'This American Life' Makes Aliyah

A group of young Israelis with no broadcast experience is bringing the most popular show on American public radio to a Hebrew-speaking audience.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

If television hits like "American Idol" and "Survivor" could be repackaged for Israeli audiences and make a killing here, why not one of the most popular programs on American public radio?

That's the idea behind "Israeli Story," a new Hebrew-language program being launched today. The program is modeled on Public Radio International's "This American Life," a weekly radio show broadcast on 500 stations in North America to an estimated 1.8 million listeners, and one of the most popular podcasts in the United States, with more than half a million downloads a week. 

Like its American inspiration, “Israeli Story” doesn't pretend or even want to be a news or talk show program. Rather, its mission is to shine a light on stories that rarely get told in the mainstream media: true stories – sometimes humorous, sometimes heartrending, often both – about real everyday people. But unlike "This American Life," "Israeli Story" is not broadcast on the radio. At least for now, it is available only online (http://israelstory.org/) or as a podcast on iTunes (for iPhone and Android).

Podcasting may be the wave of the future, but it has yet to catch on in Israel. The creators of "Israeli Story" are well aware of this challenge and are exploring other ways to build a listenership. They are currently in talks with Galei Tzahal, the popular army radio station, which they say has expressed interest in eventually including "Israeli Story" in its lineup.

"Over 85 percent of daytime broadcasting in Israel is devoted to news and news interviews," observes Mishy Harman, one of the creators of "Israeli Story." "We are here to provide an alternative – no more Bibi, Tsipi or Iranian bombs. Our goal here is to introduce high-quality, long-form non-fiction content to Israeli broadcasting."

Learning the ropes

For Harman and his three partners –none of whom, incidentally, have a background in radio or journalism – "Israeli Story" is a passion they pursue in their spare time. Since their days are filled with radically different pursuits, this usually means working into the wee hours of the morning.

The four partners – all a year shy of 30 – met in the rather small Conservative Jewish youth movement Noam while growing up in Israel. Harman studied at both Harvard and Cambridge Universities and is a Presidential Scholar studying for his doctorate in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Roee Gilron, a graduate of Brandeis University, already has one start-up under his belt and is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at Tel Aviv University. Like Harman, he returned to Israel a year ago.

Shai Satran served in an elite combat unit for eight years and is studying for his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the Hebrew University. He also volunteers at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center. Yochai Maital was a captain in an elite combat unit for eight years and will graduate from the literature and creative writing program at Minshar Art College in Tel Aviv this year. He also helps out at a newspaper that serves the refugee community in Israel and works as an instructor at a hostel for juvenile criminals.

The seeds of  "Israeli Story" were planted when Gilron was studying in the United States and became a diehard fan of "This American Life."

"Roee used to call me and tell me what a great program it was," recalls Harman. "He gave me a bunch of programs, and I listened to them while I did a cross-country trip of America."

Harman was soon hooked on the show as well. Last March, he and Gilron met with Ira Glass, the award-winning host of "This American Life" to bounce their idea off him.

"So you're the guys who are ripping off my program" were the first words out of Glass's mouth when he met them. He put them in touch with Nancy Updike, a senior producer for the program who currently lives in Israel and has become an invaluable resource and mentor.

"One of the most important things we learned from Nancy is the  'edamame rule,’" explains Gilron. “It's about how much background and context you need to provide your listeners with. On public radio in America, for example, you don't use the word 'edamame' without it being followed by 'comma, the Japanese soybean, comma.'"

Back in Israel, Harman and Gilron talked with with their childhood friends, Satran and Maital, who loved the idea of an Israeli version of "This American Life" and wanted to be part of the project.

"Yes, it is pretentious of us to think that as people with no background in broadcasting we could succeed at something like this, " acknowledges Satran. "But on the other hand, we've all been involved in writing in one form or another, and good writing is an essential part of this program."

Spinning yarns

The plan is to put up a new episode once a month. The first hour-long episode, which is already online, is themed "Starting Over" and features five stories.

The first story is about Ari Ben-Shabtay, a Tel Aviv-based composer who explains that he is indirectly responsible for last summer's social protests. He had been slow to follow up on a phone call he received from an old friend whose daughter, Dafni Leef, was being evicted from her apartment and was looking for a new place to live. By the time he got back to her, she had already pitched her tent on Rothschild Boulevard and was on her way to becoming the celebrated hero of the country's new social justice movement.  

Another story is about the wild escapades of an Israeli hitchhiker in Europe, who was determined to try anything and go anywhere to prove to his ex-girlfriend that he was not as inflexible as she thought he was.

Yet another story centers on Noa Guy, a classical composer who suffered severe brain injuries in a near-fatal car crash and had to teach herself to hear music again.

In addition to non-fiction stories, each episode features a piece of prose, usually read by the author. The first episode includes a story read by bestselling Israeli author and regular “This American Life” contributor Etgar Keret from his new collection, "Suddenly a Knock on the Door."

To help build a community of fans and get the word out, the creators of "Israeli Story" are also organizing story-telling evenings around Israel, inspired by the popular "Moth” events in the United States. The evenings feature sets of 10-minute-long first-person narratives, the best of which are incorporated into the podcast.

The third such story-telling evening – a free event open to the public – takes place tonight at 8:30 on a porch overlooking Tel Aviv's Metzitzim beach. It will coincide with the official launch of the program and will feature, among others performers, 96-year-old Ruth Dayan, the widow of Moshe Dayan. For details, go to: http://www.facebook.com/events/113527832129624/.

The creators of 'Israeli Story' (pictured) met with producers of 'This American Life' to discuss the show.Credit: David Bachar