As the Israel Broadcasting Authority approaches its end next March, staffers at Israel Radio have been losing a war of attrition. A station that once employed more than 20 professionals is now down to four, and they are hurting.
“We get the feeling that from the prime minister down, no one wants us around,” says veteran broadcaster David Ze’ev.
It has not always been this way.
When public radio was first launched in pre-state Israel in 1936, the broadcasts were in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
Established by the British Mandate authorities and modeled on the BBC, the Palestine Broadcasting Service eventually evolved into the Voice of Israel.
The first English-language broadcaster was Ruth Belkind, who in later years as Ruth Connell Robertson was a highly respected copy editor at The Jerusalem Post
Belkind was originally from England, and many of the broadcasters who followed her were also British expatriates. But there were also Americans, South Africans, Canadians and Australians.
New immigrants from English-speaking countries, plus those from other countries whose English was better than their Hebrew, and of course foreign diplomats stationed in Israel, relied heavily on Voice of Israel English language broadcasts to know what was going on in the country, and perhaps even more people were listening to English language broadcasts from Israel on short wave radio.
One of the listeners who was in Israel to study at a yeshiva in Jerusalem was Ze’ev, who together with fellow students from the United States used to listen to the radio in the dorm.
He knew even then that he wanted a career in journalism, and thought how wonderful it could be if he could tell people about Israel from Israel. He wasn’t interested in propaganda. He wanted to report on news as it was happening and to interview people who were in the news.
Some 30-plus years ago, the wish came true. Ze’ev came on aliya, there was a vacant slot at the radio, and he was one of those fortunate immigrants who was literally living the dream. At that time in 1981, there were two departments – news and features and more than 20 people worked in them.
Over the years short wave radio broadcasts were eliminated, as was the features department. The staff load was reduced to only four people, who write, edit and anchor news broadcasts in addition to trying to keep on top of ongoing developments and interviewing the relevant people.
The department is headed by Naomi Segal and the two other journalists, Mark Weiss and Neal Sandler, are veterans like Ze’ev.
There was a fifth member, Jacqui Beecham. But she left on September 30 along with a couple of hundred other employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, who had been offered a relatively attractive package to leave voluntarily rather than wait to be dismissed. A sixth member of the team, Idel Ross, left several months previously.
Whenever someone leaves they are not replaced, says Ze’ev, and those who are still working have to shoulder an additional burden of responsibility.
No full-time person has been hired by the department since the early 1990s, he asserts.
The worst part is that no one in the higher echelons of the IBA respects what the English team is doing. “At this point, we’re led to believe that we’re parasites,” says Ze’ev.
“We are hanging by a thread” he declares, explaining that three out of the four do not live in Jerusalem. They all work two shifts, both early morning and late night. If they are doing late night and then early morning, it doesn’t pay to go home, but the IBA does not provide them with a hotel room. They either sleep in the studio or stay with friends.
There are days that he doesn’t even know why he is doing what he is doing in an environment in which he and his colleagues are so underappreciated.
Among his interviewers over the past week were MK Ahmad Tibi, talking about the Temple Mount, Yigal Henkin, the brother of Eitam Henkin who together with his wife, Naama, was murdered by terrorists, and settler leaders who are camped around the corner from the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Ze’ev tries to the best of his ability to be up to date and to present both sides of any story.
It’s not always easy when you have a deadline, limited air time, and you have to write news and anchor as well.
The IBA has never made any effort to publicize the English News, so Ze’ev and his colleagues have no idea whether anyone is listening or not, or even whether people are aware of the existence of the English-language news service.
None of the four has been told whether there will be broadcasts in English in the yet-to-be-established successor to the IBA, which is in the process of liquidation. This is causing all four to give serious thought to their best financial options. Should they stay in the hope that they will be part of the new entity or should they leave now with whatever financial package is being offered? Ze’ev is angry over the misreporting in the print media over how much money IBA employees are allegedly earning.
He concedes that there may be a few people on very high salaries, but overall salaries are barely above the basic wage and pensions. The extras that crept into salaries over the years are not calculated into the pension, and were introduced as compensation for the low salaries, according to Ze’ev.
Despite the nightmare conditions under which he works, Ze’ev loves radio as a communications medium, and would be prepared to last out the duration if he were shown a concrete plan for English news and feature radio broadcasts in the new public broadcasting entity and was given a concrete guarantee of future employment.
“We’re still working as if nothing is happening around us. It’s been an emotional hell!” says Ze’ev. “We are a public radio service, not government radio, and we get the feeling that from the prime minister down, no one wants us around. We feel like a sinking ship trying to do our job and the government doesn’t care. I don’t want the government to intervene, but I don’t want them to destroy us.”