Guided by Netanyahu, Army Radio Is Taking a Sharp Turn to the Right

Once a premier broadcaster and journalism school in one, the station has come under control of Netanyahu's allies, and its stature is in decline

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Army radio offices in Jaffa, earlier this month.
Army radio offices in Jaffa, earlier this month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A few weeks ago, Army Radio’s political correspondent, Michael Hauser Tov, publicly attacked Yakov Bardugo, who hosts the evening news program along with Yaron Vilensky. “Filth is his profession,” wrote Hauser Tov about Bardugo, appending a selection from a Channel 20 News television show where the latter attacked two of the station’s leading personalities. “The public doesn’t want to hear Rino Tzror and Razi Barkai – they should quit the station,” Bardugo had said.

In the past, name-calling between Army Radio journalists would have aroused a lot of public attention and comment. But nowadays that’s nothing unusual and attests to the sad state of what for a long time has been Israel’s most popular radio station. Its status has been undermined by its acute politicization during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as well as the dominance of Bardugo, one of the prime minister’s main mouthpieces in the Israeli media.

Additional evidence of the sad state of Army Radio was the weak public response to the announcement by Defense Minister Benny Gantz that he intends to move the station out of the Defense Ministry or close it altogether. Gantz apparently cannot do so before the election, by order of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. But the very fact that not many people rose up in defense of Army Radio this time is an indication that the channel’s public status is not what it was.

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The ratings reinforce this impression. A 2020 Target Group Index survey showed that Army Radio broadcasts listenership had declined 2.4 percentage points to 19.6% from 2019 to 2020. Meanwhile, competitor Reshet Bet increased its listenership to 23%. “In recent years there’s been talk about political influence on Army Radio, about Bardugo and everything else. But things go deeper,” one of the station’s old-timer presenters told TheMarker. “This station has a unique character that was built up over years. A kind of positive chutzpah, creativity and wit. That’s gradually disappearing. Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that listeners are leaving.”

Producers, editors and reporters are finding themselves caught among three main power centers: Commander Shimon Elkabetz, senior presenter Bardugo and Amir Ivgi, the head of the news division. In the past year, there has been considerable tension between the latter two.

In January, Moshe Shlonsky, who hosts the program “Thoughts Ltd.” with Bardugo on Friday mornings, was absent from the broadcast. The tension between the two is evident in almost every program they present together. But a week before the January broadcast, the two got into a bitter argument over Bardugo’s words of support for Netanyahu. The tensions boiled over to the point that Shlonsky refused to be in the same studio with his partner.

All this is happening as Army Radio is slowly but surely becoming more right-wing and religious. Some of the change is overt, most notably manifesting in the program “The Last Word,” which is aired every day at 11 A.M. When it began about 20 years ago, it featured a presenter identified with the right wing debating one with leftist opinions. But in recent years, presenters Irit Linur and Kobi Arieli show a clear preference for the right. Frequently there are only two right-wingers behind the microphone.

Other changes have occurred more quietly. “There are all kinds of advisories on content given to the editors,” says a former soldier at the station. “For example, if a demonstration should be termed a ‘left-wing demonstration’ or ‘a demonstration of the self-employed.’ Or the fact that Army Radio has a Judea and Samaria [West Bank] correspondent. The station always had a territories correspondent, and then came Shahar Glick, the son of [former Likud lawmaker] Yehudah Glick, and it was decided to change the name to ‘Judea and Samaria correspondent.’ The settlements have also become ‘communities.’”

More religion

A long-time worker at the station adds: “Once Army Radio had a religion program only on Saturday night. Now there are more programs on religion and tradition, mainly in the evening. I have no problem with the content itself, but Army Radio is defined as a station for soldiers, and there are other stations earmarked for religion and tradition. Everything comes from the same place, and is reflected both in the programs and in the appointment of people working at the station – Army Radio is on the way to becoming a right-wing bastion, and in some senses a right-wing-religious bastion, too.”

The most concrete expression of the change at Army Radio is Bardugo’s rise to the status of most prominent political commentator and presenter, and the fact that he has become the figure most identified with it. He has so much power that in certain places in the industry, Army Radio is now called “Bardugo Radio.”

Insider sources say Bardugo has a direct line of communication with the prime minister and his associates. “During a broadcast I saw him getting a WhatsApp from [Netanyahu aide] Natan Eshel with questions for Benny Gantz, and then he simply reads them aloud,” says a former soldier at the station, who adds that this wasn’t a one-time occurrence.

Yakov Bardugo broadcasting, a month ago.Credit: Army radio Facebook page

Another former senior executive adds: “Often I saw that they connected Bibi [Netanyahu] to Bardugo before the broadcast. He entered some room and spoke to him. But it’s a small station, and Bardugo isn’t someone who speaks quietly, so you could hear him say things like, ‘Forget it, go with [Naftali] Bennett,’ or similar advice.”

Sources at the station tell of how ahead of the 2018 election, Bardugo engaged in politics, holding discussions with Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett over a dispute the two politicians were having. “He boasted of the fact that he had managed to solve a crisis between them,” says the former executive. “You see the people that he corresponds with,” adds another former soldier. “You can hear it at the desk. He gets a phone call, goes out to the corridor and then says ‘Urich, I’m telling you, Urich,’ things like that.” Jonathan Urich is Netanyahu’s media adviser.

Bardugo isn’t a journalist; he’s a businessman and a Likud wheeler-dealer. The person who brought him to Army Radio in 2005 is the former commander of the station, Avi Benayahu. But then Bardugo was given to a personal program on Friday morning. The person responsible for Bardugo’s promotion was the station’s previous commander, Yaron Dekel, and it was done as part of a broader process to balance the station’s content in the face of political pressure from Netanyahu’s bureau.

Bardugo, who lacked any journalistic experience, was put into the key 5 P.M. broadcasting slot and effectively took it over. Over time, the long-time presenter in this slot, Yaron Vilensky, became far less dominant. “At the beginning of the program, when the microphone is closed, Bardugo usually tells Vilensky, ‘I’m asking the first question,’” says a station employee. “That’s important, because the first question leads to the rest of the discussion. I saw that several times with my own eyes, Bardugo conveys messages that he gets from the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Bardugo’s dominance is only one aspect of the change that has taken place at Army Radio. Old-timers say the station is no longer an incubator for future journalists as it was for many years, despite the meticulous filtering of candidates from army draftees via a pre-army course. Among other things, say the employees, this stems from the fact that the senior positions are now filled by outsiders who are not graduates of Army Radio.

The most blatant example is the Ivgi’s appointment as the head of the news department. Prior to that, Ivgi was a presenter and editor on Channel 1 News for several years. There he gained fame during a brief stint as anchor for “Mabat,” the main evening news program. Ivgi was ousted when the Israel Broadcasting Authority was replaced by the state-owned Kan public broadcaster. Ivgi first went to Channel 20 News and then came to Army Radio, where in January 2019 he was appointed host of the noontime news program. In the past, moving from a marginal media outlet like Channel 20 to Army Radio would have been inconceivable, but that’s not the case today.

Amir IvgiCredit: Amir Ivgi's Twitter

Incidentally, Ivgi did not hesitate to explain where he stands on the political axis shortly before his appointment. “If there were more Ivgis in the media, Netanyahu would not have been investigated,” he said in an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth in December 2018. Eighteen months later, Ivgi replaced Ilil Shahar, a career Army Radio journalist and an admired diplomatic correspondent, as head of the news department.

“Ivgi’s story is another example of the problematic nature of appointments during Elkabetz’s tenure,” says a former soldier at the station. “Suddenly all kinds of people are coming here without any connection to Army Radio. In the past, it was customary to use people who had worked at the station. Ivgi was brought from Channel 20 for the most important journalistic position except for the commander. Really, what kind of honor is it to boast that if you had been a journalist, they wouldn’t have opened an investigation into the prime minister?”

Difficult manager

Apart from his politics, sources say Ivgi is a difficult manager. A senior station official reports that “there are civilians who have requested that Shimon Elkabetz hold the year-end feedback conversation with them rather than Ivgi. There have been complaints filed by soldiers against Ivgi for aggressive behavior, and in January the ombudsman called him out on his conduct.”

The Balfour Street protests, which peaked last summer, were covered far less on Army Radio than elsewhere, although it was an important story. “On Sunday mornings you would see on the competing station good stories from the protests, while we did much less,” says one senior official.

Unlike Bardugo and Ivgi, their superior Elkabetz is a radio veteran. He was appointed in 2017 after serving as director of the radio division at Kan and before that, he was director of the IBA. Staff have long stopped trying to understand why Elkabetz allows a phenomenon like Bardugo at Army Radio.

Some believe that Elkabetz is too weak to act and fears what would happen if he tried to sideline Bardugo, certainly after Netanyahu supported Bardugo openly and publicly in a tweet. “I witnessed a high-volume phone call between Elkabetz and Bardugo,” says a former soldier who served at the station. “Bardugo was shouting at Shimon, ‘I’ll f--k you, I won’t be f---ed.’ That was on the backdrop of tension between them over the slotting of an editor for the evening news program.”

Part of the Elkabetz mystery was solved when journalist Raviv Drucker revealed in November 2019 that WhatsApp messages dating from 2016 between Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz, two former Netanyahu advisers and now state’s witnesses in his trial, suggested that both Elkabetz and Bardugo had gotten their positions due to the direct involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office.

It was the final days of the IBA, where Elkabetz was the director. Hefetz wrote to Filber, “You had bingo in your hand and you threw it away. I didn’t bring Shimon. On the contrary, you led there. It’s a move of once in 50 years. I can’t understand why you didn’t appoint an editor-in-chief there.” Filber replied, “one of the two will be appointed later. Shimon also prefers this tactic.” In another exchange Filber wrote to Hefetz, “Now between 1 and 3 P.M. Dror Idar [a columnist for the Netanyahu-aligned Israel Hayom at the time] is presenting a personal program on Reshet Bet. The first sign of Shimon pushing our people to the microphone.” Hefetz replied, “Thank you.”

Shortly afterward Hefetz sent Bardugo a warning letter ahead to an unrelated libel suit, in which he claimed that Bardugo got the current events slot on Army Radio due to the prime minister’s intervention.

Senior executives at the station asked Elkabetz to respond to the allegations, but he made do with a press statement to the effect that he was attentive to the complaints. Since then he has been trying to maneuver between the two camps at Army Radio: One, broadcasters such as Yael Dan, Razi Barkai and Rino Tzror, and the other, Bardugo, Ivgi and the reporters identified with them. Elkabetz has apparently already accepted the fact that the station has become political, and his solution is an attempt to balance between the sides.

Recently Haaretz journalist Ravit Hecht began hosting an interview program on Saturday night, and Dina Zilber, who is not a leftist but is seen as part of the anti-Netanyahu camp, also got a show. These appointments were made after Gantz announced he wanted to close Army Radio, so it’s hard not to believe that Elkabetz made them to balance the Army Radio’s right-wing tilt.

In his quiet way, Elkabetz not only doesn’t interfere with Bardugo but is part of the right’s takeover of Army Radio. “Shimon sends instructions to the morning editors: Put this person on the air, don’t put that one on the air,” says a former soldier on the station. “There’s a feeling that the commander’s views are clear and lean rightward, and that accords with the message that’s coming from the top. For example, when Likud wanted to promote the [far-right] Otzma Yehudit party in the second election round, suddenly they brought many interviewees from the party; afterward, they disappeared.”

Taking credit

Another soldier says that Bardugo tends to give himself credit for Elkabetz’s appointment. “He tells many people, ‘I appointed Shimon. Thanks to me he was appointed,’” he says. “When you speak to Shimon, he plays dumb. It looks like he’s preparing an alibi for a police investigation.”

Additional criticism of Elkabetz is that unlike previous commanders, he doesn’t encourage Army Radio graduates to remain at the station, but brings in people from the outside – “all kinds of new editors whose names I don’t even know because they have so little connection to the station,” says a discharged soldier.

“Suddenly they bring someone who came from Radio Darom, where Elkabetz came from. He’s constantly planning to cut back on work slots on the station. The question of manpower and appointments is central. And if you examine other appointments of his – maybe they aren’t Bardugo, but quite a number of them are right-wingers and kippa-wearers. The feeling is that currently, being religious and right-wing is a bonus.”

And another discharged soldier adds: “For every job at the station, from the editor to the course commanders, Elkabetz picks according to labels. It’s a type of reverse racism. In the end, the question is what motivates him – does he look at the soldier’s opinions and wonder if they suit specific talking points? If so, it’s a problem. People see things that he does and say, what, did he come to crush the station? To destroy it? What’s his interest in the things that he’s doing here?”

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