Why Spielberg Is All Ears for This Israeli Podcast

The makers of hit podcast ‘Israel Story’ reveal the secrets of their success.

Nir Keidar

A 20,000-kilometer (12,400 miles) journey across the United States with a hyperactive dog – that’s how Mishy Harman describes the origins of his podcast “Israel Story”, which launched its third season at the In-House Festival in Jerusalem on Sunday.

When Evangelical radio stations in the Bible Belt almost made him fall sleep at the wheel, Harman took refuge from the anti-Obama, anti-abortion preachers after remembering a friend had given him episodes of a popular American podcast, “This American Life,” before he hit the road. Harman soon became addicted to the show’s incredibly human stories.

When he returned home to Jerusalem after his trip, Harman decided – along with three childhood friends – to try and create an Israeli podcast similar to the one that got him through his long trip between Texas and Mississippi. Initially, they hoped to make a couple of shows. But the second episode, which focused on obsessions, went viral, and they reached a critical mass of listeners. The show caught the ear of Army Radio station head Yaron Dekel, who decided – to the group’s great surprise – to give them a regular, Friday afternoon broadcast slot.

Harman and his friends from Tel Aviv – Roee Gilron, Yochai Maital, Shai Satran and, later, Maya Kosover – quickly got to work. Every hour-long episode involves hundreds of hours of work, including research, interviews, recording, editing and more. The “Israel Story” team’s hard work has created a kaleidoscope of local images, always presented with humor and compassion.

Take, for example, the episode “Herzl 48,” on Israeli Independence Day. Unannounced, they knocked on the door of 48 Herzl Street in 12 different cities and spoke to the people there. In Zichron Yaakov, they met an Arab pharmacist whose father keeps urging him to get married and have children, while he himself makes a living mostly from selling contraceptives. In Kiryat Shmona, they met a woman who told the story of her daughter, who was born on the exact same day the woman’s brother died fighting in the first Lebanon war. Another episode told the story of an ultra-Orthodox woman in Safed who adopts children with Down syndrome: the podcast was recognized by the website Medium as one of the best of 2014.

Alongside their extensive work on the show, Harman and his friends sent hundreds of requests for financial support to Israeli and international foundations. They received a positive response from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who wanted to “adopt” Israel Story and has since provided funding for the project, which has released 24 episodes.

Following that support and growing interest from the American radio scene, the group decided to launch an English version, as well as original shows produced specifically for a U.S. audience. National Public Radio (NPR) took great interest and began to regularly incorporate “Israel Story” into its broadcast schedule. The group was also recently invited to collaborate with New York radio station WNYC on its well-known podcast, “Radiolab.”

When asked about creating “Israel Story” podcasts for a U.S. audience, Harman says it was a reaction to the way Israel was presented “in an extremely one-dimensional way in the United States. Either as a place of violence and conflict with Bibi [Netanyahu] and Iran, or it’s marketed as the Startup Nation by Jewish, pro-Israel groups. Neither of those things reflected the Israel we saw. Apparently we’re not the only ones that felt this way, seeing as our episodes were hugely successful, and some even made it onto ‘Top Ten podcasts’ lists in America.”

Settlers, ultra-Orthodox and hipsters

One of the most moving stories – in the final episode of the second season – told the story of producer Kosover, who was born to two deaf parents. Her parents, who had ‘broken Hebrew,’ tried to ensure their daughter would learn Hebrew properly by listening to the radio.

Consequently, Kosover became a regular listener to talk shows and radio dramas, and learned Hebrew. She came full circle when she did her military service with Army Radio and when she was able to tell her parents’ story on the podcast, giving them an opportunity to speak on the radio for the first time in their lives.

Because of these stories’ unique and personal nature, they are of particular interest to Harman and Kosover. “We were recently invited to the offices of ‘Radiolab’ – the [podcast] with the second-largest following in the world. They asked us to suggest some story ideas. Coincidentally, we had a story about a couple who spent a long time debating how to have children. They ultimately decided to do so in Nepal, and after two inseminations they had three children – just when the [April] earthquake struck in Nepal. Because everything was happening so fast, they sent us recorded messages with updates in real time, and we played them for the folks at ‘Radiolab.’ The messages included quotes like ‘We managed to save the children,’ all while they were crying hysterically. The story grabbed the [producers] immediately and we began collaborating.”

In another story, which they followed for seven months, “Israel Story” documented an ultra-Orthodox couple’s struggles with the husband’s cancer. The story was told very succinctly and touched many people.

“It was horribly sad. A day after we broadcast the episode, the husband died,” recalls Harman, adding that the podcast’s community of listeners includes many elderly people in nursing homes – who tend to send them letters – alongside the ultra-Orthodox, settlers and more than a few hipsters.

Harman points out that Israel is a very segmented society, and he believes Israelis surround themselves with people who are similar to themselves.

“The radio allows you to do something that’s almost impossible with any other medium – to listen to a story from a Haredi man from Ofakim, or a Bedouin from Hura, and not think about how they’re different from you. You can just identify with the human story,” says Harman. “Most people we talk to on the show are people we would never have met otherwise.”

Kosover says that in contrast to the radio dramas she loves, the “Israel Story” team presents real voices from real people. “During the new season, we’ll have a story from an 82-year-old woman who came to Israel from Iraq as a girl, and was one of the first transgender women in Israel. Her voice is incredible, and the way she tells her story is simply inspiring.”

“When I hear someone else’s story and get into it,” says Maital, “then for a moment I get excited by things that someone else experienced. That’s the best way to deal with loneliness, as far as I’m concerned.” Kosover adds that it’s important for her “to tell stories without any kind of commercial interest behind them. Today, lots of the stories that reach the media are told with an intent to sell. We create stories just to be listened to. That’s not just a criticism of capitalism, but also because I’d be happy if people went back to the era where listening was important.”

Harman adds that “people think in different ways: in lists, in theories. I’ve always thought in stories – that’s how I converse with most people in the world. As soon as you start to think this way, every common interaction becomes a story.”

In light of the podcast’s tremendous success here, it’s a mystery why the medium hasn’t become more common on Israeli radio. There are hardly any popular podcasts here, aside from “Israel Story” and Ran Levi’s “Making History!”. That, however, is about to change. Barak Heimowitz, from Army Radio’s digital and new media department, says his station is working hard to incorporate more podcasts on the air: “We want to be at the forefront of podcast development. Last year saw great success for ‘Serial’ in the United States, and we’re interested in bringing something like that to Israel, too.”