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Jewish Tours Argentina


Buenos Aires' Radio Jai lone voice for Jews
The Post and Courier

BUENOS AIRES - On any given morning, radio talk show host Danny Saltzman may cover subway strikes, soccer matches or politics in Buenos Aires just as easily as focus on the Israeli elections, the rise of Hamas in Palestine or violence in the Middle East.

Saltzman's show, "Coffee Break," straddles two unlikely worlds, Argentina and Israel, that come together daily at Radio Jai, the only 24-hour Jewish radio station in North and South America.

"There's no such thing as a normal day on 'Coffee Break,' " said Saltzman, who once lived in Israel. "You don't know what in the world is going on."

While many stations in the United States offer programming catering to the more than 5 million American Jews, station officials at Radio Jai boast that none offer uninterrupted programming found on Argentina's airwaves.

Broadcast on FM 96.3 in Buenos Aires and on the Web, Radio Jai mixes sports, news and commentary. The multicultural approach of Radio Jai, which translates as "life," has landed a following with thousands of non-Jewish listeners.

Still, like many niche media outlets, the station faces the daily struggle of shrinking budgets, looming competition from larger media outlets and a younger Jewish population that increasingly is migrating overseas.

"We continue to fight very hard," said Miguel Steuermann, the station's founder and director. "We have faith in the impact of this form of media."

Community roots

Located in the working-class neighborhood of Once, Radio Jai is an integral part of Buenos Aires' Jewish community that numbers nearly 250,000 and is the largest in Latin America.

Once is where many immigrating Jews settled around the start of the 19th century, forming the heart of the city's garment district and opening businesses and building synagogues.

The radio station, run on the shoestring budget of $8,000 a month, occupies the majority of the third floor of a building on Valentín G¢mez that has been home to Jewish businesses for nearly a century, including a soup kitchen run out of the first floor.

With cramped halls lined with posters of musicians and a skeleton staff of about 20 paid employees, the station has the makeshift feel of "Wayne's World," the "Saturday Night Live" skit about two musicians who run a cable access TV program out of a basement.

The feel of the station hides the fact that it plays a vital role in preserving Buenos Aires' Jewish heritage and serves as a gateway to the world of Israel for many here.

Outside of offering music and news program, Radio Jai has published a couple of books about the Jewish heritage in Argentina and current events, compiled CDs of traditional music and sponsored concerts and trips to Europe for listeners searching for their roots.

Moshé Korin, cultural director for Buenos Aires' Jewish community center, known by its Spanish language acronym, AMIA, said the radio station's value to the community is immeasurable.

"It was one of the most important cultural advances in the past 13 years," Korin said. "A lot of people don't read the newspaper but can listen in the car or the house."

Steuermann, who was born in neighboring Chile and later lived in Israel, started the station in response to the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 that killed 29 people.

Two years later, with the fledgling station barely off the ground, the city's Jewish community was rocked again with the bombing of a community center, killing 86 people and wounding hundreds.

The attacks are believed linked to Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah. The attack on the community center later became the focus of Radio Jai's book, "Testimonies from a Week of Horror."

"I started the station as a subconscious response to this kind of terrible violence," Steuermann said. "We saw and felt at the time that it was important to the Jewish community here and for the world to have a strong voice in Jewish media."

That voice attracts about 80,000 listeners, 40 percent of whom are not Jewish. The station gets another 300,000 hits a month on its Web site, including thousands of Spanish-speaking Jews in Florida, Israel and other countries who tune in to the station's webcast.

Radio Jai's format boasts a morning news station that runs from 7 to 10 a.m. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., "Coffee Break" features interviews and news. To end the day, a humor show features games and jokes. Musical programming is spliced between.

To cater to the Argentine audience, the station features soccer on the weekends. On days when River and Boca play, Radio Jai broadcasts live from the stadium.

Over the years, the small station has scored interviews with prominent figures, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and writer and Noble laureate Elie Wiesel. Argentine presidents Carlos Menem, Raul Alfonsin and Nestor Kirchner also have been guests.

Morning anchor Saltzman, who has been with the station since shortly after it started, said it's important to provide diverse news that people won't find elsewhere.

"For me, the most important thing is the bridge we provide for the community," said Saltzman, 42. "In a world with so many voices, it's important to have the Jewish voice."

Culture of survival

Radio Jai's existence has been a struggle. The economic meltdown at the end of 2001 torpedoed much of Argentina's middle class, including many of the city's Jewish merchants who for years contributed to Once's rich ethnic culture.

Many of the city's Jews, particularly younger generations, have migrated to other countries in recent years, searching for better opportunities. Donations to support the station have waned, as have listeners.

The station's office in Cordoba, home to Argentina's second largest Jewish community numbering about 15,000, closed recently. Once, the historic center of the Jewish community, has evolved into a new immigrant neighborhood with many coming in from Southeast Asia.

Marcelo Kisilevski, one of the station's three correspondents in Israel, is adept at working with shrinking resources. He and his on-air partner, Roxana Levinson, produce and edit the Sunday morning show "Here and There" from a studio in Levinson's home near Jerusalem.

"We are working in a First World country with a Third World budget," said Kisilevski, 40, who moved from Buenos Aires to Israel 1992. "We do a lot with a few resources."

For all those involved, particularly Steuermann, Radio Jai is a passion and calling that is worth the struggle.

"It's part of our Jewish heritage. We do what we can with what we have," Steuermann said. "We are survivors. It is a culture of survival."


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