Making airwaves

88 FM and Boaz Cohen are providing a sparkling musical alternative to nonstop news and pop pap.

Boaz Cohen 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Boaz Cohen)
Boaz Cohen 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Boaz Cohen)
To Boaz Cohen, mainstream music is not a dirty word. But the popular 88 FM DJ’s definition of “mainstream” may be a little different than... well, the mainstream point of view.
It’s one that includes classic Fleetwood Mac, Shlomo Artzi and Steely Dan, for sure, but also encompasses Joy Division, Black Sabbath, one-hit wonders from the 1960s like “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke, aspiring, little- known Israeli bands and singer/songwriters, and indie popsters like Robyn Hitchcock and The Lemonheads.
That eclectic mix has helped turn 88 FM into one of the country’s most popular listening destinations, and Cohen into a pied piper of sorts for serious music fans.
In a news-obsessed country like ours, most ears are glued to the bulletins and interviews of Reshet Bet and Army Radio. However, for those who want to imagine they live in a normal country in which the reality doesn’t often change from one hour to the next, there are a number of options available – the teen pop playlist sounds of Galgalatz, the all-Hebrew music of Reshet Gimel, or the niche-defying 88 FM.
With approximately eight percent of the listening public, translating into 250,000 listeners at any given time, the station’s popularity has increased fivefold in the past three years, since new station manager Yuval Ganor instituted a loose “quality contemporary” format.
Not only is there no other station like it in Israel, there are very few commercial radio stations like it in the world.
And the driving force behind the station’s success is the 45-year-old Cohen, whose morning show has developed a loyal, almost fanatical, following among discerning listeners.
“When I grew up, mainstream wasn’t a bad word – whether it was Elvis, The Beatles or the Eagles, the idea on radio was to reach the most listeners with the best music,” said Cohen, sitting in the Israel Radio cafeteria near the Tel Aviv studios housing 88 FM.
“Something broke along the way, whether it’s commercialism or cynicism.
Our goal is to make mainstream a good word again, one that can include music from the 1960s until today and encompass pop, jazz, blues and rock. The music today that’s thought of as classic rock, or adult contemporary music, that was the stuff on the radio when I was growing up. I was just a kid listening to the radio day and night, taking it all in. It was my biggest love, it didn’t have a name.”
Cohen is a music buff who has managed to make it his career – first as a music and culture writer and editor for Yediot Aharonot, and since 2001 with his own show on 88 FM. He also plays keyboards in the band Punch, lectures on music, radio, literature and film at Tel Aviv University, and has taught courses with titles “Pop and Populism in the 21st century, “Different Cultures of the 1970s” and “The History of Radio in Israel.”
Not only does Cohen, like the other accomplished 88 FM DJs like Roni Wertheimer and Ben Red, eschew narrow playlists on his daily 8 a.m.-10 a.m. show in lieu of a bank of over 10,000 songs and his own personal music collections, he also does more than just play music.
“I try to add education to the menu,” he said. “If I play The Byrds’ ‘Bells of Rhymney’ and I know that Robyn Hitchcock performed a version of that song when he was in Tel Aviv this year, there’s a linkage there between them, and going back to Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger who first performed the song, which is based on a poem by Welsh poet Idris Davies. I try to point these things out.”
“I think it’s very important not just to give the name of the song and the band, but the year, part of the lyrics, if it references a book, some of the history of the time period. When people know the elements surrounding the song and the context – that it wasn’t created in a vacuum – that’s when they fall in love with it. It becomes a part of something bigger, a part of the culture.”
For example, a couple of days after the it was announced that 1970s singer/songwriter Janis Ian would be coming to Israel for a concert in January, Cohen sandwiched her song “At Seventeen” with information about her colorful history as a teen performer and anecdotes about interviewing her a few years back.
“If Janis Ian is coming here, I feel it’s my job to provide some background about her,” said Cohen. “That way, if a listener doesn’t know her and hears her song, maybe he’ll then go to the Internet, find other songs or clips and check her out.”
“I’m trying to give information in a very delicate way, not to be pushy or preachy. Instead, I try to bring in links and connections the music has to books, movies and life – because I believe in distributing culture.”
THAT VALUE-ADDED element, somewhat of a throwback to the days of FM progressive rock radio of the 1960s-80s in the US when radio songs were more than background entertainment, has cemented Cohen’s status among music aficionados.
“The first time I listened to him, my tastes completely aligned with his,” said Modi’in resident Eliot Zimelman who began listening to Cohen when he had a nighttime show on 88 FM beginning in 2001.
“His knowledge is incredible. What I really like about him is that he brings in anecdotes and his experiences, whether it’s related to music or not. He talks about something that may have happened to him that day, and you feel like almost part of his family.”
Cohen said he was aware he was treading on unusual territory for a DJ – especially an Israeli DJ – by opening up and baring his emotions on the radio.
“There are DJs who just put on the music and others who try to make their show funny. I’m not funny, I don’t think I’m good at making people laugh,” said Cohen. “But I think that I am sentimental, and I can touch peoples’ hearts. Of course, I get criticized sometimes for it – ‘stop this sentimental bullshit’ – they feel threatened by deep, emotional expression.”
But Cohen’s folksy style and delivery – which listener Zimelman described as “an amazingly calming voice and extremely pleasant to listen to – he reminds of those alternative radio DJs in the US when I was growing up” – is the perfect antidote to the verbal histrionics on the news radio stations and the often heavily-formatted musical mediocrity on the local music stations.
While Cohen said he understands the logic behind playlists at stations like Galgalatz and airing only songs that the listeners know, his pet peeve is more the songs that are chosen by the programmers.
“I know what songs are sent to radio programmers – I get them too,” he said. “There are some wonderful things – for instance the Israeli band Algir. It’s a masterpiece, really wonderful. On the other hand, something stupid, vulgar and cheap arrives, and you say to yourself, who is the person who receives these two pieces of music and decided ‘I’m not going to play this great music, I’m going to play this crap eight times a day?’ “That choice means it’s just bad radio, it’s no longer a matter of ‘mainstream.’ Awful music points to bad taste. And it’s a matter of cynicism. If you ask any of the music editors at Galgalatz if they thought that [party hit] ‘Move Your Fanny’ by Roni Douani was a good song, they’d say no, but they choose it because they know the lowest common denominator listener will like it.”
Cohen’s passion for music and his goal of entertaining the listener while educating them at the same time has won the DJ fans not only in Israel but from around the world, thanks to the station’s streaming capabilities online.
“I have listeners as far away as Tahiti and Hawaii, and I’m always getting emails, Facebook messages and requests from people all over the world,” he said. “It surprises me and it’s very touching.”
“On 88, you never know what you’re going to hear, that’s what makes us so special – that’s our niche.
You’ll hear favorites and also songs you don’t know. But it’s important to mix it up. People don’t want to think that you’re looking down on them, and playing esoteric music. You can’t play an hour of music that nobody knows anymore, not like you could in the 1970s. I think our integration of English and Hebrew, classic rock and newer or more obscure material works.
“But I think the main attraction for my show anyway is because of the things I talk about between songs. We all know that these days, you can get any song you want at any minute at the click of a mouse. So why do people still listen to the radio? Because they want the DJ to hold their hands and help them through the day.”
Boaz Cohen and his musical colleagues at 88 FM have their hands outstretched.
You just need to grab hold.