Voice of Israel English-language radio closes after first year

“It’s a classic start-up story, delusional to the last minute,” a former employee said of the station's sudden shutdown.

Voice of Israel radio (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Voice of Israel radio
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
“We were in the back seat of the car when a train hit the front head on.”
That was how Mottle Wolfe described the feeling when he found out his beloved radio station, where he hosted a daily show, was about to be shuttered. “I’m not angry at anybody. This wasn’t anybody’s fault. Could the leadership have been better? Maybe, yes. But if they were better, they wouldn’t have done this in the first place; it takes reckless dreamers to pull off things this great that are a long shot.”
Wolfe, whose show is available on iTunes, is looking to the future along with around 32 employees of Voice of Israel.
Over the weekend the station posted a notice that reads: “We are currently experiencing some difficulties which has [sic] caused us to temporarily stop transmitting our regular programming to you… We are doing everything possible to resume programming and will inform you as soon as we have further updates.”
However, interviews with those involved paint a picture of a shocking and sudden rupturing of finances at the station, which forced its apparent closure.
When it was at its height, just a week and a half ago, it hosted 14 regular shows by a diverse group of presenters, including Josh Hasten, former MK Dov Lipman, Dan Diker, Jeremy Gimpel, Eve Harow, and Daniel Seaman, among others. It was a highly professional team that came from a swath of mostly young-to middle- aged men from Zionist, and often religious, circles.
Launched slightly over a year ago, the station relied on a paid subscription format to listen to its content. On the website, users could pay $5.89 a month or $58.90 per year.
Wolfe recalls that he was approached by Yishai Fleisher, the director of programming, who also hosted his own show called The Yishai Fleisher Show.
“Yishai, Ari [Abramowitz], Jeremy [Gimpel] and I crossed paths a lot. We wanted to do something together. Yishai approached me with this and it was a dream job. I came on board when it was launched, and July 13 [2014] was my first show,” recalls Wolfe.
An ordained rabbi from New Jersey with a magnetic and cheerful personality, Wolfe hosted a show about religion, politics and culture. “It was a great group of people and the most fun we’ve ever had… we were riffing creatively off each other.”
He describes interviewing a wide gamut of people, from the mayor of Jerusalem to archeologists and others.
The radio station did not hail from humble beginnings – its state-of-the art studios are located in the basement hallway of the Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) media center next to Jerusalem’s First Station, with more offices on the building’s ground floor.
The center is home to a variety of hi-tech and start-up companies, and Voice of Israel blended in well with the positive, can-do environment. Up until last week, the studio and the ground floor open-floor plan offices had a warm and congenial atmosphere.
According to one of the employees, however, there were problems that could have been foreseen.
“It’s a classic start-up story, delusional to the last minute,” the former employee said.
According to this source, the failure of VOI was like 90 percent of other start-ups that can’t get their legs; there was hope for angel investors and that more support would be found in the US. But the source called theories that the model could earn money a “fantasy” and that salaries for employees were too high.
Even as the end approached, the company was moving forward with initiatives; a new website was launched, and new equipment appeared in the offices, according to the source. But financial problems of the main US-based investor led to the station closing abruptly as support ran out.
According to several employees, the expensive radio equipment was wrapped up last Wednesday and the studios closed.
Sounding disappointed, yet hopeful, in a phone interview on Monday, CEO Glen Ladau said, “We feel terrible that we ran out of money at the time we did, but we don’t know what the future will hold. Perhaps we’ll emerge at a later date and we’re still evaluating other options. We built something incredible and we wish for the good for all of Israel.”
A visit to the VOI studio a mere two months ago painted a different and, more optimistic, picture.
At the time, Ladau expressed his belief in the viability of the venture and that the newly initiated pay-wall would yield results for its American investors.
“Our business plan is a for-profit enterprise, but we are not generating a profit yet. It is an investment, not a donation. So [our investors] are hoping for a return at the end and not just a good feeling of being involved in something they believe in,” he explained at the time, adding his belief that diaspora Jews are craving a deeper connection to Israeli current events in a more in depth and comprehensive manner.
“There’s just this disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora. They can read the news and the other English sources, but it wasn’t giving people a real connection,” he said, adding that VOI enabled listeners to further understand the context behind the most pressing issues of the day.
Their lavish June 30 one-year anniversary party also seemed to indicate that things were looking up for the burgeoning station. Several hundred people gathered at the courtyard of JVP enjoyed a dinner and new video highlighting the station’s shows and its commitment to Israel. Speeches were made, many of them highlighting the work and energy of Ladau.
In retrospect, it was surreal, considering that the dark clouds of financial woe were already gathering.
“If you talked to me two weeks ago, I wouldn’t believe I wouldn’t have a job today,” says Wolfe. “We had a couple jokes at the anniversary event that it was the goodbye party but no one had an idea it would end so quick.”
But, according to Wolfe and other employees, the company missed paying salaries in July.
“Human nature is to think you can pull out. Thirty-two people had the best jobs we had in our lives, there is hope it isn’t really over,” he said.
Those involved feel one of the major issues is that the absence of the dynamic station is a loss for Israel.
“[The failure of] the project is a shame, it was good for Israel,” says one of those involved, who like many of the staff, wanted to speak on condition of anonymity.
For him, there is a feeling of rancor that investors in the pro-Israel community allowed the station to fall apart.
“The advocacy importance and fighting BDS disinformation [was essential] and how none of the big money people who talk about funding are around when you need them and it isn’t their project.”
Like the message on VOI’s website, he is optimistic the station can be saved. “If someone came in the next few days, the process can be halted, we could reassess and rethink the model, but we would be back up in a month or less.”
Diker, who hosted a show that focused on National Security, said he thinks they achieved a lot in a short time.
“It truly revealed the real Israel, showing it inside out… it is worthwhile following up and continuing this unique approach and I think it is a great tool to fight deligitimization of Israel. It really revealed Israel as a Jewish state with great sensitivity to other cultures and peoples.” Diker is moving on to work as a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs as a director of its political warfare project.
Fleisher, who came to VOI after having worked in radio for more than a decade at Israel National Radio’s and Galey Israel FM 106.5, said he hopes to continue his show in the future.
“It was a fast and short year, but we really got a chance to see how rich the telling of the story of Israel is.”
He recalled having interviewed people from all walks of life, including firemen and hi-tech entrepreneurs.
“In one hour, I had Baruch Marzel and A.B. Yehoshua and we had Arabs on the show. They got a fair shake on Voice of Israel,” he said, but believes there is a silver lining.
“Though the experiment failed, it will have inspired other people to realize there is a market and need for this kind of content and the government isn’t going to do it for us,” he said.
An active reserve soldier, Fleisher claimed the battlefield Israel faces today is not on the frontlines or economically, but in the realm of narratives telling Israel’s story. He estimated that his program reached 100,000 listeners a month in more than 150 countries.
“I think we were just getting started. The horse just started galloping,” he said.
Although many of those at the station were shocked by how quickly a seemingly successful and financially flush operation wrapped up its affairs, most expressed the greatest sadness over leaving behind a unique team that had bonded over the last year.
Wolfe, who said that over the year many had questioned the business model but relied on management’s expertise and the rumors of deep pockets behind the venture, said it wasn’t a mistake to have taken part.
“If I could do this year over and know how it would turn out at the end as painful and terrifying as it seems, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”