Struggling to stay tuned

For nearly 30 years the Voice of Music radio station has been synonymous with quality classical programming. Now, facing a dwindling staff and budget, questions are being raised about its viability.

classical problems_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
classical problems_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Almost 30 years ago, in June 1983, Gideon Lev-Ari, then director of Israel Radio, launched the Voice of Music station from the studios of Israeli public radio on Rehov Heleni Hamalka. Lev-Ari, a great music lover and amateur violinist, seemed genuinely moved, certainly beyond the level of satisfaction one would expect from a director implementing a project. Later he told this journalist, who was employed there at the time, that it was one of the happiest days of his professional life – “a dream come true against all odds.”
The Voice of Music is still on the air, but for the past decade the dream seems to have turned into disillusion, and the pride that accompanied its birth has become a cause for concern.
Israel Radio recently published a tender for a new station director, which does not require the candidates to have any formal musical education, and veteran editors feel frustrated and betrayed.
“When I remember Lev-Ari’s enthusiasm, I’m almost glad that he is no longer among us to see what has happened to his dream,” one of the veteran employees told me. Lev-Ari died in 2001.
“An elitist” station, “a station for the residents of Rehavia” and the like was what the Voice of Music was called for years. At the same time, many considered it a kind of “island of sanity” amid an everincreasing sea of popular music.
For years the exact number of listeners has remained unknown, thus allowing too many people to declare that the size of the audience was so insignificant that any budget cuts (and there were many) should be applied to the Voice of Music first.
As a result of this policy, high-quality recordings – one of the station’s major purposes – have almost disappeared or are not made according to the strict quality level required of music stations in the West; live recordings of prestigious concerts are rare or nonexistent; and program editors have to pay for the discs they want to play out of their own pocket or use their own recordings.
The station doesn’t have its own site – something that any small station in the world, and even in the rest of this country, has. And the number of repeated broadcasts has reached an embarrassing level, threatening to turn it from a national station into something that sounds like a small private station that simply broadcasts recorded music.
For years, due to the financial situation of Israel Radio, new employees have not been hired. Most of the team are reaching or have reached retirement age (out of the eight full-time editors, six are already 65).
For the past 10 or 15 years, the station has remained viable due largely to the protests and petitions that thousands of listeners have conducted every time the administration of Israel Radio has tried to cut the broadcasting hours or to combine it with other stations.
All these moves are suspected of being the first step toward shutting down the Voice of Music.
Today, some two months after the retirement of Avi Hanani, the station’s most recent director, the Voice of Music has a temporary director, Amnon Shiloni (a deputy director of special projects for Israel Radio). He is doing his best “to keep things working” until a permanent director is chosen following the public tender.
“Shiloni has managed to achieve, in a relatively short time, quite a few improvements,” say the senior editors. Some are even trying to promote the idea that he should be the VOM’s permanent director, with the professional musical management in the hands of one of the station’s senior editors or programmers.
Rika Bar-Sela, a program editor at the station, says that at least in regard to budgets for purchasing new CDs, things have improved tremendously, and editors no longer have to bring in their own records. But – and this is what is causing great concern among station veterans – the prerequisites outlined in the tender are so minimal, that many fear things might become even worse.
In fact, candidates are not even required to have any knowledge of music or musicology – they only have to have a BA and prove that they have a few years of experience. The terms of the tender – which, according to the law was offered first to employees of Israel Radio – states that the candidates must have a BA and at least seven years of experience in the general professional field or at least six years of experience in broadcasting.
The official response of the IBA spokesman is that the candidates should have an education in music or musicology, but this does not appear on the official publication. Hayuta Dvir, a senior editor, says she is seriously concerned. In her capacity as a member of the Journalists Association, she sent a letter to the Israel Radio administration asking that candidates be graduates in musicology or from the music academy. So far, she has not received any reply.
The tender expired was this week, and tension and anxiety are mounting in the corridors of the station in the historic building of Israel Radio.
“For me, this is not just a workplace – my soul is here,” says Leah Lior, who has been running the VOM’s high-quality jazz programs for the past 25 years.
IN THE early 1980s, Israel Radio had to create a separate station for new olim in various languages that would broadcast all day instead of a few random hours on Reshet Alef. For technical reasons (mostly budgets), the existing station was split into two tracks, one AM and one FM.
As a result, one of the channels remained free of content. And that was where Lev-Ari launched the first classical music station on Israel Radio.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, recalls Voice of Music founder Michal Zmora-Cohen, who had left the radio a few years before to head the Rubin Academy of Music.
“Lev-Ari called me back on duty,” she says in a phone conversation with In Jerusalem from her home in Tel Aviv. “I couldn’t refuse. It was such an important thing to do, so I went back to work at Israel Radio. Until then, we had about three hours of classical music broadcast on Reshet Alef. Following the decision, we moved within a few weeks to a 23-hour-aday broadcast. It was a huge job, but at the same time I was thrilled to be part of this wonderful thing.”
Zmora-Cohen emphasizes that she decided right from the start that this wouldn’t only be a station that played good classical music but, first and foremost, it would be a means to promote the high-quality work being done here in the realm of classical music. “It was a kind of obsession I had.
I wanted us to encourage and to bring to the public all the fantastic work being done here – the best interpretations, the great concerts, the best musicians we had here. I wanted all that to be recorded at the highest quality level and broadcast on the Voice of Music. We collaborated with the Israel Philharmonic and did so many things.”
