(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Maysoun Odeh-Gangat stresses that Ram (short for "Ramallah"; the Hebrew word for "high," as in volume) radio is not about politics. It is, rather, an audio tool for dialogue and peace between two peoples in conflict - established by South African-Jewish businessman Issie Kirsh and modeled after a similar endeavor in Johannesburg which he initiated during apartheid to enable interracial communication.
Indeed, says the 42-year-old Palestinian, other than news and a daily morning show called "Talk at 10" - moderated by broadcasting consultant Raf Gangat, who also happens to be her husband - the rest is the stuff she says both Israelis and Palestinians really want to hear and care about. Health. Celebrity gossip. Astrology. Movie reviews. And, of course, music.
The "gimmick" of 93.6 Ram FM, if it can be called that, is that it is entirely in English. Even the songs.
Though this might be a clever way of encouraging cooperation through neutrality and universality, it also seems odd, considering that the mother tongue of one of its target audiences is Hebrew and that of the other is Arabic.
But Odeh-Gangat - who previously worked for the South African representative to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah - says that extensive market research prior to the launching of the Jerusalem- and Ramallah-based station nine months ago indicated enough interest among populations on both sides of the fence, so to speak, to make the project possible.
She also claims that the figures on the ground - or, in this case, over the airwaves - have matched the surveys, if not surpassed them. Aside from everything else, she explains, a lot of people "look at it as a way to improve their English."
Whether it has an effect on their inter-community relations remains to be seen, particularly where Gaza is concerned. Nor, one supposes, is such an outcome measurable, though Odeh-Gangat - a Muslim who grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Ramallah with her husband and baby boy - sees Ram FM as a microcosm of coexistence.
"We recruit Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Jews and South Africans," she says, gesturing through the glass door of her office at the people buzzing around in different states of activity. "And we all work together and socialize in harmony - without politics."
Given the crisp newness and colorful decor of the studio - located in Jerusalem's Malha Technological Park - it's no wonder the atmosphere feels as breezy as many of the station's broadcasts. Still, there's no getting around the reality beyond the microphones - the reality in which and about which the station was created to address.
"We don't steer away from controversial issues," clarifies Odeh-Gangat when challenged about how politics could possibly play a minor role in Palestinian-Israeli affairs. "We steer away from hate speech, incitement and anything that contradicts our code of conduct."
Ram FM's stated goal is to serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. Under the current circumstances, how do you see that working? Aren't there more Israelis open to peace and bridging gaps than there are Palestinians?
I'm not sure about Israelis being more pro-peace than Palestinians. I would defer on that, simply because, being a Palestinian woman myself, I know and live among Palestinians. Through my life's experience, I have seen both Palestinians and Israelis suffer much pain. Through my professional experience, both on this radio station and in my previous career, I know that Palestinians are peace-lovers like Israelis. However, there is a misunderstanding - and a lack of trust - between the two nations. And that is why there is a perception by both that neither side wants peace.
This radio station serves a non-political bridge between the two. Though we do have one daily political talk show - "Talk at Ten" - we mainly use music and other forms of entertainment that do not deal with politics. We have found out that both Palestinians and Israelis are people who love to listen to music. They don't want heavy talk. They don't want heavy politics. They're fed up with that. They just want to live their lives. But we do encourage call-ins for our programs.
Israelis tend to be far more openly critical of themselves and their government than Palestinians. In fact, Israelis are so used to attacking their leaders that it is almost a reflex, no matter what the topic. Do any Palestinians call in and criticize the PA?
Look, I don't dispute the fact that Israel is a democracy. But I also believe that Palestinian society is the most democratic in the Arab world. When Yasser Arafat was alive, people joked about him in the street and everywhere. Even the [Palestinian] media can be critical to some extent. The fact that Palestinians don't go on air to discuss issues of the day - though we've been trying to encourage them to call in, talk back and exchange ideas - could have more to do with their being shy and self-conscious about speaking English on the air than with their being afraid to discuss their government. I hear people [in the PA] talking openly about these things. Ramallah may not be as democratic as Israel, but it is democratic to a certain extent.
You mention that some people might feel self-conscious about speaking English on the air. Indeed, doesn't the fact that English is not the mother tongue of either population create a problem?
No. Before we opened this station, we conducted market research in Israel and the Palestinian areas. What we found out was that 60 percent of the Israelis and 40% of the Palestinians understand English well, in spite of their not being native English-speakers. Our survey found that there are half a million Hebrew- and Arabic-speakers willing to listen to us. Both also look at it as a way to improve their English. I read this market research all the time, because it has turned out to be very accurate, both in terms of the listenership and the topics listeners on both sides are interested in.
