English-language radio in Israel has never had an easy ride. Mainly due to licensing difficulties with the Communications Ministry, stations like the legendary Voice of Peace launched by Abie Nathan on a ship in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel, the short-lived, long-lamented Jerusalem-based Radio West in the 1990s and more recently the Ramallah-Jerusalem coexistence station RAM FM, all suffered similar fates of being shut down because they were broadcasting without a government-issued license - in essence operating as pirate radio stations.
Adam Mallerman, a new immigrant from England, has neatly pole-vaulted over the whole nuisance of proper permits, sanctioned bandwidths and the bureaucratic black hole that has relegated countless grassroots radio startups to the broadcasting junk heap. Ironically though, his spunky radio station can't be tuned into on a radio - Rusty Mike Radio (www.rustymikeradio.com) is an Internet-only station "broadcasting" from Jerusalem's Talbiyeh neighborhood to Israel and the world beyond.
Obviously, Rusty Mike isn't a precedent in English language Internet radio emanating from Israel. Arutz 7 - the voice of the settler movement - has been doing it for years. But the 38-year-old Mallerman is targeting a much broader listenership with Rusty Mike. And indeed, in its first few months "on the air," Rusty Mike (you need to read until the end to find out the significance of the name) has made steady gains in attracting a varied grab bag of devotees:
â€¢ New immigrants who are thirsty for information in English, but need more than what the English news on Israel Radio provides and aren't into Arutz 7's polemics;
â€¢ veteran English-speaking Israelis who feel like they're getting a taste of the chatty, breezy, multiformatted radio they grew up with and enjoy hearing their mama loshen in a heimish atmosphere;
â€¢ and listeners around the world with an interested ear toward Jerusalem.
"We are a community radio station - based on the model of BBC local radio, with music and chat, but really locally focused. The idea is to translate Israeli life - what's going on, the weather, the traffic, the jobs, the banking system, the personalities - into English," says a keyed-up Mallerman, sitting in the lobby of the national Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) headquarters in Jerusalem.
Outside, heavy-duty construction on new luxury apartment buildings is causing a cacophony of deafening noises to interfere with all conversations, including those taking place on the air in the small basement studio that houses Rusty Mike, where Mallerman has just completed his daily morning mix of music, banter and interviews.
"Could you hear it on the air?" Mallerman worriedly asks me and Nettie Feldman, one of the station's on-air personalities who hosts two shows a week, including a weekly Afternoon Shmooze talk and music program.
"Not really, it was slightly in the background," we answer, calming him down as the jackhammers rage around us. The noise levels around the studio are just one of the obstacles that Mallerman has encountered since before Rusty Mike debuted in March.
"PEOPLE LOOKED at me as if I were crazy - Internet radio, what is that?" Mallerman laughs when recalling first raising the idea after making aliya last year.
In England, the modern Orthodox Mallerman had worked as a youth community organizer and dabbled in children's hospital radio, a British setup in which hospital wards have their own in-house radio stations.
After spending years as a youth director of Jewish communities and a Jewish educator in both England and the US, Mallerman rediscovered his love of radio earlier this decade in London as the presenter for the Internet radio show J-JAM, the UK's only Jewish music radio program.
"We attracted a real audience, and when I made aliya, I thought that maybe I could do something like that part-time," he says. The idea snowballed, however, when Mallerman found a couple of eager allies - AACI and Richard Freedman, a veteran British-born DJ and radio professional working at Radio Kol Rega in Afula, who just happens to have been a classmate of Mallerman's growing up in Birmingham, England.
"We were two out of only three Jews at our school, and all three of us ended up going into radio," says the 41-year-old Freedman from Radio Kol Rega's offices.
"When Adam contacted me after he made aliya, I thought Rusty Mike was a great idea. With my experience in radio in Israel, I gave him some advice and he picked my brain on the logistics and how to get started. When I suggested that I could do a show for him from Afula, he immediately said yes."
Although Freedman had started out in the 1990s broadcasting a show in English at Radio Kol Rega's forerunner, pirate station Radio Dan, he's since graduated to Hebrew, much like the recently retired weather forecaster Robert Olinsky, by virtue of his accent.
"I was doing a middle-of-the-night show in English, and they needed someone to fill in during the day in Hebrew, and they asked me. With my Anglo accent and my Hebrew mistakes, the listeners thought it was great, and I've been doing my shows in Hebrew ever since," says Freedman, who is also in charge of the station's music library.
Since he didn't broadcast in English anymore, Freedman was overjoyed with the prospect of returning with a daily afternoon Rusty Mike program in his native tongue. The other boost Mallerman received was from AACI, whose executive director, David London, took the station under his wing.
"AACI is always looking to keep the community informed, and Adam's idea fit in nicely with that concept," says London. "It's a beautiful thing that the station isn't affiliated with any politics or religious slant, it's good for everyone. I remember on one of the first shows, Adam played Tom Jones's "Sex Bomb," then interviewed someone, and at the end he played a song by a religious men's choir. I thought that this is what we're all about - bringing the whole country together."
