This Is Army Radio

Many of today's leading Israeli journalists learned their craft at Army Radio, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this week.

These were very distant, very different days; like all olden days, these days are etched into my memory and will never be forgotten. The building, already threatening to collapse back then, is the same building, the steps are the same ruined steps. Even the same clocks hang in the studios, as if to stay: Time stopped here.

It's the early, merry 1970s: A young man dreaming of becoming the prime minister or a journalist or whichever comes first, joins Army Radio. A journalist who would, in time, become controversial, begins to take shape in the warm, intoxicating, deceitful embrace of the establishment. This week, the Israeli anomaly of the world's weirdest radio station is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Time for memories and lessons.

We had all kinds of strange lists back then. One list of those banned from transmission, banned from interviewing: Communists and members of Matzpen, obviously. Another list of those who we needed to confirm before going on air: Any interview with a member of Knesset or a major-general of the reserves needed to first be confirmed by the IDF spokesman. Imagine that. Any report on anything happening within the Israel Defense Forces itself also needed the approval of the spokesman: It couldn't be transmitted without going through the censor, as well as the chief propagandist of the IDF, our landlord. But here was the worst thing of all: to us, this journalism - as a department of the military - was the most normal journalism out there.

So we played it smart. We would prepare a list of MKs confirmed for interviewing in advance. Did a scandal break? Was some kind of festival opening? We'd pull out a confirmed MK and conduct a hasty interview, something we called "a prostitute in the yard." If we called in a rightist, we'd immediately bring a leftist, too, in the name of the holy (and silly ) balance. On Independence Day we'd interview Meir Amit, who stood somewhere in the middle.

We were so innocent, so young, so brainwashed and stupid, that we thought this was how journalism worked. We excitedly began transmitting around the clock, 24 hours a day, in those radio days when the receiver would not only be turned on in the car and when Army Radio was more than a set playlist and Razi Barkai. For many of Israel's leading journalists today, this was our journalism school. Many of the faces staring at you from the television screen and newspaper pages grew up between Master Sergeant Nissim Badusa and Major Tami Tzur, between the omelets at Davidovitz and the chocolate-coated wafers from the canteen, between the duty officer and the station commander, who, although a civilian, was still a commander. The lines here are blurry.

Ambitious youngsters, most of them knowledgeable but not necessarily opinionated, took their first steps during our wonderful Army Radio days. Some have since tossed the decorum and officiousness imposed on them by Army Radio; others have remained just as they were back then, as we were taught in the station.

The spirit of Army Radio hovers over the Israeli media, and it's not always benign; generations of journalists learned their craft from within that atmosphere and were corrupted by it. When Yonit Levi and Yaakov Eilon report the events of the day, when Oded Ben Ami and Rafi Reshef host news programs, and when Ilana Dayan presents investigative journalism, there's something horrifically Army Radio-like about them. So witty, so eloquent and so state-like.

True, the station is a relatively free one, certainly no less free than its sister-station - Israel Radio. True, the term "military station" is deceiving. But if these talented youngsters had gone to a different school, maybe we'd have a more combative, less opportunist, crop of journalists - made up of more courage and integrity, and less propaganda. If we had studied in a place where it was okay to be subversive - which no one can expect from Army Radio - maybe we'd have a different kind of journalism, and a different society. But why spoil the party?

I will always cherish my days at Army Radio, and no one can take away the magical memories of my four years in that house on Yehuda Hayamit Street. Interviewing, in short trousers with a broken zipper, the survivors of Entebbe, making historical first transmissions from Ismailia and Cairo, Moshe Dayan humiliating me live on air. There was talk of shutting down the station back then, and this will continue forever.

But the young, non-authoritative voices emanating from the receiver these days are much more annoying - after all, in our time they didn't draft "kids" to the IDF. Mazal Tov, Army Radio - despite all your harm, may you live to 120.