Bittersweet vision

Uncertainty plagues the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s radio service for immigrants and audiences from abroad.

Shmuel Ben-Zvi, former director of Radio Reka (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shmuel Ben-Zvi, former director of Radio Reka
“THE RADIO in English is my only source for news and updates. Every change they make is crucial to me since I can’t understand Hebrew and I know of more people like me,” says one of Israel Broadcasting Authority’s (IBA) Radio Reka’s listeners about the latest moves to close down the IBA and open a new authority. “I came to Israel in 1986 and since then I have been listening to the IBA news in English,” an octegenarian listener who prefers to remain anonymous tells The Jerusalem Report.
Radio Reka is the state-run IBA’s radio service for immigrants and audiences from abroad. The station broadcasts in 14 languages and supplies a vital need for many new immigrants who rely on the service to understand what is going on around them.
Opened in 1948 with the establishment of the state, the station has been broadcasting globally ever since. In its early years, it was the only direct connection that Jews living in Arab countries and behind the “Iron Curtain” had to Israel.
Over the years, additional languages were introduced in the wake of different waves of immigration.
Today, nine languages – Bukharan, Georgian, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, Tigrinya, Ladino, Romanian, Hungarian and Persian – air 15 minutes a day. English, Spanish and French air several 15-minute slots daily.
In recent decades, Russian and Amharic have taken center stage following the surge in aliya from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Russian is now the leading language on Reka and broadcasts for 11 to 12 hours a day and has about half a million listeners. Amharic, the second most listened to language, is on the air for close to two hours a day in three different slots.
As for ratings, it is hard to determine exactly how many listeners tune in to most of the languages since the airtime is so short.
All the broadcasts open with news, including items of interest to Jews of the specific language, and ends with an Israeli newspaper review.
Like other sectors of the IBA, Reka is feeling the pinch. The government is determined to transform the broadcast landscape, and the IBA is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new body. The fate of Reka is uncertain, and politicians and officials have been sending mixed messages. Over the years, Reka drastically cut back its shortwave broadcasts.
Meanwhile, it continues to work as usual in the hopes that the government will remain supportive of the needs of new immigrants.
When the first Amharic broadcasts were aired in 1985, Tsega Melaku was a very recent immigrant studying at a school for foreign students in Jerusalem “It was really exciting to hear the radio in our language,” she tells The Report. It was around the time of Operation Moses – the mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews via Sudan. Her passion is to make a difference in her community and she grabbed the opportunity to get into broadcasting in Amharic.
In 2008, she was appointed director of the IBA’s Reshet Alef radio network (which includes Reka), the first woman and the first Ethiopian immigrant to hold that position. She anchors a popular currents affairs show, which includes calls from listeners.
She also features kessim (Ethiopian spiritual leaders) on her show. “When we came to Israel, the rabbinate didn’t give the kessim a place, so I give them time once a week to talk to the community on the radio,” she asserts. “I want to push my people forward to fulfill their dreams and take responsibility for their lives.
“A few years ago, I went on a trip with my family to visit Ethiopia. I took my mom and my sons to see where we grew up and to show them their heritage,” Melaku relates.
“I feel that this is also one of the jobs of the radio, to keep our community connected, even the young children who were born here and see themselves as Israelis.
“MY MESSAGE to the community is – parents talk to your children in Amharic – this is important for our future, because the young children rush to become Israelis but they must not forget their past,” she says.
Melaku is determined “to let people from the community born in Israel learn about their history and the hardships suffered on the way to Israel.” She also is passionate about public broadcasting, “It’s in my blood to help this place, this is my home.”
Melaku took a break from broadcasting early this year and was well on her way to becoming a Member of Knesset after she was chosen by Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon as No. 3 on his list for the 20th Knesset. However, she was disqualified by the election board because she was a few days short of the mandated cooling-off period between resigning from the state radio and being eligible for election to the Knesset. After this brief, frustrating interlude, she returned to broadcasting.
Shmuel Ben-Zvi, former director of Reka and now an official with the Tel Aviv Journalists Association, was in charge of the radio station for 20 years.
He came on aliya in 1970 from Lithuania and saw his mission at the radio as helping new immigrants adapt to Israeli life and to feel at home.
“Paradoxically, my main goal was to lower the number of people who had to listen to our radio broadcasts, knowing that when that happened it would mean that they now know Hebrew and can live their lives as real Israelis and not as new immigrants,” he tells The Report.
This is indeed what occurred. As Russian and Amharic thrived, other languages slowly disappeared. People learned Hebrew and, as immigration from countries like Morocco and Bukhara dwindled, the number of listeners in these languages declined.
On the other hand, special efforts were made to aid in the preservation of the historic Yiddish and Ladino languages. In 1996, the Knesset passed a law to help preserve Yiddish and Ladino and make broadcasting in these languages mandatory.
“In recent years, it has been getting harder and harder to find people who speak these languages with the correct accent, one that is good enough for radio,” says Ben-Zvi. An anchor was recruited from the Haredi community, since they are one of the few remaining groups that speak Yiddish correctly.
Persian is the only language that still broadcasts on shortwave to Iran. Ben- Zvi stresses the importance of this since it provides a great connection with Israel for the Jewish community that still lives there. “They can hear news and get updates on what is happening here in their own language. I also know that they receive messages from different Israeli officials, but that is basically all I know about that,” Ben-Zvi says somewhat mysteriously.
In 2004, Reka began broadcasting live on the Internet in line with other radio networks that offer this service as a means of keeping the station alive.
“This is a challenging and fascinating time,” IBA spokesperson Linda Bar tells the Report. “A lot of our staff have retired and, despite this, we constantly work to bring the best broadcasts and news to the radio and TV network. We are now working on making the Russian section an independent station that will air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
It seems that Ben-Zvi’s dream has come true as the declining number of Reka listeners may mean that more immigrants have transferred to the Hebrew media. But with the fate of the IBA and Reka radio unclear, it is a bittersweet realization.