Put Israel's Army Radio Out of Its Misery

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Army radio offices in Jaffa, earlier this month.

For years, I avoided writing this column. Out of respect for a place that did good things for me, so as not to contribute to colleagues’ loss of livelihood, and for fear of lending support to those who do not exactly cherish freedom of the press. But underneath all of these considerations, with each passing day since I completed my military service at Army Radio, the truth has been becoming increasingly clear to me: The time has come to euthanize the military radio station. It is the right move from a public standpoint, as hard as it is for me to say so without a deep sigh of regret.

At the beginning of the month, the Defense Ministry informed Army Radio commander Shimon Elkabetz that his tenure would end at the end of August. Unlike in the past, no search is currently underway for a replacement, and the possibility of closing or privatizing the unit is also being examined. This time, it seems, the threat is more serious than ever. In response, top figures at the station, led by long-time presenter Razi Barkai, launched another campaign to save it. Using his public microphone for the sake of an institution in which he has a personal interest, Barkai opened his show last week by speaking out against “the silence of colleagues” – including “those who grew up in this station.” So I decided to take his advice and stop remaining silent.

From its inception, Army Radio has been an anomaly that managed to survive for too long. Rather than fulfill its reasonable designated purpose of being a radio station that serves the troops, it became, by virtue of the ambition and talent of generations of brilliant young people, a national station that purports to also broadcast news and entertainment to civilians. It ought to be clear at a glance that genuinely free and hard-hitting journalism can never exist under a military umbrella. But since in Israel most of the Hebrew media is already coopted by the national-security narrative, this lie was able to persist unhindered.

At the same time, the station became the unofficial school of Israeli journalism, as hundreds of its alumni, myself included, afterwards found work in the industry because of their military service there. On the face of it, this is no different than what happens with the graduates of Unit 8200 in the Intelligence Corps. In many fields in Israel, military service confers huge privilege. No one forced employers to only hire veterans of Army Radio. But in fact, many people were kept away from the microphone because of this tendency. At some point, Army Radio realized its social role, leading it for example to recruit me, a religious girl from Jerusalem. But members of some communities, like Arabs, were certainly not recruited in masses.

Over the years, as the Israel Broadcasting Authority became corrupted, Army Radio became the alternative public broadcaster. The fight against changing the station’s character or closing it down became a fight for the values of a public broadcaster – at a time when Israel already had a public broadcaster that only needed to be improved, as has been done in recent years. With the advent of the Kan public broadcaster, this fight became meaningless.

At the same time, politics cast a shadow over the matter. First, the right attacked Army Radio, and then the left was repulsed by Yaakov Bardugo’s infamous tenure there. All of this obscured the fact that, bottom line, the journalism at Army Radio was mediocre. Yes, on occasion, energetic young people there have the guts and the wherewithal to come up with scoops that others miss. But I can attest, from my friendship with the military reporters and my memory of my younger self: Our level of readiness to cover complex issues wasn’t really adequate. Too often, most of the work involved copying and pasting from what in the old days was the beeper and today is apparently WhatsApp. And to make up for the shortcomings of the soldiers working at the station, civilians are integrated there too. Their presence makes the military aura all the more superfluous. Barkai could just as well work at a regular radio station.

The current era, with a government of right and left, is an opportune time to bid farewell to the anomaly known as Army Radio and to fondly recall its glory days.

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