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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
John Berks? For someone who was not brought up on his Radio 702 morning talk show and needs some global comparison, you might say he is the Howard Stern of South African radio - but without the sleaze and shock. More accurately, he was the most popular man on the South African airwaves in the 1980s and early 90s, and the man who got South Africans talking to each other at a moment in history when it seemed most likely they were on the verge of killing each other, or at least abandoning any sense of community that would come, in the tender years after Apartheid.
Some South Africans may still hate their fellow countrymen, but many of them are at least prepared to listen to their points of view. Johannesburg-based Talk Radio 702 - the independent radio station serving a multi-racial audience in the urban areas of South Africa's old southern Transvaal province - and John Berks in particular, have a lot to do with that.
Having conquered the industry in South Africa and pioneered the talk radio format there as the country's premier morning anchor, Berks was looking for something to ignite his passion. He found it in a shared dream with South African media mogul Issie Kirsh to start a radio station in the Middle East to aid peace in the region.
Now Berks [originally Berkovitch] is working on getting Israelis and Palestinians "to connect, to laugh together, to talk to each other", because at the very heart of the matter, this Jewish man from the Afrikaner heartland town of Klerksdorp wants to take on the world's number-one ultimate challenge: making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Speaking exclusively to The Jerusalem Post at his hotel in the capital [several hours after his show was broadcast from the Ramallah studios of the new 93.6 RAM FM Middle East Eyewitness News], Berks says he knows exactly where he has landed, and looks forward to the " terribly complex" challenge, "the most complex engagement I've ever gotten myself into." "Here I was playing golf and hitting the occasional squash ball, and Issie called me up and told me about his idea, and I said I shared his dream."
From the lofty heights of South Africa's top radio spot, Berks now wakes at 4am., and finds himself waiting in the rain every morning for a taxi to take him from Jerusalem to the station's Ramallah studio in time for his 6-9am. show.
The first step, he says, is figuring out what makes Israelis and Palestinians laugh. Like a comedian who is new in town, Berks has taken to the stage and is probing his audience on both sides of the Green Line.
His material, he says, will come from daily life, and especially life in the mornings "What's life like in the mornings, what are the experiences that people share? Waking up in good moods and bad moods, waiting in traffic, things like that. You just need to make sure that you are there communicating with them," he says, adding that he tries to plug into people's feelings and aspirations when he's broadcasting.
Perhaps noticing in his first few weeks of broadcasting that he's found a tough crowd, Berks has decided to ask the experts for their input - Israeli and Palestinian comedians, who he plans to consult, and perhaps put on the air.
He doesn't pretend to know his audience, and is spending much of his time traveling and meeting people. None of his tried and tested ethnic jokes will work on his new audience, he admits. "It's a comedian's nightmare." He recalls an old Afrikaner expression: "Ek dink dat hulle het gatvol gehaat van al heerde dongerei angaan", which translates roughly to "I think the people have had it up to here with all that's going on."
"I think laughter could be good medicine now, and music does the same thing," he says.
But it's not all about comedy. The real contribution of RAM FM, Berks hopes, will come when the station introduces talk radio, "so that people can connect over the airwaves."
"Communication and dialogue between the two nations, is it right to say two nations? Israel and Palestine via the airwaves. If they can share a laugh, if they can share a tear, just certain sensitive areas which radio touches," he says, betraying a deeper understanding of the situation here (Berks has visited Israel at least 4 times prior to this latest visit). "There is a tremendous amount of tension here, perhaps more than there's ever been, and that's why it is important to get people talking. As long as there is talk, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Its like a marriage: when its bad its bad, but when there is no talking, its over."
BERKS BELIEVES the new radio station has found a great niche as the only exclusively English-language radio station around. RAM FM also plans to open a new broadcast studio in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Malha. "Israeli guests will be interviewed from the Malha studio, and Palestinians will go on air from Ramallah," he says, convinced that there are enough young people in both Israel and the Palestinian territories who have grown up with English as a second language taught at school to make up a decent-sized audience - enough of an audience to engage each other in dialogue.
The station is not going to focus on political talk, although there will be much of that. "We'll let the experts deal with those issues," he says. What Berks is also hoping for is a steady stream of experts from the financial, legal, medical and other professions who can answer caller's questions in real time.
Not wanting to get involved too much in the news coverage -"I'm an entertainer, not a political expert or analyst" - or the political direction of the station, which has vowed to remain as apolitical as possible, Berks wants to focus his show on reaching out to the audience. But he has given some thought to the tougher questions: What will you do if during one of your broadcasts there is a terror attack, and people die, and after that there is a military reprisal and more people die? How are you planning to cope with the possibility that the reality could change here suddenly, violently, and could last for a very long time?
"When the ship's sinking, the band plays on," he says sullenly, adding, "that's a hell of a statement to make." He quickly moves back to the optimistic: "Everest is a tall mountain and you can run out of oxygen, but when you reach the top and plant that flag at the top, with all the challenges that go with it, the reward is so great," he says, adding that for him, the ultimate reward would be "when Israel realizes its true potential and achieves peace....if the radio station can make a contribution, [like the kind] 702 made to that peaceful transformation in South Africa...it will be so worth its while. It would have been mission accomplished."
What could make Berks's self-proclaimed challenge perhaps even more difficult is the fact that he is "proudly Jewish" and "pro-peace" - something he defines as wanting the Jewish state to achieve a real peace with its neighbors. "The greatness of Israel," he says "will be [realized] when it achieves peace".
Berks is not committing to the length of his current gig, although he seems thoroughly committed to making a good attempt of this venture. "It has to be mutually right, the management has to feel good about having me here, and I have to feel happy. I've reached a stage where I want to enjoy radio; I want to have fun in the morning. I need to have fun, but also be responsible, as there are two nations concerned here, and they both need to be understood."