LISTENING TO Rusty Mike over a period of time will reveal a number of different radio stations. Sometimes it resembles a low-budget music station run by middle-agers who stopped listening to music when Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" was a hit. At other times, it's an engaging, informal if sometimes awkward public radio consumer access station addressing the needs and interests of the community with interviews, local news tidbits and information. Once in a while, there's even a sublime mix of free-form musical radio, the likes of which haven't been heard since the 1970s heyday of FM underground stations, as in the case of Jerry Stevenson's daily music show, where the former owner of Jerusalem's Mr. T's T-shirt shop plays everything from a Mozart concerto and '70s boogie band Fogat, to Benny Goodman and alternative rockers Rage Against the Machine to, of course, The Grateful Dead, all within a one-hour show.
To a lesser extent, Mallerman presents a wide spectrum of musical styles on his morning show.
"I don't think anyone goes from Madonna to [hassidic singer] Mordechai Ben-David other than me in the entire universe," he laughs.
"Right now, we're airing around nine to 12 hours a day of live radio, with the rest of the time being recorded music programs or repeats of shows earlier in the day. It would be great to broadcast 24-hours-a-day of live programming, but I'm not sure if we'll get to that situation," says Mallerman, adding that recent additions to the programming include a country music show, a talk show about Israeli hi-tech and a Rock for Rookies show hosted by Mike Somogy.
"Mike is such a character - what he doesn't know about rock isn't worth knowing. But he's so devoted to the show. He even showed up during reserve duty, instead of missing a show," says Mallerman.
Glitches are prone to occur, as the DJs act as their own engineers, cuing up songs, taking calls and worrying about sound problems. The console is in one tiny room of the AACI basement, and in the next room sits a small team of interns who edit the previously aired talk shows into podcasts which are available for download from the station's Web site.
During Feldman's Afternoon Shmooze show, which was dedicated to a discussion on the plight of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to divorce them), gremlins invaded the studio, with interviewees Ilana Stockman of support organization Mevoi Satum having a hard time hearing Feldman and vice versa. When one of the interviewees was disconnected, Feldman attempted to put on some music, punching in two previously played songs before locating what she was looking for, the agunot-themed "Unchain My Heart" by Joe Cocker.
Feldman, a hi-tech marketing professional who made aliya from the US decades ago, takes the bumps in stride, and waxed enthusiastically about being given the opportunity to work out the kinks in public.
"I think I'm building a community in the Anglo world in Israel," says the bubbly Feldman, who admits that this is her first attempt in radio. "I had wanted to do this for a while, and was doing some demo podcasts with a friend. Then my husband saw a posting on the JANGLO chat group [for Anglos in Jerusalem] that Adam was looking for on-air personalities, so I called right away. We met, and he said, 'Okay, you can start next week.'"
According to Mallerman, Feldman's shows, which have focused on topics ranging from job-finding to ADHD, the Yiddishe mama syndrome and the mehadrin bus controversy, are among the most popular on the station and have the highest download rates.
"I think it resonates," says Feldman. "I think people really like the topics, they make comments and they can end up being on the show themselves. People want to hear what's going on in the country, and we share many experiences, like horror stories about cable companies and Internet providers. If it can help people, it's great to be that voice. We're an address for new olim to get information and also for veteran olim who are still not really involved with Hebrew papers. They hear us, and they find it so refreshing."
Admitting that Israel's Anglo community has its share of oddballs, Feldman and Mallerman say that they attempt to screen out those that may tend to ramble or suddenly declare themselves the messiah live on the radio.
"There are some strange people, in Jerusalem especially. But we don't focus just on Jerusalem - many of my guests come from the Tel Aviv area - and there are so many Anglos all over. It's great to be able to hear different perspectives, because Jerusalem has, in a way, a narrower scope," says Feldman.
"In the first hour, we play a lot of '60s and '70s music, and I do some consumer-related topics, like helping a listener with a refrigerator problem get in touch with the Amana distributor. I also have a 'critic's corner', where I'll talk about a film or restaurant and give it a rating."
On one show, Feldman hosted Karin Kloosterman of the environmentally based Web site The Green Prophet, who talked about ecologically sound ways to shop for clothes and food.
"I try to screen our guests, so it's not just self-promotion but also giving information to the listener. It's so much fun," says Feldman.
Fun seems to be the name of the game as far as Rusty Mike is concerned, as Mallerman, Feldman, Freedman and the rest of the DJs purposely avoid the heaviness, politics and decidedly non-fun vibe of most radio programming emanating from Israel.
'We're not into politics," says Mallerman. "We're not talking about Gaza or Lebanon, but we might talk about life in Sderot. I want to talk about things like the light rail system, the water issue, why taxis stop in the middle of the road to pick up people. About as heavy as I get is having [media consultant] Aryeh Green come on to talk about the prospects of democratic reform. We do have a nighttime talk show with Baruch Spier that is a little more gritty talk radio. We may start a discussion on a topic during the day that Baruch will take further at night."
