Radio Ramallah

WORLD LEADERS HAVE TRIED EVERYTHING FROM HIGH-LEVEL negotiations to prayer to get some peace in the Middle East. Issie Kirsh has a different approach. He’s going to serenade them. Then, when the Palestinians and Israelis are enraptured with music, he’s going to get the people to talk.

Late last year, the man who started 702 Talk Radio in South Africa shipped over three South African radio veterans – broadcasting legend John Berks along with longtime 702 news editors Andrew Bolton and Mark Klusener – to help with the February 2007 launch of 93.6 RAM FM, an all-English radio station based in Ramallah, smack dab in the heart of Palestine which broadcasts into Gaza, the West Bank and East and West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv .

“Right now we are Highveld,” says Bolton, the station’s news director. “In six to twelve months we’ll be 702.”

It’s an ease-in approach to the region for a station poised to facilitate dialogue between the intrinsically split cultural factions, first with music and 20 independent English-language news bulletins per day, then with free-flowing dialogue from both parties in English, seen as the neutral language of negotiation in the region. It’s a revolutionary approach, especially in a region largely dominated by state and military media or pirate radio waves which spew the rhetoric of fanatics. And, in the four weeks since they began broadcasting, it’s an approach that appears to be catching on. When Bolton walks the streets of Ramallah and Jerusalem, he hears his station’s music emanating from tiny shops, and it doesn’t seem to matter if the shop owner is Arab or Jew.

“They love the music,” he says of the station’s current line up of contemporary hits and classic memories. “It has drawn people in, it appeals across the board. Even if the people don’t speak English, the response has been uniformly wonderful.”

Well, not completely. In the days following the launch, internet users posted responses to the news of the station started by a South Africa Jew which ranged from “Great station I’m hooked!” to “This won’t accomplish anything” and “Self-hating Jew throwing out money” along with pointed questions like “Who has invested the remaining 75 percent?”

The latter is a good question, and one that’s going to be asked a lot in the coming months. But it’s one that Kirsh, who a director and joint controlling shareholder of Primedia (which owns 702, Highveld and Ster-Kinekor) isn’t willing to talk about other than to say it’s a private company with an international consortium of investors. A press release issued by 93.6 RAM FM and sent to Maverick by their PR company indicated that the radio station is owned by a South African company called Middle East Broadcasting Holdings (Pty) Ltd, and stated that the station is “not an initiative of Johannesburg’s Primedia group.” However, a Primedia press release issued the day after the station’s launch in February indicated that the company is indeed a 24.9 percent shareholder in the station, something the PR rep reluctantly confirmed after a call to Kirsh giving her the okay.

While Kirsh and his PR people would like to wave away inquires like these about the station’s ownership under the valid contention that it is a privately held company, the group’s ownership is a sore point that, despite the outwardly noble intentions of Kirsh and his investors, will be asked time and time again from those questioning the station’s motivations in a region suspicious of anything that moves [HELP ME HERE].

Even while the station is in honeymoon musical mode Bolton is already preparing for the heated opinions which will be hurled over the airways a la 702 of the eighties and early nineties. From his state-of-the-art studio which is situated right next door to the Muqata – the Palestinian presidential compound of Mahmoud Abbas – and just 500 metres from Yasser Arafat’s final resting place, Bolton is charged with one of the most difficult pieces of the larger peace puzzle that has confounded diplomats, religious leaders and scholars since the dawn of time; he has to present unbiased news coverage in a place where every sentence is a minefield.

“We get complaints every day,” he says. “If you use the word ‘terrorist’ you are aligning yourself with the Israelis. We don’t use ‘suicide bombers’ – we’ll say a man blew himself up at a bus depot. These words are extremely loaded and you need to find alternatives.”

So far so good. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t prepared for the worst. Just weeks into their entry into the airways, they’ve made preparations. “You can’t underestimate the potential for security,” Bolton says. “The peace process is in the toilet, attacks are thwarted everyday by extremist organizations. There was a (BBC) journalist kidnapped in Gaza last week. That is something we are very aware of and have taken necessary precautions for security.”

But it is exactly that kind of potential to make a difference that pulled Berks out of his cozy Morningside retirement days of golf and squash, and into world’s hotbed of unending turmoil. “We don’t want, in any shape or form, to dictate or call the shots,” Berks says from his 14th floor apartment, which looks down on the station’s Jerusalem offices. “We want to be open to both parties and be a facilitator of dialogue.”

It’s that very conduit that Kirsh hopes his station will become. The company has invested $2 million, along with a staff of 25 which includes the South African contingent, a few Australians with the remainder made up of locals from Palestine and Israel in order to reach the target audience of 500,000 English-speaking Israelis and Palestinians in the region. And while the station’s press information boasts the commercial potential of the venture, Kirsh is a bit more realistic about the initiative and is quite clear about his intentions.

“If I was looking to make money, this is the last place I’d look,” Kirsh says. “This is a peace initiative, not a money-making initiative.”

He should know. After all this is no bright-eyed newbie. In addition to his 26 years in radio in a volatile South Africa in the built up to democracy, Kirsh was the co-founding shareholder of Radio Tel Aviv 102 FM. His insight into the region is the reason the studio is based in Palestine and not in Israel, where licensing for a private station – and an English-language one at that – was doomed to be mired in red tape for years. “We didn’t even try,” he says. “You don’t go for things you know can’t happen.”

That statement says it all – and not just a little about his own profound belief in the success of the project. Berks has bought into Kirsh’s vision with infectious enthusiasm. “This is not just another radio station,” he says. “This is going to be the big one. This is the one that’s going to make a difference.”

Tune into their audio stream – – and you just may catch Berks back on the air spinning Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Live from Ramallah.

April 2007, Maverick