At 11:15 A.M. Razi Barkai bites into a pickle. Just five minutes earlier he strolled confidently into a small hummus shop on a Jaffa street corner, greeted the proprietor with the friendliness reserved for old acquaintances and placed his usual order. A few minutes later the table was groaning. The whole thing looked like a daily ritual.
For more than 20 years Barkai has presented one of the country's most important current affairs daily radio shows. From 1989-1993 he presented "Hakol Diburim" on Israel Radio, before moving to Army Radio's Jaffa studio for "Mah Bo'er." It's thus safe to say that Barkai is a man of steady habits: verbal duels with politicians in the morning and hummus in the afternoon.
Barkai, 60, has two children and recently became a grandfather for the first time. He joined Israel Radio shortly after his army service, covering welfare and health before moving on to education and society. He was assigned to the Knesset in 1977, where he remained until 1983, when he was appointed Washington correspondent. Three years later he returned and became a political reporter, paving his way to "Hakol Diburim."
"I started presenting 'Hakol Diburim' when I was exactly 40," he recalls. At that time the most popular morning radio program was Rafi Reshef's 'Nakhon Le'achshav,' on the rival Army Radio. Gideon Lev-Ari, the director of Israel Radio, was looking for a way to bring our listeners back. The idea was that I would do a talk show that would try to compete with 'Nakhon Le'achshav'. I thought of a sly name and came up with 'Hakol Diburim,' which really caught on. Even now people on the street tell me that I host 'Hakol Diburim.'"
Barkai arrived at Army Radio after leaving the state station for what turned out to be a brief, failed stint hosting a Channel 1 television current affairs show. By then Shelly Yachimovich was hosting "Hakol Diburim."
"Since I wasn't offered anything I wanted" at Israel Radio, Barkai recalls, he went over to the competition. "At first I hosted 'Sha'ah Lifney,' which began at 4 P.M. At 5 another presenter would join and we would do the late afternoon newsmagazine together. That's when we began building the program that would compete with 'Hakol Diburim.' In this respect I've been competing against myself for 20 years."
Despite a varied career, including sorties into television also as a host of "Tik Tikshoret" ("Media File") and on the Knesset channel, Barkai seems to be wholly identified with his radio slot, to the point where it is difficult to imagine him anywhere else. Unlike other journalists Barkai is satisfied to remain in the radio arena, and is not eyeing other, glitzier media that would give him greater public stature and higher earnings. Around four years ago, for example, he turned down an offer to direct an early version of Channel 10's Friday evening newscast, and about three years ago he said no to a very generous offer ("a huge amount of money," he says) from Arcadi Gaydamak.
"There is something magical about radio," Barkai says, almost squirming, to a question about other media. "I wouldn't do a daily TV program. I did a weekly TV program and had all sorts of offers."
"The easy answer is that I really love radio."
And the complicated one?
"The complicated one is that I'm pretty lazy," he says with a smile. "It's clear to me that even if I do TV it won't be at the expense of radio. I don't want to be addicted to work, that's the point. I'm not willing to give up my weekends."
Hosting a program or being a regular panel member on a current affairs program is a sort of a status symbol for a journalist, a mark of success.
"I never had the urge to be a panelist. Presenting a daily TV program, something like 'Erev Hadash,' is out of the question. I'm not there any more. There is something unjournalistic about everything surrounding television, with all the packaging. Radio is very clean journalistically. It's your voice and what you say to the person you are interviewing. There are no games here, even less than in the press."
When Barkai is not on the air, working on a program or discussing items with editor Nurit Canetti, he leads a comfortable life. A sports fan, he watches games on TV and often travels to see soccer games in Europe. He spends time with friends, volunteers at the emergency room in the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and maintains a "media diet" when he does not have to keep up to date. "For years I have been totally cut off from the media on weekends," he acknowledges. "I don't read the weekend newspapers and don't watch TV."
He brings the same equanimity into the studio. Shortly after 8 A.M., less than an hour before airtime, he comports himself calmly in the spartan room at Army Radio. Canetti, too, is amazingly relaxed. A disorderly pile of newspapers litters her desk. A young producer, in uniform, has her ear to the telephone as together they confirm the morning's interviews and stories. At 9:02 Barkai walks calmly into the studio and attaches his headset, with not a moment to lose.