What is your target age group?
Eighteen to 55. But I just received e-mails from 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. So, clearly, our target age group is becoming slightly different.
What feedback have you received in Ramallah for this endeavor? Positive? Critical?
In Ramallah, on an official level, we had a blessing from the government. They like us and approve of what we're doing. On the street level, people also like it. We haven't had any problems so far.
In the last survey we did in August, it showed we have a listenership of 120,000-160,000. We get lots of listeners from Ramallah. We also get listeners from the expatriate community: Filipinos working in Israel, Nigerians, etc. And the Israelis as well. In the evening, we get a minimum of 35 callers on our evening show.
How do you decide what kind of music and entertainment to provide?
The format of the station that we determined in board meetings is that it should be 80% music and 20% talk. We are not imitating anybody. We are trying to create our own identity. And we try to listen to and accommodate our listeners.
What about the choice of music? Do you get requests?
The music is "hot adult contemporary" - from the '70s, '80s and '90s. Obviously, some people have complained, asking why we only play music for kids. How we have broken it up is that in the early morning, we assume that the listeners are the 30-50 crowd, so we play more '80s and '90s. And as we go along throughout the day, we increase the hot music, for the younger crowd.
Given that the station is South African and is modeled after a similar endeavor that was launched to bridge the racial gaps there - one that Nelson Mandela publicly praised - has anybody suggested that this might lead to a comparison between Israel and apartheid?
No, we haven't had anything like this. It's a private, commercial project. And though it is based on the success story of the South African station, we don't draw parallels between South Africa and Israel, because the experiences in those countries are not the same. We do not use the term "apartheid."
For example, when we had an interview with someone on "Talk at 10" on the wall, the presenter said, "I'm not going to call it the apartheid wall; I'm not going to call it the security fence; I will call it a barrier, and you call in and tell me what you think about it."
We have to be very careful how we present things.
Do you ever have an Israeli and a Palestinian caller argue on the air?
Yes, but not simultaneously. We have had an Israeli calling in, and then a Palestinian calling in afterward to comment on it. Like the other day, we had a show dealing with the prisoners' issue. So we had a [panel consisting of a] lawyer from the Mandela Institute, the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs and [outgoing Prime Minister's Office spokeswoman] Miri Eisin. So, first we had an Israeli caller expressing a point of view, and when he was done, a Palestinian called in and expressed an opposing view.
When Kirsh established this kind of radio station in Johannesburg in 1980, it was one of the few means of cross-communication between populations. Today, because of the Internet, dialogue among different people is easy to come by. Why do Israelis and Palestinians need a radio station for bridging gaps?
First of all, radio is a very personal approach. When someone tunes in to the radio and you talk to him, it's like talking to him in person. This is unlike TV, for example, where it is about talking to everyone. And I think that the influence of radio is much greater than that of the Internet or TV these days. We sit in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and we are reaching people in Israel, Gaza and even in Amman.
Let's talk about Gaza. Are people there listening to your station? Gaza and Ramallah are in two different situations right now; they're almost like two different countries.
I haven't been to Gaza, though we do have a correspondent there who gives us reports on what's happening. There are people who call in from Gaza, but they are calling in to participate in competitions we hold, to win prizes and so on. So, there's no politics involved there.
You may be right that Ramallah and Gaza are almost like two different countries. Maybe their conditions are totally different. But the people are the same [in both places], and what they aspire to is the same.
How much do you think the outcome of the Annapolis summit will preoccupy your listeners?
From where I sit, people seem to be a little bit cautious. But personally, I think that whenever there's an opportunity to sit, let's sit and overcome all these problems.
We don't steer away from controversial issues. We steer away from hate speech, incitement and anything that contradicts our code of conduct. We reject all violence. We don't want anyone on air who creates an atmosphere of hatred.
Have you ever had to shut off the microphone in the middle of a call-in because it was inciteful?
Not once. But on our talk shows, when the topic is sensitive, we make sure to say to our listeners: "We don't accept any kind of incitement or hate speech."
We have screeners who speak to them before they get on the air. But of course, once someone is on air, you can't control what he's going to say. Luckily, so far, we haven't had any problems in this area.
But I want to stress that most of our shows aren't political. We have contests and "ask the expert" shows on herbal remedies, etc. That kind of thing.
Your listeners are Israelis and Palestinians. Do you ever play Middle Eastern music?
No. But if an Israeli or a Palestinian band has a hit song that has reached international charts and is in English, we'll play it.
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