Opinion |

Don't Shut Down Israeli Army Radio, Reform It

ליאור קודנר
Lior Kodner
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An Army Radio Soldier sets up a microphone during a Labor Party meeting, in 2014.
An Army Radio Soldier sets up a microphone during a Labor Party meeting, in 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
ליאור קודנר
Lior Kodner

Up till the age of 11 I couldn’t speak a word of Hebrew. My family had settled in Haifa. Until my parents rented an apartment, I lived with an aunt in the Sprinzak neighborhood. Israel didn’t know how to deal with the great aliyah of the 1990s, so without an ulpan or any preparation whatsoever, I was thrown into a regular classroom at Ramot elementary school. By this point I was saying todah and shalom and believing that “yihiyeh beseder,” it’ll be all right.

By that summer I was pretty fluent in Hebrew, looking for friends, and back living with my folks and my older sister. When I’d get back from junior high to the little room in the Hadar neighborhood, I’d listen to the news on the radio. Through the big red boom box I discovered Razi Barkai, Rafi Reshef and the news bulletins on Army Radio. In high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist and serve in the military radio station. I sent letters, was eventually summoned to exams, and, surprising everyone, I made it. It was a key test of my Israelihood.

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Noa Landau argues that Army Radio produces mediocre journalism and that it’s time to shut it down (“Time to euthanize Army Radio,” Thursday). Indeed, Noa. At 18 neither I nor other young adults are seasoned enough to uncover the next Case 4000, but there remain enough reasons to keep Army Radio alive. Israel is a small country and the number of significant media organs in it stands in the single digits. Many of these have seen serious malfunctions exposed – some of which are being dragged through the courts, in the Netanyahu corruption cases. Following the bankruptcy of local journalism, the closing of the IDF’s “Bamahane” magazine and the inability to establish a stable financial model at internet websites, Army Radio has remained the only journalism school. Generations of reporters (some writing for this newspaper) have grown up at Army Radio – including Yaron London, Ilana Dayan, Gideon Levy, Guy Rolnik, Yonit Levi, Tamar Ish-Shalom and Amit Segal. Three former Army Radio broadcasters sit in Israel’s new government – Meirav Cohen, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz.

The current discourse about shutting the station down is an expression of Israelis’ inability to stick to tradition and heritage. Symbols and habits are as important as religious expressions. In the spring, the United States celebrated 50 years of National Public Radio. There, too, it began as educational radio before “invading” the realms of current events. Since its founding, NPR has been battling heavy deficits, accusations of a left-wing bias and calls to cut its funding by Republicans. Although public broadcasting is seemingly at odds with the capitalist spirit, voices calling to shut it down have remained marginalized.

A radio station belonging to the military is an anomaly, but it is an anomaly that has existed in a balanced manner for 70 years now. I interviewed the prime minister and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff when I was a soldier. I would probably do a better job today, but that’s not the main issue. The silencing of a successful media organ is an extreme measure, one that will harm freedom of the press in Israel. The defense minister, eager to do what his predecessors failed to do, has no clear answer as to how exactly the station will be removed from the military. Will it be shut down entirely? Sold to the highest bidder? Merge with Kan public broadcaster Reshet Bet radio? Only play music and programming for soldiers? These alternatives are all worse than the current arrangement.

It’s not that there are no problems. Army Radio has suffered for years from managerial and editorial failings, but these aren’t even close to what happened in the end-days of the Broadcast Authority. People of Russian and Ethiopian descent, ultra-Orthodox youngsters and those from the periphery have only in recent decades been accepted at the station. Arabs are still absent, and this is one reason why they are not integrating into Hebrew-speaking media. In recent years, the station has been run by political apparatchiks. The main metric for the success of an Army Radio commander is that the station was not shut down on his watch. In their desire to refrain from antagonizing politicians (so they would not shut it down), the station’s editors avoided challenging the powers-that-be, instead serving as their bullhorn.

It’s easy to pick on Yaakov Bardugo, but whoever put him in the highly coveted 5 P.M. slot knew full well that they were getting unadulterated Bibi-ism. The real problem are his co-host Yaron Wilensky, who offers no fight, and the editors and managers of the broadcast, who don’t maintain a commitment to facts, respectful discourse and a broadcast free of fake news.

Journalistic independence is not achieved with a sword against the throat. Army Radio needs a change – a stiffening of the reportorial spine, a makeover of the schedule, well-crafted podcasts only a public broadcaster can produce, and the adoption of a digital approach. A journalist of proven managerial abilities, one who won’t have to please politicians but will be given freedom to act, will be able to rebuild the station and restore a spirit of innovation and daring to it. It’s easy to shut down a media organ, but hard to create one. They taught me to avoid clichés at the Army Radio journalism course, but we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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