Tel Aviv — As on talk radio everywhere, the announcers on Israel’s Radio Kol Barama are constantly urging listeners to call in — so long as they’re the correct gender.
The most popular religious radio station in Israel, Kol Barama, a biblical phrase that in colloquial Hebrew today means “quality voice,” took to the airwaves three years ago with a clear policy: Unlike its competitors, it would broadcast only male voices. This meant not just callers; there were no female presenters, studio guests or interviewees. Even newscasters using snippets of public speeches were to choose from only men’s speeches.
The station’s policy remains intact, with the exception of two concessions that Kol Barama made to the state regulator this past April. Of its 144 hours of programming a week, it has designated five hours for phone-ins during which women may talk. A small number of female public figures are also now featured through recorded material or interviews — on average one every 13 hours, according to figures supplied to the Forward by the regulator.
On August 28, an Orthodox women’s rights group, Kolech, filed a $26 million class action suit against the station, demanding damages for female listeners. The group hopes its suit will lead to full gender equality in the station’s output. “This is just a way to push women aside and silence them in public, and it’s unacceptable legally and morally,” Kolech’s legal adviser, Riki Shapira, told the Forward.
Israel is a nation of radio junkies. On buses, at the stroke of the hour, passengers hush and drivers crank up the volume for everyone to hear the news. With the rise of the Internet, radio has become a somewhat less important source of news and information. But it remains central to the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, which frowns on the Web yet still thirsts for instant information and nonstop entertainment.
Kol Barama tapped into this market with its 2009 launch, offering Sephardic Haredim everything that its supervisory three-rabbi panel decided they need and want to know. There are news reports, political updates, informative programs on practical topics from economics to household maintenance, general discussions, music segments (featuring songs sung by men) and a lot of religious lessons.
The station, broadcasting from Bnei Brak on FM to about half of Israel and all the main Haredi population centers, is both a commercial and an ideological success. Large Israeli companies advertise, eager earn the Haredi shekel from the 200,000 listeners a month — one in 40 Israelis. And while it is not officially tied to the Sephardic Haredi political party Shas, its management is keen to promulgate the worldview of the party’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
The station’s lawyer, Chaim Yashar, stated in an interview with the Forward that forcing the station to institute full gender equality “will take away the characteristic of the station as a Haredi station because it would not be following what the rabbis instruct.”
He argued that Kol Barama acquired its broadcast license as an openly Haredi station, making it clear that it would follow rabbis’ dictates. Haredi rabbis approved the concessions in April, but they take the view that Halacha does not permit complete equality; indeed full female integration would constitute a demand for the station to break its religious principles, Yashar said. In his view, the principles of “freedom of the press and freedom of expression” should empower a broadcaster using the public airwaves in a multicultural society to program according to its religious convictions.