Israeli checkpoints tend to be tense places. But Palestinian Maysoun Odeh-Gangat had an unexpectedly pleasant encounter when an Israeli soldier flagged her down at the Kalandia post between Ramallah and Jerusalem recently. "I just wanted to say what a great radio station you have," said the soldier, stooping so that Odeh-Gangat could hear him from her car. "Keep up the good work."
The station is RAM FM; Odeh-Gangat, 42, is the director. And while the Mideast divide runs too wide and deep for superficial rapprochement, the new outlet is nonetheless generating buzz for its appeal to Israelis and Palestinians alike. A recent poll conducted in Israel found that almost 390,000 Israelis plug in to the station, some 10 percent of the total audience. Palestinian listeners so far number around 106,000, according to a parallel Palestinian poll, significantly fewer than Israelis but still a sizable chunk of potential listeners. The only other crossover radio station, the three-year-old All for Peace, broadcasts alternately in Arabic, Hebrew and English but has not been successful in attracting such wide audiences.
RAM FM, by contrast, has opted only for English. "Hearing Arabic or Hebrew is alienating to the other side," says Odeh-Gangat in her Ramallah office overlooking the Palestinian Authority's muqata (headquarters). "We want people to feel good when they tune in to our station, not to force them to the other side but to encourage them to listen to music and talk shows—together."
RAM FM is based on a format already proven in South Africa. It was established by Issie Kirsh, director of the South African Primedia group, which owns Radio 702, during the apartheid years to encourage interracial dialogue and to provide an edgier option to the state-controlled broadcast media. In 2003 Kirsh decided to open a radio station in the Middle East that could provide a similar bridge of understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. It took four years to get it off the ground, but a total of $2 million has been injected into the radio station since its inception six months ago. Both the Ramallah and Jerusalem studios boast advanced digital equipment and spacious offices where 25 Israelis, Palestinians and foreign nationals work together. "Our team is a microcosm of what we hope to achieve," says Sara B, a South African breakfast show presenter, referring to the mix of Jews, Muslims and Christians at the station.
Sitting in her 11th-floor studio in Jerusalem, Sara B—she prefers to be identified by the truncated last name she uses on the show—exudes enthusiasm for the radio station she joined earlier this year. Like many other team members here, she's a Radio 702 veteran. "I learned a lot from the South African experience," she says in between recordings by Justin Timberlake and the Black Eyed Peas. "I grew up in fear of the other side and realize today how stupid it is." Last month, traveling on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, she was surprised and delighted to find that the driver was playing RAM FM. "His English wasn't great, but he was getting our message loud and clear—that good music works wherever it's being played from."
Similar scenes are being repeated elsewhere. On a recent sunny morning in Ramallah, cappuccino-sipping customers in the popular Italian café Pronto chatted as RAM FM broadcast an interview with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights. Akram El-Katib, 35, a public prosecutor, who drove down from Nablus to meet with colleagues at the café, says he listened to RAM FM all the way down in his car. "For me this station is like a breath of fresh air. We live in difficult times; we deserve a break." Basem Zubeidi, a political science analyst at Bir Zeit University, suggests the station is filling a void, especially for the younger generation of Palestinians. "People are bored and frustrated by their everyday lives, and although extremists will say it breaks with tradition, I believe there is a place for it in our society."
This kind of feedback is especially gratifying to Odeh-Gangat. "Sometimes I get goose bumps when I read e-mails listeners send us," she says, recalling how an Israeli soldier wrote that the music keeps him warm when he's on guard duty at night, and a Palestinian wrote that he listens to the station while waiting at checkpoints. "You see, although each one is standing on his own side, they're listening to a common music together." Not all reactions are positive. One woman from central Israel complained that the station was pro-Palestinian and that she would never listen to it again. "But two weeks later she came back and complained again," Odeh-Gangat says. "I'm delighted to have a right-wing audience. Let them listen!"
The station does carry regular news bulletins, compiled by its staffers, that use carefully neutral terminology. Indeed, most topics covered on the talk shows steer clear of politics and are more likely to include vacation tips or a discussion on who should pay for dinner on a first date. But recently, presenters have begun addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, interviewing well-known personalities on the air. Right-wing Israeli Minister of Environment Gideon Ezra spoke about global warming earlier this year, and Rafiq Husseini, Palestinian presidential chief of staff, will soon be a guest in the Ramallah studios. "Last week," recalls Odeh-Gangat, "Mark Regev [an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman] used the term 'Palestine' on our show, and I'm very proud of that." There are plans to gradually introduce more serious content into the schedule, but for now some 80 percent of the airtime is devoted to music.
Inevitably, politics does make odd intrusions. One regular listener, an Israeli soldier on an army base close to Ramallah, won a RAM FM coffee mug in a competition recently—but was too coy to give the station her address for delivery of the prize. "Despite the fact that I'm a big fan of this station, it just didn't seem realistic that they would send me anything from Ramallah to an Israeli Army base," she shrugged. Crossover appeal, it seems, can only go so far.