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(photo credit: Courtesy)
There was some amusing cross-cultural confusion on the first day the new all-English radio station, 93.6 RAM FM Middle East Eyewitness News, broadcasted out of Ramallah on February 21. A Palestinian caller from Bethlehem insisted that she deserved a prize even though she answered a question incorrectly. "Nope lady, quizzes don't work that way," explained the morning's talk-show host.
A former South African from Ra'anana, who knew the answer, battled with other issues. "What, I'm not eligible for the prize? Why not?"
It was a weekend for two at a hotel. "The hotel is in Jericho, sir!" was the reply.
Albeit sensitive, these were minor issues - the big ones will come later.
RAM FM aims to bring a measure of understanding between people who rarely interact with one another. South African entrepreneur Issy Kirsh from Johannesburg, the brainchild behind the new venture, is the managing director of Middle East Broadcast Holding (Pty) that launched the new station. Why choose such a volatile political market for a radio station?
"I have a deep interest in the Middle East," explains Kirsh. "I see an opportunity with 'talk radio' - a concept we successfully pioneered in the old apartheid South Africa - to create a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. What happens to these two nations is worldwide news. Even getting them to listen to the same music is a bridge. The dialogue that will follow is the spin-off."
Market researchers estimate that 40 percent of Palestinians and 60% of Israelis speak English. But will listeners across the political-divide tuning into 1970 icons like Van Morrison, The Doors, James Taylor or Loggins & Messina - all played on launch day - be more conciliatory after appreciating the same music? To facilitate this journey, "We will not play any Arab or Israeli music," explains News Director Andrew Bolton, also a South African. "We need to appear politically neutral and not align the station with either people."
For this reason, Bolton says, the station will not use words like "martyr" or "terrorist," which he describes as "loaded." No doubt questions will arise if and when commentators or newsreaders trip over a multitude of other words, such as "occupation." Time will tell how adept the new station will tiptoe through the verbal minefield of Middle East politics.
Most important, says Bolton "We're committed to telling both sides of the story," and hearing the full story is not only about internecine Palestinian power play or IDF incursions. "Do Israelis have any inkling of what daily life is like in a place like Ramallah?" he asks. "Would they know about restaurants, cultural events, environmental and health issues, or crime?
On the day of the launch, the first news item read out by Bolton was of an accidental fatal shooting by a Palestinian policeman of a pedestrian. This was not reported on any of the Israeli news channels. A week earlier, says Bolton, "at the gas station in Ramallah where I usually fill up, a spark from a welding machine connected with a petrol tank and nine people were instantly obliterated. It could have been me," he gasps, "and yet there was not a single report in the Israeli press."
"How does one Palestinian killed by Israeli soldiers become international news while nine wiped out in the same town by an act of gross negligence appears too parochial for coverage?" he wonders.
Licensed by the Palestinian Authority, with digital studios in Ramallah and Jerusalem, the 24-hour-a-day station is intended to reshuffle the focus of news and broadcast a mix of 20 news bulletins a day, chat shows, entertainment and pop music. "There is a need for a daily debate on the issues affecting both Israelis and Palestinians," says Kirsh. "This is the driving force behind 93.6 RAM FM. We are doing it in English, and will shortly broadcast to international listeners via satellite and the Internet."
While Kirsh calls the station "a leap of faith," the venture is anything but that. Thorough market research, says Kirsh, shows that "a dual-community station has the potential to attract a target audience of 500,000 English speakers in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the coastal areas. At the end of the day, the station is an independent commercial venture. Some $2 million has been invested for its first year, Kirsh maintains. "Our project must be viable or it won't survive. We have to build confidence in the market. As an independent in the competitive radio market, it's our business to track audience trends, size up the opportunities and be the first to give the audience what it wants. The most important voice that will be heard on 93.6 RAM FM is that of our listeners."
