example, we launched our first #OpenEditorial meeting with our global community using Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, and Google Hangout for story ideas and pitches. I’m proud to say we’ve already incorporated many of those ideas for our upcoming shows.

We might be relying on you soon to help us decide the Twitter hashtag for our daily show.  Here are some potential options: #Streamers, #Streamin, #AJAMstream, and #ExStreamists (I’m kidding about the last one, or am I?)

Tweet us your thoughts @AJAMstream. See how it works? Awesome.

We’re a new show on a brand new network trying to take our baby steps knowing full well people are expecting giant, awesome leaps.  We’ll get there. There might be some bumps, falls, trips, hiccups, dead air and massive awkwardness along the way – and that makes for great television, no? – but I assure you we’ll get there.

And if we at “The Stream” fail to deliver, call us out and help make us better. After all, you’re involved in the conversation.

See you in a month.

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