Arutz Sheva was a pioneer in Israeli radio and, according to a veteran of the music department, the station helped revolutionized Jewish, hassidic and Sephardic music for the masses. Rachel Elbaz has worked at Arutz Sheva's music department for the past 18 years. In an exclusive interview, she describes how the media outlet set the trend by broadcasting strictly Hebrew, Israeli and Jewish music in an age when top 40 pop hits from America and England dominated the Israeli airwaves. For the full podcast interview click here.
Arutz Sheva radio was founded in 1988 and originally broadcast on a ship, the MV Hatzvi, in the Mediterranean Sea. It began broadcasting on the internet in 1995, making it one of the first live streaming internet radio stations in the world. Elbaz was there through the thick and thin of both stormy weather and stormy politics.
"At the time there were only a few radio stations, the official ones, Kol Yisrael, Reshet Aleph, Reshet Bet, Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and the Voice of Peace, Abie Nathan's pirate station, but there were no religious or Zionist stations at all," Elbaz stated. Similar to the BBC in England, the Israeli government restricted private radio and TV licenses.
"My job was to receive all the musical material that came to Arutz Sheva. We were a pioneer of playing Hebrew music and Jewish music. The aim was to broadcast to the entire country of Israel, not just to the religious people."
Elbaz said that the most stable medium at the time was reel-to-reel tapes. "If you used records or anything else on the ship, it could jump. So everything was recorded in Beit El and then they would transfer it over land and then by boat out to sea," she explained.
Concerning musicians, Elbaz said that all the famous names of the Jewish music world were interviewed on Arutz Sheva. "Moshe 'Mona' Rosenblum [composer of Moshaich Moshiach Moshiach and other hits] was the head editor of the Ramat Gan studio. Most of the time he hosted them. But for example, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to come here to Beit El to do a Saturday night show."
She related one memorable story about the famous singing rabbi. "He would always come in and talk about 'Neshamele', his daughter. One Saturday night he came and told us she was sick with fever. He said, 'I can't start broadcasting until I phone Neshamele and find out how she is.' Only after the phone call would he start his program."
In the very beginning of its history, Arutz Sheva only broadcast music. Surprisingly, according to a Jerusalem Post article from Decemer 1989, ratings for the music-only station were quite high due to a demand for local tunes.
"The other stations hardly played any Jewish musicians at all," Elbaz related. "There was no platform for them. Apart from public appearances, there was nowhere for them to be." Elbaz said that in Arutz Sheva's air-play, song contests and interviews made little-known singers into stars.
"We would also play the old-time Israeli music, all the shirei Yisrael [songs of Israel i.e. kibbutz style and folk music], hence the two things really were an innovation," she said.
Elbaz commented that other stations sought to emulate the format. "Before Arutz Sheva started broadcasting, there was mostly foreign music," she said. "As a result, Reshet Gimel instituted the playing of Hebrew music exclusively to try and win back the public."
The veteran radio employee said that the Sephardic and Mizrachi demographic appreciated the format as well. Arutz Sheva broadcast a good deal of what is sometimes referred to as oriental music. "Nobody used to play piyyutim or oriental music at all. We also played hazzanut [cantorial music]. It was music that appealed across the board, to all Israelis," she reminisced.
One of the many amusing anecdotes that Elbaz remembers is one particular case of seasickness. "One of the broadcasters who used to work on the ship was overcome with seasickness and was very ill," she recalled. "It was a very difficult situation because he asked to be returned to dry land. But there was a storm at the time. So it was not possible for any boat to take him back. But he was so sick that he insisted. They eventually managed to bring a boat and they literally threw him from the ship onto the small boat to take him back as quick as possible. He went on to be a successful broadcaster for many years."
Arutz Sheva continues to spread Jewish and Israeli music. There are currently two programs on Israel National Radio, Arutz Sheva's English language live streaming audio and podcast site. The Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast interviews well-known Israeli rock bands, Carlebach influenced singers, klezmer musicians and a wide variety of different acts. J Jam with Adam Mallerman brings a survey of the latest hits from the ever-growing diversity of the hasidic and Jewish music world with a twist of news and talk in between. The "jukebox" offers streaming mixes categorized by holiday and genre.
On Arutz Sheva's Hebrew language streaming audio and podcast site, Moshe Mona Rosenblum's program continues and is uploaded every Friday. Kobi Sela, long time music guru of the station, broadcasts every Wednesday. CDs are reviewed regularly on the news site as well. Music reviews also appear each week in the Besheva newspaper, the free weekly publication which is distributed throughout Israel.
Ben Bresky is a music journalist living in Jerusalem. He hosts The Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast interviewing a wide range of Jewish and Israeli musicians from Carlebach to klezmer, from hasidic to trance. For mp3 archives click here. For Facebook click here. For Twitter click here.