While describing the new station "as the new kid on the block," Kirsh is hardly a novice with more than 25 years' experience in commercial radio in Southern Africa. "When I stepped down as executive chairman of Primedia in South Africa five years ago, I was confident RAM FM's time had arrived. You have to put your money where your mouth is, so I invested the seed money to get the station up and running," says Kirsh.
Replicating the success of his 702 Talk Radio in South Africa, which many in the radio industry there believe played a key role in the transition from the county's apartheid regime to democracy, Kirsh believes "we will again be providing a platform for peaceful dialogue."
Not everyone is convinced. A highly apprehensive Lili Polliak from Jerusalem wrote last week to The Jerusalem Post, in graphic lavatorial parlance: "â€¦ we have had an arseful of all the bullshit going around of the Israeli-Palestinian situation being erroneously compared to that of the blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa."
Such passion may fuel RAM FM's success by addressing the sensitivities of both Israelis and Palestinians. "Ram," which is short for Ramallah, also means high or lofty in Hebrew.
Looking forward to moderating the expected daily clash of horns will be one of South Africa's most successful radio personalities. Many from their former country will recall the inimitable voice of John Berks from LM Radio, broadcast from Lorenco Marques in Mozambique during the 1960s, and thereafter his tours of duty with Swazi Music Radio, Springbok Radio, Capital Radio and Radio 5. His most significant move was to Issy Kirsh's Radio 702 in October 1981, where he became the most popular voice on the air in South Africa.
"Berksie," as he is called today, or "Long John Berks," as he was commonly known then, is all praise for his boss, with whom he has again teamed up and "whose dream I share. It was the same dream all those years ago in Radio 702, when many of the ANC members like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were languishing in Robbin Island. We introduced the concept of Talk Radio, where people felt free to express their views. In an age of statutory restrictions, we bent the rules propagating one of the most basic pillars of any true democracy - the freedom of speech."
He recalls the heady days when Mandela was released from prison. "Every major international news organization was reporting daily from Johannesburg. Working on Radio 702 Talk Radio, we covered the story from the inside. Passing daily through our studios were political prisoners, diplomats, artists and athletes, religious leaders and business tycoons. But the real stars were the audience, the ordinary people calling in to share the ride through those phenomenal days," recalls Berks.
Does Berks, whom Kirsh has enticed to come out of retirement to take this job, believe RAM FM could have some of the same impact as 702 Talk Radio had in South Africa? "What is similar," says Berks, "is the same global fascination. I'm neither Israeli nor Palestinian but I feel that same buzz in the street. The people know what they want to talk about, and my job in hosting the breakfast show is to deliver what the audience wants."
And what the audience wants first and foremost, asserts Palestinian station manager Maysoun Gangat, is "quality adult contemporary music plus the latest hits." She has worked closely with Kirsh since he first bounced his idea in 2003 with her husband, the former South African Representative in the Palestinian Territories. She coordinated the research on the Palestinian side as to its potential audience and advertising support, and helped open channels with the PA to grant the license. "It was during the time of Arafat, who was all for it," she says.
Gangat is convinced that the two communities are ready to share a common music and news format. During the transition from consultant to station manager, "I gave birth to two babies" - her boy Adam in Jerusalem in July last year and 93.6 RAM FM. "I will mother and nurture both of them," she assures.
She may also need to include Berks as an added responsibility - his breakfast show starts each morning at 6 a.m. "I will have to get used to working on Sundays," he laments. "That's living in the Middle East for you!"
'Broadcasting from somewhere in the Mediterranean' - the epilogue?
All at 96.3 RAM FM are quick to dispel any connection with Abie Nathan's Voice of Peace radio station that came to an end in 1993. However, many listeners from those days cannot fail to make some connection. The last song transmitted from the bow of Nathan's ship before it was laid to rest 20 kilometers west of Ashdod was "Give peace a chance."
The voice of Menachim Begin's "No more war, no more bloodshed," resonates no less today as it did each day from the Peace Ship. Israelis and Palestinians are still waiting for that elusive peace.
Will RAM FM fill a void once occupied by a sunken ship? Only time will tell.