At the risk of mixing my metaphors, something is afoot across the airwaves. since the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) was officially closed last month and replaced by the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) aka Kan, there have been across-the-board changes made to the programming of the eight radio stations taken under the new body’s wing. For music lovers, that is most keenly felt at Kan88 – formerly 88FM.
The station has been unique in the world of tight radio formats, with smart and seasoned DJs who are actually music fans offering a dazzling array of styles and artists. It’s the only station in Israel – and probably one of the few in the world – where you could hear contemporary artists like Wilco and Radiohead next to jazz visionaries like Miles Davis and indie local artists. Listeners of 88FM were among the most loyal, whether listening to the eclecitism of the morning drive-time show ‘Rocker Tov’ by Boaz Cohen or late-night free-form jazz.
Since the Kan takeover, many listeners have noticed subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the free-form fun. Following the appointment of a new manager, Moshe Morad, there were reports of intervention in program presenters’ musical choices and changes in program scheduling. Some shows have been canceled, others have shifted off the prime-time radar, and presenters have complained about having their show playlists either dictated to them or subjected to an approval process.
One leading group that is active in making the listeners’ disappointment heard is Mishmar88 (88Guard). The group was formed as a watchdog/protest organization of 88FM listeners in 2008 following then-new-manager Yuval Ganor’s arrival. The group set out its stall, explaining that it is “a voluntary body established as a private initiative of 88FM listeners. The listeners view 88[FM] as a cultural pearl, a unique entity on the radio dial, which must be protected.”
Journalists not only have to maintain a keen sense of curiosity about a wide range of subject matter, they have to learn to be flexible. However, once in a while an item simply does not permit sticking to one of the basic ground rules of the profession – presenting both sides of the story. One such is the ongoing saga of Kan88.
This is simply because no one at Kan88 was willing to say anything I could quote. Kan spokesperson Gili Shemtov said I could talk to one of the new main movers and shakers at the station but that I could not quote him directly.
Hence, this article will focus on just two of the three components that comprise a music-based radio station package: the listeners and those who create and/or perform the music – but without the parties responsible for deciding what we get to hear.
According to Einat Cohen, a 43-year-old resident of Tel Aviv who says she has been listening to 88FM “forever,” “You have to fight for your favorite radio station.” This is because in our reality, in this far off, hot, crammed spot in the Middle East, a radio station that gave its editors and presenters freedom, that gave freedom to new artists, produced a rare mix of wonderful shows and rare musical know-how. “The knowledge that, at any given moment, when I am listening to the radio there will be good music to hear – varied, new, jazz, world music, the Beatles and everything we hold dear. That has gone.”
Last week some 88FM faithfuls gathered outside the Tel Aviv offices of the IBC to voice their thoughts on the new broadcasting regime and the wholesale revamping of the 88FM programming schedule. The demonstration was organized by Mishmar88 which, says Hila Shagan, has around 7,500 members. Shagan is a highly active member of the group.
She says she was similarly frustrated in her attempts to get a response from the IBC. “Gil Omer is the chairman of the board of the new corporation...When we sent letters to Gil Omer he said that, in practice, the board has no connection with the content. That is simply incorrect,” says Shagan. “If there is any representation of the public [at Kan] it is within the board, and they are shirking their responsibility.”
Shagan says the pressure group also sought assistance from Kan’s newly appointed ombudsman, Orly Maman. “She didn’t do anything,” says Shagan, “other than to send to all of us an identical response... Don’t forget, it is Maman’s job to look into our complaints about the changes at the radio station.
“She wrote: ‘Thank you for contacting us. We take careful note of all applications and respect your feelings with regard to the changes which have, to your mind, taken place in the station’s character. An investigation we undertook with the station manager and the head music editor revealed that the station is maintaining the existing good musical orientation, and continues to broadcast quality music across a broad range of eras and genres.’ As if there haven’t been any changes!” Shagan exclaims.
SO, WHAT are the changes that have gotten Shagan et al. into a tizzy? For starters, they are unhappy about the popular prime-time Noten Barock classic rock show, presented by Ben Red, being shunted to a late night slot. They are also up in arms over the appointment as chief music editor 29-year-old Aviad Rosenboim, whose primary source of professional experience was gained at the Galgalatz populist IDF radio station.
For Shagan, Cohen and the other former 88FM devotees, Galgalatz is a simile for dumbing down, and for what they say is a crass plan to point Kan88’s musical output firmly in the direction of the lowest common denominator. “It’s crazy,” says renowned 61-year-old ethnic music artist Yair Dalal, a longtime listener of 88FM.
