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The Israel Broadcasting Authority is gradually eliminating AM (medium-wave) broadcasts, a cost-cutting measure that will seriously harm Israel Radio's news in English and a dozen other foreign languages, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
A date for closing the AM service completely has not been announced, but insiders indicated that the move was imminent.
Until recently, anyone wishing to ascertain the frequencies used by the IBA for its radio news could find details of both AM and FM transmitters on its Web site. The AM listings have, however, disappeared without any explanation.
Asked about the development, the IBA spokesperson confirmed that AM broadcasts were being cut. The spokesperson said the annual cost of maintaining an AM transmitter is NIS 20 million, a sum the IBA, in its current financial situation, can no longer afford.
Informed sources voiced particular concern about the future of REKA, the foreign-language network that serves immigrants, the diplomatic community and anyone else whose Hebrew is insufficient to follow regular broadcasts.
They said that FM reception for REKA is poor or non-existent in many parts of the country due to the location and limited power of IBA transmitters. This includes many areas of Jerusalem.
Besides its three daily English news broadcasts, REKA features around-the-clock news and programming in a dozen languages, including Russian, Amharic, French, Spanish, Hungarian, Ladino and Yiddish.
REKA will continue to be broadcast over FM transmitters and the Internet, but industry sources claim that both suffer from technical limitations that will result in a severe drop in listenership.
The IBA's response was that REKA had been given five FM transmitters to ensure that its broadcasts could be received throughout the country.
The decision to phase out AM transmissions was made by the IBA's board of directors, with a caveat that FM transmitters first had to be installed and tested for all geographical areas to be affected, the IBA spokesperson said.
The IBA said that existing AM transmitters were becoming obsolete, but recognizing that such transmitters should be available for emergencies meant they would not be done away with altogether. Therefore, it has asked the Prime Minister's Office to allocate a special budget for this purpose and has notified the Defense Ministry and Home Front Command that AM transmissions are being phased out. In addition, it will maintain AM transmitters where there is no FM alternative.
Meanwhile, according to the spokesperson, the IBA is doing all it can to improve FM reception and strongly believes that efforts to this effect throughout 2009 will help increase rather than decrease listenership.
Because they are broadcast on AM - which is more powerful than FM - Israel Radio's news programs in English and French are heard in neighboring Arab countries.
"As they will no longer be available, this will deny Israel a voice in places where it is much needed," one source said. "Removing the medium-wave transmitters will just further diminish the ability of listeners to hear an already decimated news service, damaged by salami-style [piece-meal] cuts over many years. There are now growing demands for an inquiry into the way the IBA management has treated its radio services in general and its hitherto much-valued and respected English News," the source said.
A source familiar with the situation said that by reducing listenership, the gradual replacement of AM transmitters could provide a pretext for the layoff of some of the 800 IBA employees slated for dismissal within the framework of broadcasting authority reforms.
When the IBA switched off its shortwave transmitters two years ago, it promised that its Web site, iba.org.il, would provide better service. But during Israel's recent assault on Hamas in Gaza, high listener demand - especially for English news broadcasts - often made it impossible to log on.
Those responsible for the Web site evidently budgeted for a very limited number of listeners; one estimate is that only 350 people could access the live service at any given time - which an industry source called "woefully inadequate."
Should the AM service be cut completely, there are fears that domestic listeners unable to receive FM transmissions will turn to the Internet, which would place even greater pressure on the already-limited service.
The IBA said in response that it was upgrading its Web site to facilitate greater access.
Areas in which FM transmitters have already? taken over from AM include Menda and Eitanim (FM 88.5), Safed (FM 94.4), Kochav Hayarden (FM 104.8), Acre, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (FM 101.3), Netanya (93.7) and Beersheba (FM 107.3).
Broadcast reception from these transmitters covers an appreciable expanse, from Kiryat Shmona through the Golan Heights and the Galilee down to the Beit She'an Valley, and farther south to Ashkelon, part of Modi'in, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Sderot.
Reception was also fairly good to excellent in the central areas of Nahariya, Nazareth, Haifa, Karmiel, Acre, Netanya, Tel Aviv, part of Hadera, Ashdod, part of Ashkelon and Jerusalem, the IBA asserted.