April 25, 2011
Making (radio) waves
While local news broadcasters debated the West Coast repercussions of the Japanese earthquake, Radio Kol America’s Dudi Caspi, sitting with headphones and a microphone at the station’s North Hollywood studio, posed a different question: Could a tsunami hit Tel Aviv?
Making international news relevant to an Israeli audience in Los Angeles is one of Caspi’s main goals on his daily program; the other is to entertain with a mix of Israeli pop hits. The former program manager of Radio Tel Aviv made his home in Hollywood last year. At first, he wasn’t sure he’d get to continue his career in the city of dreams; then he discovered that there are not one but three locally operated Israeli Internet radio stations: IsraLa.com, Radio Kol America (RKA) and GaleiLA.com.
Three radio stations for one Israeli community is proof of the adage “two Jews, three opinions.” Estimates put the number of Israeli Angelenos anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000, depending on who you ask and who is counted, and the founders of these stations recognized this population’s homesickness for Israel’s culture, humor, mentality and — especially — the music.
Tal Orion Gerloy, co-CEO of RKA, dreamed of starting a local Israeli radio station since moving to Los Angeles eight years ago, but the former vice president of marketing at Jerusalem Radio discovered a long waiting list for an FM or AM channel, with costs reaching $4 million. While working as a U.S. correspondent for Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, she met fellow Israeli journalist Yanir Dekel and his life partner, Alex Maghen, who shared her dream. The three partnered up, and RKA went live in May 2010.
“Trying to start something like this without having the know-how from a technical or legal perspective, two things that I bring to the table, make you think it’s an extremely expensive business to run,” said Maghen, the station’s — and MySpace’s — chief technology officer. “Nowadays, you can do amazing things without it costing a bloody fortune.”
The pioneer of this fledging local industry is Eli Bouzaglo, a singer, DJ, band manager and sound engineer. A year after moving to the San Fernando Valley with his wife, singer Alisa Shparaga, he converted his living room into a studio and went on the air in October 2009 with IsraLa.com.
“My vision was to put [on] some good music and really good talk shows which would make the community feel connected to each other,” he said.
Next came GaleiLA (L.A. Waves), launching on what its founder, Ido Ezra, hoped would be an auspicious day: 10-10-10 at 10 a.m. Its slogan, “Sof Sof Radio” — Finally Radio — reflects the ambition of Ezra, the L.A.-based correspondent for Israeli radio stations Galei Tzahal and Kol Israel.
“Our goal is to build a radio station on the scale of the most professional radio station in Israel,” Ezra said.
The Woodland Hills-based station’s programming lineup will include hosts from both Israel (via live feed) and the Los Angeles area and plenty of Israeli and American pop music.
But some wonder if Israeli Internet radio is economically viable.
“The way I see it, it’s a very cute concept,” said Gal Shore, editor-in-chief of Shavua Israeli, the veteran weekly newspaper serving the local Israeli community. “But being in the [media] business here for 20 years, I don’t see any way they can make a profit.”
RKA’s Gerloy is not deterred by skeptics. “I think people don’t realize that this is the world of tomorrow,” she said.
Free Internet radio sites and radio podcasts have mainstreamed online listening, and listeners can now stream broadcasts via their smartphones in the car, but sound quality varies among the stations, and smartphone connections are sometimes plagued with hiccups.
“That’s the ultimate challenge to Internet radio,” Maghen said. The technology is constantly improving, he added, but there is still a way to go. GaleiLA’s Ezra looks forward to the day when cars come with preinstalled Internet access, eventually supplanting satellite radio. “Internet radio will one day be as dominant as other media, like television or any other media that provides entertainment.”
RKA and GaleiLA declined to release their ratings, but Bouzaglo says he gets an average of 1,500 listeners a day, enough to sustain IsraLa.com. However, he found that ratings went down during the talk-radio programs the station once offered.
“After a while, I figured out the Israeli community is not ready for a new communication channel,” Bouzaglo said. “They just like the Israeli music.”
In January, he took the talk shows off the air, and one of the popular shows, “The Head Jew in Charge” with LiAmi Lawrence, was picked up by RKA and renamed “The LiAmi Lawrence Show,” a provocative interview show with guests ranging from entertainers to Knesset members to pro- and anti-Israel activists.
Lawrence is a former actor, personal trainer and — according to him — the original importer of Chippendales to Israel. He has also served as director of media for the local Israeli consulate. He turned his attention to radio while continuing to promote his Sababa parties, which have made him a well-known personality on the Israeli American party scene. With more than 4,300 Facebook friends, the self-described “nicer Jewish Howard Stern” came with a built-in fan base. He started with 180 weekly listeners and has worked his way up to approximately 500.
“There’s no show for the Jewish Israeli community in English that’s for young and hip people. The few shows that are around are for the Depends-and-dentures crowd,” Lawrence said with his signature bluntness.
RKA’s other shows cover topics such as immigration law, Israeli life in the Diaspora, entertainment and numerology, and a music and interview show with radio host and actor Isaac (Zachi) Tiber. RKA also airs a show on spirituality every Shabbat evening, much like the radio stations back home.
Coming from a country where news is broadcast on the radio on the hour, RKA host Caspi thinks it’s important to strike a balance between the lighter side of life Israelis seek in America and the connection with their homeland they still need.
“News in Israel is harsh and serious, and a lot of people I’ve come to know here say that the news wore them out,” he said.
Despite competing for listeners, the founders of the three radio stations are members of a tight-knit community, and as such, are friendly with one another.
“In terms of programming and broadcasting, there’s room for everyone,” Ezra said. “In terms of advertising, that waits to be seen.”