New Radio Station Hopes to Build Bridges Through Music

by Brian on May 17, 2007

in In the News,Only in Israel

Issie Kirsh, a Jewish businessman who has been involved in efforts to build bridges between blacks and whites in post-Apartheid South Africa, has a vision for promoting peace in the Middle East: soft rock hits from the 80s and 90s.

Kirsh’s latest project, an ambitious joint Israeli/Palestinian radio station broadcasting in English to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, launched in February, 2007. RAM FM, as the station is known, has assembled an international team of broadcasters in its attempt to provide a place where Israelis and Palestinians (who speak English at least) can communicate with each other in non-political talk and news forums.

But first and foremost, it’s about the music. Kirsh’s station, which is a commercial, $2 million privately financed initiative, plays 24 hours of “Adult Contemporary” hits of the past 20 years. While a playlist of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and U2 may not be everyone’s idea of cutting edge, it does speak to what Kirsh cites as an audience in excess of 500,000 in the greater Jerusalem and Tel Aviv areas who understand English as a second language. Listeners in the north and south of Israel will not be able to pick up the station, which is broadcasting at 93.6 FM. Some areas of Jerusalem were also spotty and a second frequency – 87.5 FM – is being tried out.

RAM FM has assembled a multi-national on air crew. The breakfast show is hosted by John Berks, a South African DJ from Kirsh’s previous effort at using radio to bridge national gaps and foster democracy – a station called Radio 702 operating out of Pretoria. News director Andrew Bolton also moved to the Middle East from South Africa. The mid-morning slot is hosted by Michael Brand, an Israeli, while afternoons find Hayat Alahami, a Palestinian and Barry Hill, an Australian, on the air.

The news teams, under the banner “Middle East Eyewitness News,” will be similarly balanced between Israelis and Palestinians, with all staff needing to be “tri-lingual.” The station has agreements with the Associated Press and Al-Jezeera’s English service to use audio clips in its news reports.

RAM FM draws its name from where it’s broadcasting from: Ramallah, though the Hebrew “Ram” also means “lofty” or “high.” The station is licensed by the Palestinian Authority, not Israel. Kirsh, who has experience in Israeli radio – he was a founder and remains a co-owner of Radio Tel Aviv 102 FM – admits this was a concession. “We knew that getting a license from the Israeli authorities would take years and might be impossible completely,” he said.

It didn’t hurt that Palestinian station manager Mayoon Odeh-Gangat is married to the former South African representative to the Palestinian Authority. Odeh-Gangat met Kirsh while in South Africa and began dreaming up the new vision for on air coexistence three years ago. Odeh-Gangat now lives in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

RAM FM maintains two studios – one in Ramallah and the other in Jerusalem’s Malha hi-tech park – another concession. “Israelis are not allowed to travel into the Palestinian Authority,” news director Bolton commented at a press conference, and Palestinians without the proper permits are banned from entering Israel. Bolton put a positive spin on such complex realities of the Middle East: he says he’ll use Palestinian reporters to cover news out of the West Bank and Gaza from the Ramallah studios; Israeli reporters will work out of the Jerusalem office. Stringers have been signed on in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and even Baghdad, Bolton said.

The news, which is broadcast every half hour in the morning and hourly throughout the day, is billed as “independent and impartial.” What does that mean in the turbulent Middle East? When asked whether a suicide bomber would be referred to as a “terrorist” or a “martyr,” Bolton responded that the station would use neither term, simply reporting that “a man wearing an explosives belt blew himself up in a crowded café today.”

Whether that level of neutrality can be maintained during the station’s talk shows – planned to launch in another 6-12 months and the ultimate focal point of RAM FM’s coexistence strategy – remains to be seen. Talk shows will be hosted jointly by an Israeli and a Palestinian. “This will be an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians, in the comfort of their homes, to gather to talk, possibly to politicians; to question people and to establish some form of understanding of each other’s views,” Kirsh said.

“We take freedom of speech as a given, but in South Africa, it was not a right from the beginning,” Bolton pointed out. “So we really understand how staying objective and maintaining accuracy will be key to our credibility.”

RAM FM follows in the footsteps of Abie Nathan’s legendary Voice of Peace, which broadcast from “somewhere in the Mediterranean” off a floating studio in international waters where Nathan docked his ship throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The Voice of Peace also played middle of the road Western pop music and broadcast in English.

More recently, the joint Israeli/Palestinian “Radio All for Peace” has been on the air at 107.2 FM for nearly two years now. That station, however, broadcasts primarily in Hebrew and Arabic (with a few shows in English as well as Russian) and makes no attempt to hide an avowedly left-wing agenda.

Kirsh feels that there is room for a station like RAM FM. “All of the existing stations, in both Israel and on the Palestinian side, broadcast news from state run sources. We are the only privately owned commercial station with an independent news operation in the region,” he explained.

The station will rely on advertising for now – Kirsh hopes to be profitable within three years – with syndication of the station’s news and talk show programming planned for the future. Internet audio streaming was launched earlier this month. RAM FM has used Kirsh’s South African connections to line up a number of international advertisers including Coke, Dove, Lipton and Western Union.

It will be interesting to see if local businesses and services from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority choose to advertise. A commercial for an plumber in Tel Aviv followed by one for a trendy café in Ramallah on the same station – now that would be true coexistence!

A shorter version of this article appeared in the May issue of Hadassah Magazine‘s “Cut & Post” section.

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