For Diehard Fans, Threat to Beloved Israeli Radio Station Is the Breaking Point

Listeners of 88 FM, fearing that the new management is turning station into just another hit parade, are rising up. Organizers admit their struggle is seen as out of touch, but insist: Enough is enough

Fans of 88 FM protest outside the Kan offices, June 1, 2017
Udi Burg

It may seem hard to believe that in the age of music downloading, playlists on Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music, fans can still be emotionally attached to a radio station - but in Israel, a passionate group of listeners is fighting for the preservation of a broadcasting outlet that offered an edgy and artistic mix of music. 

The station - 88 FM - has undergone a transformation since the Israel Broadcasting Authority was shut down a month ago and replaced by Kan, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation. The change came after three years of political fighting over Israel’s new public broadcaster, a controversy that briefly threatened to bring down the government. 

Dedicated music lovers who were fans of 88 FM and its unique mix of music - from jazz and classic rock, to new sounds and world music - quickly sensed a change in their beloved station: It was beginning to sound as formulaic as all of the popular radio stations around it, pumping out top 40 hits and well-known oldies. 

The changes galvanized a group of the station's fans, calling themselves Mishmar 88 (88 Guards, in Hebrew). Fearful that the station's disc jockeys will soon leave in disgust, the group, which has more than 7,800 followers on its Facebook page, organized a protest movement directed primarily at Kan’s managing director Eldad Koblenz, at whom they aimed a petition that quickly gathered thousands of signatures. On Thursday, 200 protesters took their anger to the streets with an angry demonstration outside the broadcaster’s offices, waving signs "Koblenz Resign!," "Return Public Broadcasting to the Public!" and "Let My Music Go!" 

“It’s pretty remarkable that so many people took the time to prepare signs, show up and bring their children to demonstrate for a radio station," said Hilla Shagan, 36, a marketing executive from Ramat Gan who is one of the leaders of the protest. "I don’t think that has ever happened in Israel. You could feel the love and energy - the atmosphere was electric and people spoke from their hearts."

The protest gained significant public attention, thanks to the fact that the radio station’s fans include members of the Israeli press, who have taken advantage of their media platforms to make their feelings about the station known. They are unhappy, they say, that the talented and well-informed staff of radio hosts are being forced to play music from lists dictated from above, and are unable to use their own creativity. 

More esoteric stations like 88FM “are the reason that public broadcasting should exist," argued Ilan Lukatch, a television news reporter and devoted fan of the station, on Channel 2. "Stations that play hits, that play top 40, can support themselves with ads, they don’t need government support. What’s democracy? It’s not just the will of the tastes of the majority, it’s the rights of the minority. We’re the minority.”

Hearing his favorite D.J.’s unenthusiastically play music that is dictated to them, he said, was like going to a favorite restaurant where the creative gourmet chef was still employed but ordered to “only serve pizza and McDonald’s.” 

The protesters admit that their struggle is considered elitist, and that critics question whether time and energy should be expended protesting over a radio station in a country where there are so many other pressing political issues.

“I hear that a lot," Shagan said. "People say: 'What don’t you have anything better to demonstrate about?' But I think this was our breaking point. We’ve gotten used to the fact that people from above make decisions we don’t like in this country, and we just learn to live with them - in our kids’ education, in our jobs, in our government, we just put our heads down and accept it. Maybe it’s because we got used to it in other areas that when the powers-that-be decided to mess with a place we thought they shouldn’t be able to touch, when they touched that realm - our escapist culture, that we care about and draw inspiration from - we said: enough.”

At the protest, musician David Peretz made a heartfelt speech. "I used to love the music that was played on 88 FM every day," he said. "When it was a cloudy and wintry morning, there would be winter music of all kinds, changing over the course of the day, changing with the taste of whoever was broadcasting. You felt like they were your friends, sharing the music that spoke to life as they were experiencing it.” 

He ended his speech with a personal plea: “Don’t break us, Mr. Koblenz. Music is love. And love can’t be imposed by coercion and forced playlists.”