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Israelis and Palestinians can now talk together over the airwaves of the region's newest English-language radio station to be launched on Wednesday from Ramallah, courtesy of South African Jewish businessman Issie Kirsh.
The independent station, 93.6 Ram FM Middle East Eyewitness News, promises to "create a bridge of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians."
With offices in Ramallah and Jerusalem, it aspires to "act as a platform for peace and dialogue" based on a successful Johannesburg station called Radio 702.
Kirsh, chairman of South Africa's Primedia group which owns 702, said he obtained a broadcasting license from the Palestinian Authority rather than Israel because of the bureaucracy here.
"What we're aiming for is ultimately to be a talk station to enable Israelis and Palestinians to phone in and talk about issues that affect their lives... to set aside misconceptions, to set aside fears and to try and build confidence," Kirsh told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "If people don't talk to each other, they could never ever trust each other, and this to me is the biggest issue between Israelis and Palestinians, that at grassroots level there is no trust."
One of the founding shareholders of Radio Tel Aviv (102.FM), Kirsh said he was familiar with the rules and regulations in Israel, "and it's just not possible to get a license here."
"Our license is to broadcast, and that's all we need, and we have that license from the Palestinian Authority," Kirsh said. "It's common knowledge that news stations globally have bureaus all over the world, and news originates from foreign destinations, so there should be no need for us to require an Israeli license. For what? We're not using part of the Israeli-assigned spectrum.
"I think there is a free press in the Palestinian territories. I'm also aware of the fact that both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories there are people who will not like what we're doing. That's life. You can't please everybody."
From Wednesday morning, Ram FM will broadcast 20 news bulletins a day in English, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday to Thursday. Its first breakfast show, from 6 to 9 in the morning, will be presented by South African broadcasting legend John Berks.
During the course of the day, Israeli Mike Brand, Palestinian Hayat al-Alami and Australian Barry Hill will be among the anchors hosting talk-music shows, with news and reports in English from Israeli and Palestinian correspondents.
The station hopes to corner the English-speaking market in Israel and the Palestinian territories once filled by Abie Nathan's Voice of Peace radio station that broadcast from a ship "somewhere in the Mediterranean." Yet Kirsh rejected the notion that he was following Nathan.
"We're not taking off after Abie Nathan. I think he had a very noble cause... but he's also construed as a pirate," Kirsh said. "We're not pirates. But I do admire his initiative. I think he had guts, and it's just a pity that he didn't achieve what he intended to do."
Ram FM will play "English, adult contemporary music," targeting an audience of about half a million people in Israel and the Palestinian territories between the ages of 18 and 49. It said its market research had indicated that 60 percent of Israelis and 40% of Palestinians understand English, and would tune in to an English radio station.
The station's operating costs for the first year are $2 million, of which Kirsh has committed 25%, and hoped to "break even" within three years.
"This project is a South African-based and predominantly financed project," Kirsh said. "It's financed by private investors. There is no government funding and there's no NGO funding." He declined to name any of the investors besides himself and Keith Giemre, a former finance director of Radio 702.
"They are international investors. They are all respectable businessmen. The main funding is coming from South Africa, and I am one of the main investors in this project."
The station said it had already enlisted advertising from multinational companies such as Coca Cola, Western Union and Unilever.
News editor Andrew Bolton said the radio's mission was to broadcast entertainment, music and informative programs "which will promote peace and dialogue, and provide reliable, impartial and independent news from the Middle East."
"We are really committed to telling both sides of the story," Bolton said. "Coming from South Africa, where freedom of speech was a hard-won victory, we understand the importance of that and independence. We also understand how a free and independent media is absolutely vital to progress in the Middle East."
"We are apolitical. We will not toe any political line, other than being pro-peace," he added.
In time, Bolton said, Ram FM planned to syndicate internationally via audio streaming on the Internet under the brand name Middle East Eyewitness News, reaching countries as diverse as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
"We plan to go global with our 93.6 Ram FM talk shows," added Kirsh. "But our first goal is to build an audience in Israel and Palestine with the same brand of radio we have established in South Africa."
Kirsh launched 702 as an independent venture in 1980 in what was then the "homeland" of Bophuthatswana, which was exempt from South African laws, allowing it to broadcast uncensored music, news and views.
"This is at a time when South Africa was transitioning from apartheid to a democracy, and this was my great opportunity then to really apply talk radio to its fullest extent," Kirsh said, adding that he aims now to replicate the idea in Israel.
"I've visited Israel frequently, and the notion of doing a talk station grew in my mind, and it developed out of the same concepts that we experienced in South Africa," he said.
Radio 702, which claims to be Johannesburg's No. 1 current affairs station, played a significant role in the reconciliation process in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela, moving the country from the abyss of apartheid to a dynamic democracy.
During the apartheid era, it was a valuable source of political information, and the African National Congress and other banned groups used 702 to convey their version of the often one-sided picture broadcast by state radio and television.
At a Ram FM press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, a film was broadcast of Mandela paying tribute to 702.
"Keep the nation talking," Mandela said in the tape. "For they say that it is 'when the talking starts that the war stops.'"
Issie Kirsh and his son, William, are the largest shareholders in Primedia, which besides 702 lists 94.7 Highveld Stereo and the Ster-Kinekor cinema chain among its assets.
Primedia announced last month that it and the Mineworkers' Investment Consortium would pay R6 billion (about $850 million) to buy out its shareholders and make the company privately held.
Kirsh said setting up Ram FM was, for him, a dream come true.
"Ram is an abbreviation for Ramallah," Kirsh said. "It also has a dual meaning. In Hebrew, 'ram' means lofty, high; it's got a good connotation, so it serves a purpose for both audiences, both Palestinian and Israeli.
"What we're doing I know is right; it's correct. It's my duty to do it. It's my duty to myself, and my conscience."
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