- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP)In DJ Raf’s morning radio quiz, one caller is Israeli, the next Palestinian.

This matters little in the cheerful, breezy universe of RAM-FM, an English-language music station, where listeners bond over their enthusiasm for pop music, from the Eagles and Cher to Fergie and Snoop Dogg.

After a year on the air, the music station with studios in Jerusalem and the West Bank has attracted a diverse audience, from Israeli soldiers and Palestinian students to West Bank villagers, English-speaking immigrants and foreign diplomats.

But RAM-FM, owned by the South Africa-based Jewish businessman Issy Kirsh, has greater ambitions. Modeled after a South African station that provided a venue for reconciliation after apartheid, RAM-FM wants to create a safe place for Israelis and Palestinians to talk — and make money in the process.

“You have to make a start somewhere,” Mr. Kirsh said. “Most people have similar opinions, the same aspirations, to have a good life and a safe life. Hopefully, somehow we can create a platform for dialogue.”

The station plans to expand the amount of airtime given to current affairs segments in coming months. Currently, that’s limited to an hour in the morning, hosted by Rafique Gangat, known as Raf, a former South African ambassador to the Palestinian territories. He is gradually tackling touchier subjects in his “Talk at 10,” such as Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees. Guests come on separately, to prevent shouting matches, and callers are screened to keep hate speech off the air.

Some are skeptical, suggesting RAM-FM will be preaching to the converted. “There is self-selection. Those who are interested in dialogue will find this interesting, but most find it difficult psychologically to listen to the other side,” said communications professor Akiba Cohen at Tel Aviv University.

Luring new listeners is tough in Israel and the Palestinian areas, with scores of stations competing for a combined population of about 11 million.

In Israel, RAM-FM draws about 30,000 to 40,000 people, or 1 percent of Hebrew-speaking radio consumers, but since that excludes English-only speakers, such as diplomats and foreign laborers and students, the audience is likely larger, according to the station’s market research. On the Palestinian side, an estimated 160,000 to 200,000 people tune in, according to station manager Maysoun Gangat, who is also the DJ’s wife.

It’s been a challenge for RAM-FM to attract commercials, and it has launched an ad campaign to boost its market share. Posters of stars, from the Beatles to Bob Marley, accompanied by the slogan “Music has no boundaries,” the station name and frequencies now cover West Bank billboards and Israeli buses.

Those boundaries have multiplied in recent years, a result of bloody conflict, and it’s becoming harder for Israelis and Palestinians to meet.

While it was common a decade ago to encounter Palestinians at an Israeli beach, or run into Israelis eating hummus at a West Bank restaurant, they’re now separated by Israeli travel bans meant to keep Palestinian militants out and Israeli citizens safe.

Such divisions have forced RAM-FM to set up two studios, one in Jerusalem and the second in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It’s the only way to invite both Israeli and Palestinian guests.

Mr. Gangat, the host of the three-hour morning show, usually plays games for the first hour, asking listeners to find the hidden link between songs, with the winner getting a backpack with the station logo. In the second hour, during “Talk at 10,” he’ll discuss weighty matters, followed by another hour of music.

During “Talk at 10,” he takes on but treads carefully around hot-button issues.

An Israeli caller, Oren from the West Bank settlement of Ariel, argued that many more suicide bombers would attack Israel if it weren’t for checkpoints. Mustafa, a Palestinian, said only a peace treaty, not checkpoints, can give Israel security.

“You made your point,” Mr. Gangat said after each call, careful not to comment further.

Since its launch last spring, the station has relied on the broad appeal of pop music, from the 1960s to contemporary hits, a playlist very different from what’s offered by most Israeli and Palestinian stations. The evening programming includes the “Love Zone,” in which listeners call in and dedicate songs to their partners, while mornings also include educational programs.

At an Israeli army base near Ramallah, where Palestinians apply for entry permits to Israel, soldiers set their dial to RAM, at 93.6 FM. The manicurist at an upscale Ramallah beauty parlor said her customers enjoy the station’s pop selections.

Mr. Kirsh and his crew hope the success of the South African station in bringing former enemies together can be duplicated in the Middle East. It might be a long shot, but Mr. Gangat said it’s better than not trying.

“People tell us,” he said, “that in all the gloom and doom here, we bring a lot of joy and happiness with our music and attitudes.”

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