Talk the good talk

Popular American talk show host Doug Stephan recently brought his golden voice to Israel for a week of broadcasts.

American radio host Doug Stephan 311 (photo credit: David Brinn)
American radio host Doug Stephan 311
(photo credit: David Brinn)
A few years ago, during a meeting of some government and public relations officials about how to improve Israel’s image in the United States, one of the participants wistfully said, “If we could just fly every American to Israel for a week to experience it themselves, then we would no longer have an image problem.”
While that plan was obviously unrealistic, one of the next best things is to bring opinion makers to the country. And just like in Israel where the likes of Yaron Dekel and Keren Neubach often play a big role in setting the national agenda, in the US, there’s no greater barometer for public opinion than the radio talk show host.
That’s why for years, government ministries and private hasbara (public diplomacy) organizations have been trying to expose Americans to the “other Israel” that’s not part of the daily terror-peace talks-Iran news cycle by sponsoring visits to Israel by American talk show hosts who broadcast their shows live from Jerusalem with local guests and flavor.
The latest efforts have been taken on by the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, who, along with the organization America’s Voices in Israel, were involved in bringing popular talk show host Doug Stephan to the country.
According to the trade publication Talkers Magazine, the 65-year-old Massachusetts-based broadcaster and his daily show Good Day have has over three million listeners per week on over 300 stations across the country. Interspersing guests with listener call-ins and gearing his subject matter toward a female audience, Stephan has filled a “nicer and gentler” niche that avoids some of the controversy that fellow talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity tend to court.
“I always try to find something good to talk about instead of all the negative crap that’s around. I take a positive approach and I think that has helped me survive,” said Stephan last week, after completing a live three-hour broadcast from The Jerusalem Post studios.
“This radio program is a complete reflection of who I am as a person. As things around the world seem to be getting more negative, I seem to be getting more positive – I don’t now if it’s because my desire in life is for people to get along, or that my life in general is better and that’s reflected in what I choose to talk about.”
According to Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, that philosophy dovetails nicely with what his ministry is attempting to accomplish by bringing radio hosts to Israel.
“The broadcaster who gets a first-hand experience, meets with key personalities and sees with his own eyes what the reality of Israel is, will turn into a believable source of information for his listeners. Our experience teaches that visits of this type have a positive influence on the pre-conceived opinions people had about Israel,” said Edelstein.
With Stephan, the pre-conceived notions about Israel are mostly positive. On the air since he was 17, he possesses the eloquent gift of gab, whether he’s behind the microphone or relaxing behind the console talking to a reporter about himself, his love of Israel or the fact that he “has no use for either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.”
What brings you to Israel?
This is my fourth time broadcasting from Israel. I first came over in 2000, then 2005, 2008 and now. I guess I was asked this time maybe because I have a favorable impression of Israel. I’m one who certainly is not afraid to talk about how I feel and I feel very positively about the experience one can have in Israel – it’s not all sugar and cream, of course.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate and have gone all over the world to do my program. But aside from England, which became a second home to me from the mid- 1970s to the late 1990s, Israel is the only place I’ve come back to repeatedly. It’s a country I desire to spend more time in.
What do you find uniquely Israeli?
The group that I’m with [which included American TV actors Mary Lynn Rajskub from 24; Greg Grunberg of Heroes, Alias and Felicity; Shaun Sipos of Melrose Place; Justin Chatwin of Shameless, Weeds and Lost; and Austin Nichols of One Tree Hill] took a bike ride through the Old City. It was just breathtaking.
I couldn’t imagine living here all the time, though. I don’t want this to sound wrong, but I’m a sensitive guy, I don’t like confrontation, upset or conflict. And here, all those things are a part of life. It’s something you have to get used to. On the other hand, I want to be stimulated – I’m a stimulation junkie and I want to be around were people and situations are interesting, and where I can learn.
What have you been exposing your listeners to about Israel?
We’ve had all kinds of guests. Today we had someone from El Al on talking about the airline. We brought in the Comedy for Koby comedians who were here performing around the country. Yesterday, we had a young Israeli who’s involved in holistic healing.
But we also touch on the news. We had MK Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) – and since most of my listeners are women, they want to hear about and from other women. Most Americans think that Israel is a very male-dominated society, so the fact that there are women legislators is something to point out. And one related topic of discussion was the whole gender segregation issue and [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton’s comments about the discrimination against women that obviously didn’t sit very well here. I’m generally a fan of hers but nobody’s perfect and people do stick their foot in their mouth on occasion.
Why do you think there’s such a disproportionate amount of attention on Israel?
Israel is a great success story. What could be a better example of surviving through adversity than Israel? Maybe that’s why I like coming here, I see it as a great example of survival.
In America, we’ve had it so easy for so long – in the respect that there’s nobody on our shores trying to kick us out. How Israelis have managed to cope with that situation and thrive in it and how you live in those circumstances is just fascinating.
And look at what you’ve accomplished with all that energy going to protect yourselves – you still developed the second Silicon Valley. Imagine what you could have accomplished if you didn’t have to spend all that time on defense.
What are your views of American politics?
I’m very critical of the military industrial complex – it’s an anathema to me. We spend so much time, money and technology on chasing ghosts and invading Iraq because it’s good for business.
In Israel, there’s a different approach to serving your country – I see kids here taking it in stride. At home, we glamorize and glorify it, and I don’t approve of it and don’t like my tax dollars going for it.
However, I do like my tax dollars going to foreign aid to places like Israel. I’m very happy to contribute $4 billion a year to help Israel do what it does, and then when Israel comes back and uses the money to buy Boeing jets, we like that too.
What’s your view of the relationship between Israel and the Obama administration?
I think the Israeli reaction is always a little over the top. There’s a sensitivity here to statements by Obama or Clinton that go a little further than how England or Germany would respond.
But if you listen to my programs for five minutes, you’d understand that I have very little use for the political games in the US. When I went to the Knesset this week, I found it interesting how accessible for the most part the politicians are. You can’t approach anyone in Washington.
Do you have any plans to cut back on your radio career?
I’ve been doing this program since 1988, and I had done local radio in lot of cities for decades before that. I’ve done pretty much everything on the air there is to do.
But I’ll keep doing this as long as it’s fun, I can make a buck and can contribute to the dialogue and discussion out there. I think that’s important – you can be entertaining and fun, yet still influence how people are thinking.