Making airwaves

What has made RAM FM - now one year old and in legal trouble - one of the most popular regional radio stations in such a short time?

'In touch, in tune and independent" - I was chatting with my friend, driving slowly in an endless Jerusalem traffic jam, while hearing the familiar slogan of RAM FM. The tune was coming from a car right next to me. I couldn't help looking inside the vehicle, wondering who was listening to somewhat sticky but lovable '80s hits on 93.6 FM - the exact frequency that was playing on my own radio. I was surprised to find out that two haredi yeshiva guys had decided to entertain themselves while crawling down Rehov Bar-Ilan. Just a few days ago, a friend of Russian origin told me almost ecstatically that he had found "the perfect English-language radio station," where all his favorite hits were played "with very little talking." Then there were some friends from Tel Aviv who complained they couldn't "catch" 93.6 while driving on Route 6, adding that all their friends were also crazy about this "weird Ramallah radio station." Not far from the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem I found another clue about RAM FM - a huge street sign that read: "A man cannot be in more than one place at one time, but a song can. Music has no boundaries. RAM FM." According to a recent poll conducted in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, more than half a million Israelis and Palestinians now listen to RAM FM, a station that has just celebrated its first anniversary WHAT DO South Africa's former ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, a wealthy Jewish businessman and a few talented radio journalists from around the globe have in common? "Music," says Raf Gangat, a DJ and one of the station's founders, whom I met at RAM FM's Ramallah studio. The music was streaming from the small studio to the radio waves, providing the perfect ambiance for the interview. RAM FM is a South African project (if you haven't figured that out from the accents of Xolani Gwala, Raf Gangat and the many other South Africans whose voices are heard on RAM FM) and has been developed along the model of another South African radio station, 702 FM. "I met with Issie Kirsh, chairman of South Africa's Primedia group, which owns 702 FM - a radio station that crossed borders in South Africa and played an important role in bringing the people from both sides closer together. At that time, I was the ambassador of South Africa to the PA and Kirsh wanted to do something similar to 702 FM here," Gangat says. "We... discussed it among ourselves, and then ran it by the Israelis and the Palestinians. It took a long time to bring in the staff, to have a studio here in Ramallah, and in Jerusalem. Finally we started test broadcasting and people just fell in love with the music. I found out quickly that people listen to us everywhere - from Jordan to New Zealand. "By the way, 'Ram' doesn't mean 'Ramallah,'" Gangat says. "We found out that this word has a meaning in both Arabic and Hebrew, "high," and thought it could be a nice name for our station." Gangat breaks off to announce new songs: "So this is the brand-new one from Liona Luis and we kicked off the last hour of the morning show. Coming now we have Rod Stewart, James Blunt and Seal." The hits follow one another until the end of the hour, when the music stops for "Middle East Eyewitness News," which presents neutral coverage of regional and international news. A voiceover about an IDF operation in the Gaza Strip is followed by an report of another Kassam rocket hit on Sderot. An interview with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat comes on the heels of a sound bite from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev. Somehow, RAM FM avoids the traps of Arab-Israeli terminology, managing not to provoke accusations of bias. "There are also talk shows where we talk to Palestinians, settlers, volunteers, rabbis, priests, muftis, officials on both sides, etc. We let the people listen to all the speakers and ask questions, but we do not add editorial opinion to that, and this is mentioned in our 'code of behavior' which everyone can read on our Web site," Gangat explains. In addition to the political talk show, RAM FM features a "light" talk show hosted by an Israeli and a Palestinian. "These two don't argue about politics - we're not Peace Radio, for God's sake. The subjects of the show vary from horoscopes to movies to celebrity gossip to weather and cultural news," he laughs. BUT EVEN the politically correct South African radio station couldn't avoid being dragged into the complicated reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict. On April 7, RAM FM's Jerusalem office was raided by the Jerusalem District Police and Communications Ministry officials. Seven correspondents were detained and equipment was confiscated, on charges that that station had been operating a small transmitter "without the necessary broadcasting permit in Jerusalem." The reporters spent the night in jail and were then put under house arrest. Ten days later, they were still forbidden to communicate with each other. The staff members detained included three foreigners and four Palestinians who held Israeli identity cards. Danny Seaman, director of Government Press Office, says that the arrests followed a complaint by the Communications Ministry. He adds that the issue was entirely one of legality. "If you publish or broadcast in Israel, you need a license," says Seaman. RAM FM's management also prefers to stick to the legal aspect of the accusations. "We are registered as required in the PA, and we prefer to defend ourselves in court and not in public," says Gangat. The Foreign Press Association in Israel issued a public protest against the detentions, demanding the immediate release of the RAM FM staff. Communications Ministry spokesman Yechiel Shavi says that the ministry "has no problem with [RAM FM] working from the area of the Palestinian Authority. But if they want to do so here, they have to issue a tender for the frequency, and do a test, and they didn't... So they are breaking the law... A lot of other stations also want the opportunity to work here." A few ministry sources added that RAM FM's transmissions might have interfered with control tower operations at Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is closer to Tel Aviv than Jerusalem. "We wonder why this exploded right now, as we [have] broadcast for a few months now from both Ramallah and Jerusalem," Gangat says. A secretary walks in and asks him what she should tell the correspondents, who were just released from house arrest. "Tell them they cannot communicate with each other," Gangat says in the same soft tone. This unfolding radio drama is still far from over, and obviously preoccupies both the staff and listeners of RAM FM. "I hope that it won't close down," says Abdullah, a 38-year-old Palestinian journalist from Ramallah. "Apart from beautiful music, it provides news in English, and I also benefit from their talk shows when they bring interesting voices to the studio," he says. When it began, the station experienced some criticism from Palestinians, some of whom doubted the owners' intentions and blamed them for promoting "normalization." Gangat remains unmoved by their accusations. "We are not promoting anything and not pressuring anyone. If you like RAM FM - you'll listen to it, no matter who you are, because music has no boundaries!"