“Let’s say that 88FM has a 7% rating.” In fact, it was 8%. “So you take that 8%, 2% of that will carry on listening to the station. Then you’re left with 2, and you want to increase that to 20%? How?”
Dalal says that can be done at a price. “[IBC CO Eldad] Koblenz can take the hits of [Mediterranean style music stars] Eyal Golan and Sarit Haddad, play their biggest hits every two or three minutes, and you’ll get your 20% rating.” That, says Dalal, would spell the complete demise of what he calls “intriguing and educational music on the radio.”
“I liked listening to shows when the presenters told us all these stories about the bands we hadn’t heard before. We may know the music, but we want to learn. That’s quality radio, not just playing the hits.”
One of the fundamental changes about the way the station goes about its presenting business is, says Shagan, the fact that many of the DJs no longer have carte blanche. “That was one of the great things about 88FM – you got the presenter’s own music, the stuff they feel passionately about. That’s mostly gone now.
“Now they either have the playlist presented to them, or they have to give in their own playlist for approval a few days or a week in advance. So what happens if something big happens, like a famous musician dies? How can you respond with, say, a special about the artist if you have to submit your playlist so far in advance?”
Shagan also points her troubled finger at the financial side of the shakeup equation. “The idea behind getting rid of the IBA was also to save money. How can they be saving money when they have added a chief music editor, with three other editors working under him?”
For their part a Kan source – who, naturally, cannot be named – claimed that all the presenters work together with the editor on putting their show content together. But listening to Boaz Cohen’s show under the new regime, the impression was that there was no clear thread to the material he was playing. It seemed like a largely incoherent mishmash.
Consider then-rising star jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s early 1960s funk-jazz hit “Watermelon Man,” followed by a Doors number, then Amy Winehouse, REM and British indie act Elbow, and there was some Beatles and Rolling Stones thrown in.
“The 88FM slogan used to be ‘the best music on the radio’; now it’s ‘the most-played, worn-out music on the radio’,” says Shagan.
I caught up with longtime, twenty-something 88FM fan Keren Reuven at a bad time, or possibly a good time. “I was just listening to the radio,” she said when I called one evening.
“So, there is still something good to listen to on 88?” I queried.
“There is, but it only starts at 7 p.m.,” came the response. “They are the freer hours – not totally free, but freer.” That was a reference to what is perceived to be iron-fisted monitoring of the music that makes it to the air, when the public at large is most likely to have at least one ear trained on the radio.
“There is a pattern which aims to play music for the masses,” Reuven continues. “There are people who might call that an elitist thing to say, but that’s not correct. I think that what the station plays today, across most of the prime-time hours, appeals to the masses. You can get that music right across the radio. The people that like that music can hear it on practically any station, but I, and people like me, can’t get what we want to hear on the radio anywhere else.”
Reuven notes that the station powers-that-be do not entirely ignore her tastes in artists, but she says they go about it the wrong way. “They play music by artists I want to hear, but they play the same hits over and over again. How many times a day can your hear “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush? I think in the past month I heard that song [on Kan88] more times than in my whole life. That really misses the point.”
Alternative rock artist David Peretz echoes that unwanted feeling of déjà vu. “I finally broke when I heard the acoustic guitar playing the opening chords of “Fade Into,” by [American nineties alternative rock band] Mazzy Star. Out of habit I went for the volume button, but this time not to turn it up but to turn it down to zero.
“It was only then that I stopped in amazement. How come such a sensitive and beautiful song had become something so abhorrent to me? The answer is simple – I’d heard it three times in two days.”
Peretz says he knows that, in the present Kan88 climate, he has absolutely no chance of having his music played on the station. He and Dalal also bemoan the fact that there seem to be no opportunities for listeners to get a better handle on musicians’ work and personalities due to the dearth of shows with live interviews.
Tal Hashiloni used to present two shows, one of which was simply called Tal Hashiloni Hosts. That is now nowhere to be seen in the Kan88 lineup. And jazz fans no longer have their daily two-hour helping of mainstream evening sounds.
Thankfully, Yuval Meskin, the very last of the Mohicans, has retained his quality jazz slot, which has been moved from Thursday evening to Sunday evening. “And there are no more live interviews with foreign artists,” notes Dalal. “Once 88FM was respected across the world, even in San Francisco. Not anymore.”
It is pretty safe to say that a demonstration outside the station’s Tel Aviv base is not going to ruffle too many managerial feathers, but there may be more to come. “That was only the opening shot,” says Shagan. “We are going to keep this fight going. This is too important for us and many others. This is also about the quality of our life.”
What do Koblenz, Rosenboim, Omer and station manager Moshe Morad think about that? It’s anyone’s guess. Maybe we’ll get something more than a laconic official statement when the official rating stats come out.