At the time the Voice of Music was involved in many projects outside the radio building, attracting large audiences. For example, “Days of Music in Upper Galilee” was a four-day chamber music gathering in Kfar Blum, where Western classical music and contemporary Israeli classical music met, drawing young and less young from cities and kibbutzim, genuine music lovers.
What caused the change in attitude? Zmora-Cohen says that it worked well as long as the Israel Broadcasting Authority had at its head people who understood and appreciated high culture and presented it. “Once that began to change, it became unbearable.
I had to fight Sisyphean battles to obtain funding and support.
It was clear that I was becoming a last bastion to prevent the crumbling of the things we had built. And indeed, when I submitted my resignation to the then director of Israel Radio, his reaction was that now there was nothing to prevent him from doing what he wanted – to reduce the budgets and the projects I had headed at the Voice of Music. And that is exactly what happened as soon as I was no longer there to protect the station.”
In the picturesque courtyard of Israel Radio, the Voice of Music team has been considered a kind of elite, the station untouchable.
Sometimes they were nicknamed the “tarbutniks” (culture freaks), though with a certain degree of respect and even affection.
Over the years, this feeling has turned into a nostalgic notion, not really connected to the current atmosphere.
“Severe budgets cuts, not hiring new people, decreased interest in what we do, changes in the public’s taste – all kinds of reasons,” says Dvir, “and on top of that, the failure of the station’s administration to cultivate a new generation of program editors have led us to the present sad situation. In fact, we have no future here, since almost all the Voice of Music employees have reached or are reaching retirement age, so who’s going to work here? There are already some cases of people who have no credentials in classical music who are employed here and there to fill in the hours of air time we have to ensure.”
Dvir produces the prestigious Etnahta, a series of weekly free afternoon concerts at the Jerusalem Theater, broadcast live on the station. She is also a member of the Jerusalem Association of Journalists, the body that should supervise the tender, and a member of Israel Radio’s journalists association. As such, she is deeply involved in the current situation and has openly expressed her concern about the minimal requirements for a new director. She says that despite all her efforts, she has been unsuccessful in changing the low prerequisites.
ANOTHER MEMBER of the association and head of the Israel Radio Journalists Association is Gad Ben-Itzhak of Israel Radio’s news department. He says the IBA cannot publish such a tender and has warned them about it. “The last date for the tender was June 20, but I have no information about what has come out of it.” Ben-Itzhak says the situation is one of the results of too many years of neglect at the IBA.
“For years we had no board and no board meetings. Nothing was done as it should have been. The chaos at the Voice of Music is only one aspect of the problem of the IBA. Perhaps not even the worst.
For the moment, the administration has appointed a temporary director, who is doing an excellent job. He listens to the employees, tries to help as much as he can, but he is not a musicologist. Besides that, we at the Journalists Association are strongly opposed to the use – or should I say overuse – of temporary directors at Israel Radio. We want to put an end to that. This is not proper management in our eyes.”
One of the VOM’s major tasks was to make high-quality recordings of music. Since Israel Radio is a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), it has free access to all the quality recordings made by all the member stations of the union. But for the last 10 years the Voice of Music hasn’t had a tone master (as a result of the IBA’s policy not to hire any new employees after the last tone master retired) – the basic requirement to ensure highquality recording of the type that would be permitted by all the union’s stations in Europe.
There are many high-level musicians in Israel in both jazz and classical music. But due to the lack of a qualified tone master, there are no recordings made at the Voice of Music. And if there are any, they do not reach the EBU’s standards of quality.
“As a result,” says Lior, senior jazz program editor at the VOM, “if I want to broadcast a top-class Israeli musician, I have to use the recordings made at a foreign radio station that is a member of the union, but no station will use our recordings. Therefore, good Israeli musicians who are not known abroad – and believe me, there are quite a few – are not heard on European stations – it’s absurd – while I have to broadcast recordings of Israeli performers made in other countries!” Jazz and classical music are much more popular among the younger generation than it may seem, adds Lior. Concert halls and festivals are packed with young people who love and understand what good music is.
Zmora-Cohen says that the main task of both the IBA and the Voice of Music is to encourage and enhance this demand, but this is not working out.
“My feeling is that once Lev-Ari was not here anymore,” says S.
(an Israel Radio employee who chooses to remain anonymous), “the upper management at Israel Radio didn’t have the tools to grasp the importance of such a station. After all, we’re living in a time when money and profit are the real gods, and we all understand that the big money is not to be found at the Voice of Music.
So this station has lost its appeal in the eyes of the management because it just doesn’t bring in money. The advertisers will never give us the incredible sums they spend on popular music, so it has led to the conclusion that we’re a small, remote niche that serves a bunch of old-fashioned people, not the important ones.”
But is that really the case? A look at the packed auditoriums of classical music concerts or the large number of people who recently attended the Opera Festival and performances of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Camerata Orchestra offers a glimpse of a somewhat different situation. The halls are filled to the rafters with not only the third-age music lovers so often associated with classical music, but young people, students and middle-aged patrons form the largest part of the public, the very same typical audience of the Voice of Music.
“What we do here is still very relevant, perhaps now even more than ever, but the Voice of Music should be heard first within the IBA in order to regain the position it so rightly deserves,” says Dvir.