Off the air

Veteran employees and retirees of Israel Radio look back at the institution’s glory days, and bemoan the decision to dismantle it.

A broadcasting room at Israel Radio (photo credit: COURTESY IBA)
A broadcasting room at Israel Radio
(photo credit: COURTESY IBA)
On July 4, 1975, Israel Radio newscaster Hayuta Dvir was having her hair cut at a hairdresser’s when she heard a bomb blast that reached the salon near Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem. It was what later became known as the refrigerator terrorist attack, which caused 13 deaths and wounded 60 people.
Dvir, a dedicated professional, ran all the way to the Israel Radio studios on Heleni Hamalka Street and, still shaking, took the news bulletin from the desk and entered the studio to read the news in an incredibly self-controlled voice. A few minutes later, she allowed herself to burst into tears in the courtyard of the old building among her friends and colleagues.
This story, and many others like it, illustrates the level of dedication that the Israel Radio staff, as well as that of TV’s Channel 1, devote to their profession. In those days, when Army Radio could hardly be considered public radio and Israeli TV did not yet exist, the name of the game was responsibility toward the public.
Operating since 1965 under the auspices of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) – to which TV was added in 1968 – Israel Radio became a public radio station, disconnected from the Prime Minister’s Office with which it had been affiliated since the establishment of the state in 1948.
According to some of the station’s retired reporters, the first years of Israel Radio’s new status were its best. Relatively free from political interference and open to innovations in radio broadcasting, it became a source of pride for its employees. However, that situation did not last long. Soon political interests and influences began to erode that position, as did the transition of Army Radio from a remote military outlet to a popular mainstream radio station. And the launch of TV’s commercial Channel 2 further contributed to the long, painful and irreversible demise of the IBA.
On top of this, the introduction of regional radio stations, all commercialized and less committed to providing national news and information, heralded the swan song of public radio and television services.
Last week, a bill proposed in the Knesset by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan to shut down the IBA and to reopen it in 2015 as a new service for public radio and television broadcasting was passed.
Erdan’s decision came after repeated attempts to find a solution to the crisis at the IBA – mostly in the television sector – mainly a financial one.
The report of the Landes Committee, created by Erdan to look into the situation and come up with an appropriate solution, confirmed the minister’s position that nothing could save the IBA.
Many people from inside and outside the IBA have tried to convince Erdan and the Landes Committee that the situation at Israel Radio is very different and requires minor changes but not closure. But the decision has not been reversed.
As a result, the Israel Radio staff feel that they are paying for the problems at Channel 1, while the radio itself is not only successful (it has high ratings) but even well balanced financially. As a result, an official receiver will be appointed to sell all IBA’s properties (including equipment and real estate) while allowing it to continue to broadcast until the end of June 2015.
By then, the statute of the new authority should be ready, and a new public broadcasting authority will be opened and a new staff employed. As it stands, only a small part of the current staff will be rehired.
“We feel betrayed, abandoned, and we don’t even understand why,” says a reporter at Israel Radio, who prefers not to be identified. “Nobody will talk to us, nobody explains the logic of closing the radio station, which is professional, functioning and sustains itself thanks to the commercials, unlike the situation at the television.”
Dvir, who retired last year, also feels bad about what is happening.
“I feel betrayed,” she says. “I know it sounds very harsh, but that is how I feel, and I know I’m not the only one. I feel as if all my work over the past 40 years is no longer important, as they have chosen to shut the station down.”
One of the senior editors of Israel Radio’s foreign language programs says she cannot understand the rationale behind the decision to shut down the station.
“I feel that it is a clear case of collective punishment. There is no other way to explain it.
Did anybody up there stop for a minute to think about the audience of the programs in Russian, in English, in French, in Amharic, in Yiddish, let alone in Arabic, who will suddenly have no professional source of information ?” For many – those still working at the IBA and others who have already left – the memories they share of years ago are of a workplace that seemed more like a large family. Especially the courtyard of the radio studio on Heleni Hamalka, a beautiful old building that belongs to the Ethiopian Church. In the middle of the courtyard, which has been lovingly taken care of and made into a garden, employees used to sit around the old well and exchange ideas between programs. It was also the backdrop for quite a few romantic stories that started there. On the other hand, it was also the gathering place during the wars covered by the radio journalists and sound men.
But today, it seems that maintenance is far from being a major issue for the management. On Sunday morning, employees who arrived at work received a notice that as of this week, no cleaning will be provided. That was compounded by the closure of the cafeteria last week due to the IBA’s inability to pay the owners.
“This place used to be a kind of center of the country, but today it reminds me more of a ghost town. We don’t deserve this,” says a 40-year veteran employee.
In response to claims that the radio should have been spared, a spokesman for Communications Minister Gilad Erdan explained that the radio will not be shut down until a new authority is operational, according to the law passed last week.
Not all the reporters and staff at Israel Radio share the same nostalgic attitude. Itzhak Noy, a historian and broadcaster for the past 49 years at Israel Radio, says it is more our imagined memory.
“There were very good people and there were also less nice people like everywhere else,” says Noy. “But this was another country, another society. First of all, we were much fewer, Jerusalem was a smaller place, and then working in the media was not common at all. I came here as a student at the Hebrew University and began to work as a radio host on the night programs. I came from a moshav. For me and my relatives, it was a big thing. They had never met anybody who talked on the radio.”
Noy then moved to the children’s and youth programs – in an era when there was no TV and no computers, not to mention no smartphones or tablets.
“We did radio theater. We had plays that we acted out on the radio. Many children came and sat in the studio and followed the stories from week to week. That was a wonderful time. But let’s face it, these are different days; it wouldn’t work anymore today anyway.”
“We had the sense of belonging to an elite unit,” says the senior editor. “We broadcasted reliable material and programs in which we invested all our professional knowledge. That was a high standard. Nobody dared to do less. And we were everywhere – in Jerusalem and outside, in happy and sad events. Today there are so few reporters that it fills my heart with sadness.”
BUT THE glory days were not only about news events. The birth of Reshet Gimmel, a novelty in the 1980s that brought pop and rock music and later moved to exclusively Israeli music, contributed a lot to the spread of local music.
“We had live music programs in the studio, with Israeli musicians and singers who came in. It was a lively place. No serious musician would skip being played on our station. Every single would reach Israel Radio first,” says a music program editor, adding, “Today, it is not taken for granted that a musician would still send a single to Israel Radio first – not only to us, anyway.”
“It is true that there was a sort of glory in the past,” admits a senior employee, “but the feeling that this is not the situation anymore is not linked only to the current crisis.”
What caused the place that was once the heartbeat of the nation’s media to become a somewhat tired, hopeless place? The senior employee says one should be careful not to mix up the various reasons.
“Times have changed. We were once the ‘ears of the country,’ but that is not the case anymore. There are other sources of information, other kinds of information – local, specifically focused on various topics. Everything has changed. I know that for the young generation radio is no longer part of their reality.
They know only smartphones, tablets. Even TV is becoming old-fashioned for them,” he says.
Have these changes in habit brought radio as we know it into an era where it is no longer relevant? Noy says that part of the change has obviously affected radio as we knew it.
“The days of Israeli TV and radio as the campfire of the nation are gone, and today everyone chooses his own campfire. What has remained a trademark of Israel Radio is the use of perfect Hebrew, the emphasis on the proper pronunciation, the correct grammar and syntax – that will probably never change,” he says.
One thing about which everyone agrees – retired and still working – is their feeling of bitterness regarding the decision to shut down the radio station together with Channel 1.
“People here walk with their head down. They have lost any joy in doing the work to which they had been so dedicated for years. During the Yom Kippur War, which was a very special time here, bereaved parents among the employees were surrounded, wrapped with affection, like a family. That was a very special moment. Today I don’t see that. This is a place where a lot of egos reign, have impact. But the closure of the radio station has put us all in a very painful situation,” says Noy. •
In the courtyard
I started to work at Israel Radio in July 1974, still a student but in need of a good salary. The first thing I noticed on my first day at the station was the courtyard.
One or two steps from the heavy metal gates, and I felt as if I had a glimpse of Paradise. Green plants, lots of flowers, a rectangular yard with narrow paths from one corner to another, surrounded by a beautiful old building. In the middle was a large staircase that led to the station’s offices and the various departments. And farther down, close to the entrance to the news department, there was a well. It was empty and covered, but it added to the picturesque atmosphere.
I soon discovered that the courtyard was the meeting place of the employees. In the morning it was the senior editors; at noon it was the news editors and broadcasters; and in the afternoon it was mostly the editors of the news and foreign language programs. In the evenings and sometimes late at night, the courtyard and the well became the stronghold of the “young” – the program editors and hosts of the light music programs – rock, pop and later on the local Israeli music, with the assignment of Reshet Gimmel exclusively to Israeli music.
In the 1980s when Gideon Lev-Ari, the director of Israel Radio, decided to open a new station, the Voice of Music, the program editors of classical music joined the rest of the gang and found their place in the courtyard as well. At times you could hear a variety of languages, listen to discussions on hot topics and meet some celebrities – singers, writers and poets (who had come for interviews on the culture and literature programs) – and, of course, politicians, lots of politicians.
During the First Lebanon War, three members of the staff were taken prisoner in Lebanon, and the courtyard was naturally the best place to glean information about their situation.
Among the politicians, Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan were the ones most frequently invited to the studio for the weekly edition of the in-depth interview program presented by Yitzhak Golan, the father of a soldier who was killed in the Yom Kippur War.
But the courtyard was also a very popular site for the beginnings of romantic affairs. Many of the couples that ultimately came out of Israel Radio had hooked up over a cup of coffee near the well.
And there were the Arab workers – in maintenance and on the news and other programs in Arabic. While the latter were almost exclusively Jews who had made aliya from Arab countries, the former were Arab residents of east Jerusalem. And so during the First Lebanon War, those who had relatives in the Lebanese refugee camps would go to their colleagues on the news desk to get some information about them, while Jewish employees would go to them to get more information about the war, worried about their relatives serving in the IDF beyond the border.