Radio Israel

By Elliot Jager
Monday, August 1, 2011

Radio in Israel is as ubiquitous as hummus, falafel, and politics. During their morning and evening commutes, motorists as well as bus passengers (captive to the listening tastes of their drivers) are likely to be hearing either one of seven Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) affiliated stations or one of two Army Radio outlets. The airwaves' other two dozen stations offer a host of regional and language options, as well as music ranging from Tel Aviv chic to ethnic Mizrahi.  (This diverse menu does not include Arutz-7, a station aimed primarily at West Bank residents, which, due to government regulations, is now restricted to internet broadcasts.)

Army Radio (known by the Hebrew acronym GALATZ, meaning galei Tzahal or "IDF waves") was founded in 1951 and aimed at conscripts and reservists. The schedule was expanded and a much wider audience sought after the 1967 Six Day War. GALGALATZ, the enormously popular sister station, was established in 1993 to offer a younger, trendier audience a steady diet of the latest Western and Hebrew pop music (often on request from soldiers' text messages). 

Broadcasting primarily from Jaffa, the station (like its IBA counterpart) begins its broadcast day with a nod to Jewish civilizational values: IBA starts with a superb vintage recording of "Hear, O Israel" (Deuteronomy 6:4–9), while Army Radio currently opens with a three-minute reading from Ethics of Our Fathers.

GALATZ maintains its own independent news operation (it is by no means the voice of the army) in addition to offering current events, economics, music, and cultural programming. But it is mostly known for its three back-to-back A.M. programs, Boker Tov Israel, Nachon L'HaBoker, hosted by Niv Raskin, and Mah Bo'er? with Razi Barkei. These on-air personalities, as well as noontime magazine host Yael Dayan and evening drive-time anchor Yaron Wilinski are all civilians—indeed, many of Israel's best-known media personalities got their professional start at Army Radio—though field reporters, technicians, some producers, and most off-hours news readers are uniformed recruits.

IBA public broadcasting is supported by a mandatory license fee bolstered by commercial advertising; Army Radio is funded out of the Defense Ministry budget, though also complemented by ads.  In May, Israel's cabinet extended Army Radio's right to sell advertising, without which it would have been forced to gut its broadcast schedule. (This happened only after Defense Minister Ehud Barak was directed to come up with the beginnings of an oversight plan and to find a new station director.) For now, there is no public oversight whatsoever, and the only leverage that elected officials can have over Army Radio is to threaten its right to sell commercial airtime.  The most obvious result of this lack of oversight is a perceived political slant to the broadcasts.  Both networks have come in for criticism over their liberal bias—though the complaints against Army Radio seem more egregious.   

Arguably, GALATZ is no worse than any other Israeli radio or television outlet—except for the fact that it is, after all, "the home of the soldiers" which might imply bipartisanship.  However, according to Dror Eydar, a columnist for the centrist tabloid Israel HaYom, the bias is endemic; manifested by the choice of topics debated, questions asked, semantics employed, and interviewees invited.

Even news bulletins are occasionally slanted. For instance, in February 2011, the headlines on two different mornings led with criticisms leveled against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman—as if the views of this inveterate Netanyahu critic were somehow remarkable. Nor has it been uncommon for Army Radio to invite, day after day, the same panel of advocacy journalists from Haaretz to provide their analysis of the news. Recently, when the European-funded pressure group "Peace Now" hawked as scandalous a government decision to construct apartments beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines, though well inside metropolitan Jerusalem, GALATZ presenter Micah Friedman framed the issue thusly: "Will the American government soon have a thousand and four hundred new reasons for tension with Israel?" One quantitative study that examined Army Radio bias found that for every right-wing voice aired, there were 1.3 left-wing voices; for every minute allocated right-wing ideas, leftist ideas were allocated 1.37 minutes. 

It's not just right-wingers who are uncomfortable with Army Radio's partisanship.  Amit Segal, an Army Radio "graduate" now with Channel 2 commercial television news, wondered how GALATZ became so out of touch with the Israeli consensus. Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, doyen of liberal tabloid columnists, lauded the station's "quality programming" in July, while arguing that GALATZ's connection to the army seemed "anachronistic."  You don't have to be a rightist, Barnea granted, to see that providing Hamas spokesmen with a platform for expression in the midst of the Gaza war was "problematic."  If nothing else, Barnea concluded, broadcasting enemy views "confuses" IDF soldiers on the battlefield.  

Barnea's criticism discredited the notion that discontent with Army Radio is a right-wing affair, but his solution—delinking the station from the defense establishment—would not necessarily result in a more politically balanced broadcast band. Instead, why not insist that public broadcasting aim for bipartisanship? A properly regulated GALATZ could yet promote societal cohesion and give voice to mainstream Israeli values while taking care to provide expression for minority views at both ends of the political spectrum.

That may be a tall order—but in the meantime, there is always the music.


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