Media Comment: The future of army radio

The truth is that Galatz today is a luxury that Israel can do without.

Ian McEwan is interviewed by an army radio reporter (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ian McEwan is interviewed by an army radio reporter
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Military broadcasting services exist in many countries, and all share the common dilemma of attempting to serve military interests without losing credibility with an audience accustomed to civilian broadcasting.
In the UK, there is the British Forces News, with three radio networks broadcasting, at present, to 23 countries and two television channels with satellite broadcasting to 17 countries.
The United States American Forces Network produces 10 streams, of which seven are music-based, two are sports-based, and one is a general news/talk/sports channel broadcasting all over the world via 800 stations throughout the time zones. Canada has the Canadian Forces Radio and Television.
Then there’s Israel’s Galei Tzahal (army radio), or Galatz as it’s commonly known, which has its own special problems.
Galatz was a continuation of the pre-state underground Hagana transmissions and began broadcasting in September 1950. Only during the 1973 Yom Kippur war did it broaden to a full 24-hour daily schedule.
In 1993 Galei Tzahal added a “light” channel, Galgalatz, which broadcasts music interspersed with traffic reports. Its activity was first regulated by law in 1956, and it was placed under the supervision of its competitor, the civilian Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
Paragraph 48 of the IBA Law establishes that the IBA supervises Galatz’s “non-military programming.” At the time, our legislators did not realize that the army station would become the competitor of the IBA’s Reshet Bet radio station.
They also did not anticipate that almost 50 years later, the law still has not been implemented fully for the IBA never carried out its obligation to fix a set of supervision guidelines.
The net result is that there is no real or effective public overview of the army radio station, which is very much present in civilian life.
In contrast to its well-funded foreign counterparts, Galatz has assumed an almost dominant position over Israel’s entertainment and “infotainment” industry. It annually recruits almost 40 soldiers who serve in the station for three years and carry out various journalistic duties. After finishing their army duty, many of these soldiers go out to the infotainment market and become its leaders. Galatz is Israel’s most prestigious and influential school of journalism.
But let there be no mistake – the station is not run by soldiers.
Its major programs are presented by civilian professionals, “celebs” who reportedly receive high salaries (Galatz refuses to reveal what they are) and who create the tone and content of all that is broadcast on Galatz. The soldiers are effectively cheap labor, carrying out the whims and needs of the “stars” of the station, who host the main talk shows and news roundups.
Over the years, the military content of the station’s broadcasts has dwindled. It is very difficult to distinguish it from Reshet Bet. On the other hand it is rather easy to note the true atmosphere at the channel, which is dominated by secular, left-of-center Ashkenazi ideologues.
The morning programming starts with Micha Friedman, who although a news anchor finds it difficult to keep his audience in the dark about his political inclinations. It continues with Razi Barkai, who last year, in an open vote held by Israel’s Media Watch, was elected by the public as the most irritating radio personality. It continues with the only balanced radio program, “The Last Word,” pitting Left versus Right. But at noon, the public has the honor of hearing Yael Dan for two hours. She does not even attempt to provide the public with a semblance of neutrality.
There is no pluralism in a structure which should represent the army of all the people.
Is this in the army’s best interests? Not if you ask the people of the MyIsrael (Yisrael Sheli) Facebook group. In a recent heated debate at the Knesset’s economic committee, Yisrael Sheli brought reserve officers who complained bitterly that when they had a bit of spare time and upon coming home from the Second Lebanon War, they heard on Galatz that the justification of their war was questionable. The station found it necessary to interview some of Israel’s Palestinian and Arab enemies, instead of attempting to raise the morale of the armed forces in battle.
Razi Barkai’s view is that “the station is not the deodorant of the army.”
Over the years, many people, from both the Left and Right, questioned the justification for an army radio station. There is an inherent contradiction between journalism, which demands full freedom of opinion and open access to information, and the military, which almost by definition must have secrets and cannot bow to journalistic standards. There is also a serious problem with the station’s recruitment of soldiers.
Only non-combatant soldiers are allowed to serve in the station.
This discriminates against the aspiring journalist who is also idealistic, healthy and strong enough to serve in a combat unit. That soldier cannot enter Israel’s most prestigious school of journalism.
In fact, the standard makeup of the recruits is largely Ashkenazi, comes from the geographical center of Israel (“Shenkin Street, Tel Aviv”) and is secular.
The periphery, the Orthodox and minorities are underrepresented at the station.
All this paints a bleak picture for incoming station commander Yaron Dekel, whose appointment was announced earlier this week. Dekel is a professional journalist. He started his career at Galatz, has an MA in Communications and Political Science (summa cum laude) from Bar Ilan University and took advanced courses at the universities of Minnesota and Oxford. For the past 20 years he has been employed in various senior positions at the IBA.
He has the opportunity to create real change at the army station. It needs public oversight and an independent ethics commissioner. Will Dekel have the foresight and leadership to accept this? The “stars” should be abolished; the station belongs to the army and the soldiers, not to the professionals who use it to line their pockets and further their own agenda.
The selection process needs a revolution. Instead of barring combat soldiers from the station they should be encouraged to join – after all, they understand the army better than noncombatants. Just as in other professional army units, Galatz should condition acceptance by demanding first one to two years of combat duty and only then three years in the station, for part of which time they would receive a salary.
Galatz should stay away from the temptation to demand advertising to cover its budget.
A public radio station should not provide unfair competition to the private sector, not to mention the fact that mandatory service for soldiers should not include economic activity of any kind.
The truth is that Galatz today is a luxury that Israel can do without. There is nothing about Galatz that cannot be provided by the private sector.
Israel does not need two national public radio stations.
But the influence of Galatz’s graduates is so strong that even Defense Minister Ehud Barak cannot abolish the station. At the least, it should be Zionist, pro-Army, pluralistic, ethical and under public oversight.
The writers are respectively the vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch,