How Radio Built Israel and Made It Sing

The slow-motion explosion of musical styles on Israeli radio tracks the loosening of state control of the media and the development of the country.

The Israeli airwaves these days filled with the babble of advertisements and traffic reports. But there was a time when Israeli radio was an authoritative voice in Israeli society, serving variously as a teacher, commanding officer, social worker and cabinet secretary.

World Radio Day – created by the United Nations to celebrate what is still the most widely distributed broadcast medium in the world – takes place on February 13. From a global perspective, the history of Israeli stands out as unique. In many ways, it is intertwined with the history of Israeli music, which at first appeared, almost as an afterthought, between the news flashes at the top and bottom of each hour.

Due in part to the limitations of party newspapers and the late arrival of commercial television to the country, Israeli Radio – the collective name for the several radio stations run by the state's Israel Broadcast Authority – remained the dominant medium in Israel far longer than in most of the West.

In the 1950s, Israel Radio was dismissive and even suspicious of rock 'n' roll, pop and certainly Arab music. For Israelis who wanted to listen to the music from their native countries or keep up with the latest music abroad, the only alternative was Radio Ramallah. The Jordanian government station offered a richer variety of music and, thanks to infrastructure created by the British during the Mandate period, provided excellent reception to most Israelis.

Letting loose, a little

Fearing the cultural and political implications of losing listeners to a radio stations from "Arab Jerusalem," Israel Radio founded two institutions in 1960: the Hagal Hakal station – which later became the news and talk station Reshet Bet – and the Israel Song Festival.

The festival was the brainchild of Yisrael Daliot of Israel Radio's folk music department, and in addition to serving as a Hebrew-language alternative to Radio Ramallah was meant to compete with the popular Sanremo Music Festival, the competition that inspired the Eurovision Song Contest. It quickly became a major musical event in Israel. But it was no Woodstock.

Participating musicians had to observer rigid parameters for arrangement, presentation and lyrics. The festival organizers shunned love songs and other "silly" music in favor of work that glorified Israel's landscapes, biblical figures and people and stories from "sabra," "or native-born Israeli – mythology. The festival's exposure and significance were bolstered by its festive broadcast on Israeli television on the eve of Independence Day every year.

In the 1970s, the Israel Song Festival functioned as the Kdam Eurovision, or "Pre-Eurovision," with the winning song becoming Israel's entry to the Eurovision Song Competition. This breathed new life into the event, with pop and disco influences increasingly turning up, as in “Le’olam B’ikvot Hashemesh” (Following the Sun), sung by Sheri, and “Rikdi et Haketzev Hazeh” (Dance That Rhythm), sung by Haim Tzadok.

The festival also helped create a Hebrew music library from scratch – albeit one curated by a very strict librarian. Since the 1960s, about 300 Hebrew songs have been banned from broadcast, many of them for improper Hebrew.

While foreign influences continued to be seen as "inappropriate," an attempt was made to incorporate various artists and styles into the Hebrew world. Each episode of the program "Pegisha Mehudeshet" (“Meeting Again”), which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, featured an Israeli musician covering the work of a foreign one. The results were mixed. Tiki Dayan sounds completely natural singing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” in Hebrew, but Chava Alberstein comes off as detached and overly formal channeling Joni Mitchell.

Poetry in motion

In 1972, Army Radio joined the battle against “frivolous” pop music and the preservation of proper Hebrew. The station commander at the time, Yitzhak Livni, introduced the program "Evenings of Songs by Poets," which ran for a decade.

Describing the intent of the program, Livni said the songs were “poems, not mere popular songs. Now they are set to music and sung, and are even on the hit parades. Is that dangerous for them? Yes. But it’s a calculated risk. Among the myriad popular songs we’re flooded with – of which many are pretty but many more are banal, simplistic and silly – is a group of lovely songs.”

Muli Shapira, the head of Army Radio’s culture department, spoke in favor of the decision in 1994, saying, “Some people claimed that the poets’ songs weren’t suitable for being put to music and that after serving as a gimmick, which got media coverage, nothing would be left of the pretentious productions. But time has proven that Army Radio’s perseverance in the matter was justified. That was how Israeli popular songs were enriched by lyrics of value.”

The practice of putting Israeli poetry to music predated the state, but Army Radio made it mainstream. Arik Einstein sang a poem by Avraham Halfi on an album dedicated to Halfi’s poems and Tzvika Pik recorded ballads by Alexander Penn and Shaul Tchernikovsky to win recognition as a composer after years of being dismissed as a teen idol. To this day, songs by Israeli poets are performed at nearly even festival backed by an Israeli institution. These performances allow performers to acknowledge – some convincingly, others less so – the enormous influence of the greats of Hebrew song.

Listening to the people?

Despite the changes in Israel music, listeners were still allowed very little input. Israel's first program to play just hits was "Rishon Haviv," or "First is Best," which hit the airwaves in the early 1960s featuring both Hebrew and foreign-language songs. In was only in 1969 that Israel got its first station devoted to Hebrew hits, “Makom Batzameret,” or "A Place High up, about two years after Army Radio created the first Hebrew hits program. Since there was not a big market for singles in Israel, Hebrew hits were not determined not by sales but by listener votes submitted on handwritten postcards. This allowed for fake and duplicate voting, which damaged Israeli hit music programs' credibility for many years.

Another problem was that young listeners had too much influence, preventing other segments of the population from hearing the music they wanted. Things got worse when Israel Television began filming performances of hit songs in its studios.

In an interview with the Israeli music and entertainment weekly Lehiton in 1983, Israeli musician Ephraim Shamir pointed out the catch-22. “You can get another hit only if you’re in the top ten of the hit parade, and that’s important,” he said. “Four hundred, 600 kids write to the radio stations, and they’re actually the ones who decide whether I’m going to be hosted on a program that’s watched by two million people.”

Israeli musician Tzvika Pik, on the other hand, saw no problem with the hit parades. Back then, he said, “The hit parade is the mirror of the Israeli entertainment world. The ones who send the post cards are young people who go to the discotheques and performances and pick up on which songs catch on and which don’t, with no tricks.... The ones who say they don’t care about the hit parades – it’s by their own choice that they’re not on them.”

A brave new localized world

The establishment of regional radio stations in 1995 and the rebranding of Reshet Gimmel as a radio station that played only Hebrew music, starting in 1997, began a new chapter in the history of Israeli media. These moves led to an explosion of Mizrahi music, which had been neglected by officials at Israel Radio and Army Radio. But the syndication of entertainment and current-events programs and the sharing of content among regional radio stations limited innovation.

Regional stations across the country still play classic Israeli songs on the weekends. Notable examples are “Ivri lifnei Shabbat,” or "Hebrew Songs before the Sabbath" on Radius and “Shabbat Ivrit," or "Hebrew Songs for Shabbat," on Radio Lelo Hafsaka. They give an anachronistic sense of holiness to old-time Israeli music, as if it were the only kind of music worthy of being played uninterruptedly on Shabbat. The artificial separation of classic music from the regular broadcasting schedule strengthens the correlation between “old” and “good.”

Israeli radio was finally forced to be responsive to its listeners after losing out big twice: to commercial television, which always took entertainment seriously, and to the Internet, which has made every Israeli into a broadcast station with no regulator. Israeli radio now clearly reflects its audience, with all the local variations that implies. While Israeli musicians still dream of hearing themselves on the radio, they know no one in the town or neighborhood over is likely to be listening along with them.

Oriya Tadmor