Calmness is not exactly a characteristic associated with Barkai. He has walked out of the studio because an editor addressed him on his headset after Barkai explicitly forbade him from doing so. "I cannot divide my attention and I have a serious hearing impairment," he says. "When two people talk to me simultaneously I don't hear either one. If I hear a producer or editor shouting in the headset over which I listen to the interviewee, the broadcast is over. In that respect I'm disabled."
It is not only technical matters that infuriate him, but also articles like the one in Yedioth Ahronoth about his colleague and friend Raviv Drucker, now a Channel 10 TV commentator, that criticized Barkai as well. (The article claimed that in the 2000 Camp David summit Barkai and Drucker report not from the site itself but rather from a town some distance away, and from their hotel.) Barkai explains that no reporters were allowed at Camp David itself.
In fact, much of today's newspapers annoy him. He talks of superficial reporting aimed only at creating headlines, of newspapers that settle accounts, that select a target and then shoot. He calls this "dialogue of the Web talkbackers" and "sewer journalism": "Just as I despise 'talkbackers,' I abhor that kind of writing."
Barkai is also enraged by the Defense Ministry's occasional criticism of the way that Army Radio's news department, and he in particular, cover military matters. "It's not our job to be the Defense Ministry's or the army's deodorant," he says.
You have said in the past that were the idea of creating Army Radio to be raised only now, you would oppose it.
"If you were to ask me whether a military station should be established, my answer would be no. But the moment Army Radio exists, with all its achievements and contributions to Israeli culture, then closing it would be a disaster. I am happy to say that the man who today is defense minister, who had this foolish idea when he was army chief of staff, no longer thinks so. There is a certain problem, but it is important that Army Radio remain."
What is the difference between working at Army Radio and at Israel Radio?
"Army Radio is my favorite place to work. There is something lovely about the encounter between my generation and the youngsters there; their unbearable language, through which I connect with a great many things, the speed at which they talk and the kind of words they use. One time they tested my command of slang during a broadcast. In 90 percent of the cases I didn't know what they were talking about. This is my link with a generation with which I am not connected, and it gives me a lot."
And that is in contrast to the Israel Broadcasting Authority [which controls Israel Radio and Israel Television]?
The broadcasting authority is old. It has experience and stateliness, but with these young guys there is something much warmer and connected. I am sorry about what is happening there. I have friends there that I worked with for more than 20 years. I think it must be shut down and reopened. There is no other way. The broadcasting authority cannot continue in its present state. It's irrelevant, to my regret, and I am talking mainly of the television."
During the 20 years in which Barkai has hosted the main current affairs radio show, the country's media map has changed completely. In the beginning, Barkai's show was a sought-after destination; being interviewed on it was an achievement one could be proud of. Judging by the responses of public figures to the morning telephone calls from Barkai's staff, it still is. But how has the huge increase in the past decade of the number of media outlets, including radio, affected him.
"It's just like Maariv eyeing Yedioth Ahronoth and Yedioth eyeing Maariv," Barkai says, referring to Israel's tabloid dailies. "There are more players but the competition is between two. Just like Channel 2 television eyes Channel 10, and vice versa. I set my sights on Israel Radio."
Even though you have competition in the regional radio stations.
"Yes, but I don't see local radio as my competition. I look at Israel Radio as a rival and I value Yaron Dekel, my competitor. Occasionally we hit one another and that's okay, I am challenged by the fact I have a proper competitor."
What about the interview subjects? The number of media outlets has grown, it would seem to be easier to make headlines on the Internet than to deal with you.
"The politician who does that knows that the minute they're quoted elsewhere they won't appear on my program. Sometimes they manage to explain their wise views there as well as with me, but it doesn't happen often. Overall, I don't know whether the people listens to me. I am sure the politicians hear me, and the journalists, and in this respect it's very important for the politicians to be on my program. I remember that I once interviewed (former Shas leader) Aryeh Deri and asked him which newspaper he reads in the morning. He said, 'Haaretz, in order to know what the enemy thinks.' I see myself in this spot. Even if I do not have a broad audience, the first thing they need in the morning is to know what's happening on my show."