WHATEVER THE mix, Rusty Mike is attracting listeners, and not just from Israel. According to Mallerman, user IDs pop up from as far away as South Africa, Italy and China.
"I think we're getting new listeners every day," adds Freedman from Afula. "Yesterday, someone came on the chat from the US - her daughter had made aliya a few months ago, and she dedicated a song to her.
"The great thing for me, because I'm in the North and most of the English-speaking population is in the Center, is that I'm connecting with people I used to know in England. I've come in contact with loads of friends through Rusty Mike and it's fantastic."
One of the potential hazards of having an English-language radio station catering to the needs of immigrants is that it may prolong their integration into Israeli society and stunt their Hebrew learning. But both the Rusty Mike principals and AACI's London think that it will have the reverse effect and, in fact, aid the absorption process.
"Rusty Mike serves a lot of purposes; it's a disseminator of information that appeals to English-speaking residents of Israel," says London. "For example, the health bill and the tax issue [regarding the proposed $750 health tax on US residents living abroad] is something that they're not going to get in the Hebrew media. They're not catering to my concerns, the US elections, tax issues. I think it's a real service for people who aren't fluent in Hebrew.
"On the other hand, it shouldn't be the only thing they listen to in order to better integrate into Israeli society. But it's important they have this additional outlet."
"I think there is definitely a place for English radio in Israel," says Freedman. "Look at the Voice of Peace, it was hugely popular. I've been here 20 years, and I'm fluent in Hebrew, but I still like to listen to English radio."
Only nine months old, Rusty Mike is slowly making inroads, and Mallerman is hopeful for the day when his staff begins to get paid for their efforts and the station becomes an economically viable entity.
In the meantime, they're already receiving a boost early next year when AACI moves to its new building in Talpiot, where it has built a state-of-the-art Rusty Mike studio encased in glass in the middle of the office.
"It's brand new and it's spacious. It should be phenomenal," says Mallerman. According to London, AACI's decision to build the studio is a vote of confidence in the radio station.
"We're pleased and encouraged with how it's gone and excited about the future," he says. "Radio West and all those other efforts to try to move forward were all stymied by the bureaucracy of Israel. But this has jumped right over it, that's the beauty."
London adds that the challenge is to not jump too far over the heads of some of AACI's veteran constituency - for some of whom e-mail is still a recent innovation. "For some people, it may be unusual to make that push and listen to the radio on the computer. It's still on the cusp, I'm not sure the world has 100 percent gone over to it, especially in Israel."
Mallerman discovered resistance initially when approaching advertisers, who were puzzled about a radio station that wasn't available on the radio.
"At the beginning, it was like 'what is it?' You don't have any listeners,'" says Mallerman. "Now, we have 60,000 podcast downloads from our site from last month. These are people who are definitely going to listen to those shows because they took the time to download them."
Mallerman and Freedman both hope that the concept of digital radio eventually takes hold here, which will enable an unlimited number of stations to be broadcast on the radio.
"In the US digital isn't catching on yet, but in England it's great - you have hundreds and hundreds of channels," says Mallerman.
"Digital radio means that there can be different radio stations on the same wavelength - you can get them on any normal digital radio, which is available in some places for NIS 400 to NIS 500," says Freedman.
Following Knesset approval in 2005 for digital audio broadcasting and satellite radio broadcasting, the Communications Ministry together with the Second Authority for Radio and Television issued a tender to develop digital audio broadcasting last year, but it never got off the ground. And according to most industry insiders, the prospects of such a tender being published in the near future are very low.
"It's the future, but it will take a few more years until it gets off the ground," says Freedman.
In the meantime, Rusty Mike isn't gathering any rust making a name for itself on Internet radio. In fact, the story of how the station got its name serves as an example of Mallerman's ability to see the forest for the trees.
"I was looking for a name for the station for weeks, thousands of names that people suggested or I found, but their URLs were all taken and being sold for $5,000," Mallerman recalls.
"I put some combinations into a search engine with the word microphone, and mic, and mike and came up with Rusty Mike. I called a friend in marketing to ask him what he thought, and his reaction was, 'Bloody stupid, I think you're nuts.'
"However, he was testing some products in a phone survey and added a question for me to the list. He called me the next day and said that [my] name tested best, people remembered it. After all, what's a name? Amazon is a forest, Java was named because they were all drinking coffee and Starbucks was a character in Battlestar Galactica."
While Rusty Mike doesn't exist, except as the fictional studio engineer that Mallerman blames technical glitches on, it neatly encapsulates the concepts that aren't known to go together, but fit perfectly - a microphone that's rusty, and a radio station that's only on the Internet.
To Mallerman, it makes perfect sense.
"I see the day that we become the voice of Anglo Jewry in Israel - a loud voice." n