The pitfalls of Army Radio

This week the cabinet approved a one-year extension of the advertising that powers Army Radio. But for a host of reasons, Army Radio in no way deserves the extension, and instead merits being shut down completely.

gabi ashkenazi radio 248 88 (photo credit: IDF)
gabi ashkenazi radio 248 88
(photo credit: IDF)
The cabinet missed a chance this week to do something it should have done long since: kill Army Radio.
RELATED:'W. Bank construction frozen due to budget,' reports Army Radio
On Sunday, according to the Hebrew media, it approved a one-year extension of a temporary order that allows the station to broadcast certain types of commercial advertising. Station officials had warned that if this order expired, Army Radio would have to close, as ads currently cover more than 40% of its budget. So the ministers rushed to the rescue and extended the order for one year, during which time a special committee will consider permanent arrangements for the station’s financial survival.
The problem is that Army Radio deserves to be closed, for multiple reasons.
The first is simply that in a democratic country, there is no excuse for allowing the government to control every single national radio station - which is the case in Israel today. There are various privately-owned regional stations, but all the national stations belong either to Israel Radio, a branch of the state-owned Israel Broadcasting Authority, or Army Radio, a branch of the state-owned Israel Defense Forces. Each of these two bodies controls several stations apiece.
The point is not that these stations are government mouthpieces; they aren’t. They are editorially independent, and often vigorously oppose government policies.
But a democratic country ought to enable a spectrum of opinion on its airwaves. And that is unlikely to happen when they are all controlled by the same entity, regardless of what that entity is.
However hard journalists may strive to be objective, the truth is that every newspaper, radio station or television station has its own editorial slant. And that’s fine, as long as those with different views have the right to try to set up competing organs. But in the case of radio, they don’t: Privately-owned national radio stations are not permitted. Whoever controls the IBA and Army Radio controls the nation’s radio programming.
Secondly, a state with limited funds and numerous needs should not be wasting money on something the private sector would gladly pay for the right to do instead. Army Radio says that ads bring in NIS 17 million a year, out of a budget of NIS 42 million; that means the portion paid for by the government comes to about NIS 25 million. Granted, that’s peanuts compared to the total government budget, or even just the total defense budget (NIS 54.2 billion). And it would still be peanuts when you add in the additional millions the government could earn by auctioning Army Radio’s frequencies off to the private sector.
    Nevertheless, those peanuts could do a great deal of good. For instance, it costs a mere NIS 200,000 a year to run an after-school facility for at-risk youth. Thus the NIS 25 million now being spent on Army Radio could fund another 125 such facilities - a crying need given that as of last year, existing facilities had space for only one out of every 10 children referred to them.
Or to take a different example, an intercept missile for the Iron Dome missile defense system costs about NIS 420,000. Thus that NIS 25 million would buy another 60 missiles, enabling the interception of another 60 rockets a year. That might well save lives. But it would almost certainly save the government hundreds of millions in compensation claims for property damage, since by law, the government pays for property damage caused by enemy action.
Finally, Army Radio is a tremendous waste of talented manpower. Most of its staff consists of young soldiers doing their compulsory army service. But those soldiers are neither contributing to the country’s defense nor contributing to any other social need that would go unmet were it not for these young volunteers: They are doing something the private sector would willingly pay people to do if given the chance.
In fact, Army Radio actually undermines Israel’s economy by depriving it of hundreds of good paid jobs: Were those frequencies auctioned off to private entrepreneurs, the buyers would have to hire people to fill the positions now being filled by unpaid conscripts.
For all these reasons, Army Radio should have been dismantled long ago. It’s too bad the government missed yet another chance.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.