RAY KESTENBAUM: THE UNIQUE WORLD OF JEWISH NEWSCASTING
BY: GAD NAHSHON
NOTE: Ray Kestenbaum is the country's only full-time Jewish newscaster. He is the producer, editor and newscaster of World Jewish News, which is not only the country's only news broadcast on Jewish affairs in the English language, but it is the only full-time comprehensive Jewish radio news service in North America. It serves Greater New York, New Jersey, Rockland County, West Palm Beach, Daytona, Miami and Montreal.
Ray Kestenbaum is an "institution" in the Jewish media. He is a well known journalist who published many articles in the Jewish Week, Jerusalem Post, Village Voice, Due United Press International and in the J.T.A.
In 1979, Kestenbaum became famous because of his new pioneer project, the '1979 America-Jewish Media Directory' or everything you always wanted to know about Jewish media. In 1989, Kestenbaum published his second updated Media Directory, a new Jewish cultural landmark in North America. It is the key to understanding the life of the American Jewish community and the only key for Jewish marketing.
Published by R.K. Associates (98-15 65th Road, Rego Park), the Directory presents lists of every Jewish publication, lists of electronic media, detailed information on Jewish publications, captures the individual personalities of the Jewish media, and informs the users about circulations, publishers, journalists, as well as about advertising. Certainly, it is the only media mecca of media planners, publicity, directors and market researchers as well.
It is my feeling that Jewish radio is still in a process of crisis when American radio at large is in a process of flourishing. Therefore, it is very important to introduce hereby an essay by Ray Kestenbaum himself on his own experience and credo.
Who here listens to Jewish radio? (What program do you listen to? etc.) I work as the senior newscaster for World Jewish News...which is heard on the top of the hour over WLIR in Rockland County and in the evenings at 6 and 6:50 over the Nachum Siegel Show, WNJR, 1430 AM. at 6 o'clock I air the Jewish news of the day and at 6:50...the Jewish news in depth. The show is heard in most parts of Metro New York and i n Jew Jersey. (World Jewish News is also aired on an assortment of other stations in the U.S. and Canada.)
World Jewish News is owned by Garden State Radio News, which, like Shadow Traffic, is a news provider for radio stations, which, for one reason or another, do not have their own news operations. Garden State Radio News also produced secular news suited for different New Jersey stations. I work in both capacities.
My subject tonight is "The Art of Jewish Newscasting." And I'm going to be brief because I know we all want to socialize.
Being a newscaster is being much more than an announced...and being a newscaster for Jewish news requires an extra measure of effort, knowledge and maybe sensitivity over that of being a "Sta'am" newscaster.
In most small radio stations, news operations amount to little more than "rip and read." The announced rips the wire copy off the wire machine...nowadays he prints out from the Associated Press machine the so-called "news minute". There may be a little editing required but it's basically all prepared and ready to be read. For local news, he may have to do some calling and reporting.
But since there is no Jewish radio news wire, my colleagues and I have to do a lot of reading, checking, calling, writing and editing. Our news sources are the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, or JTA, the AP Newswire, Reuters, a British news service, which, probably has the best stories out of the Middle East. There's also Israel Line, a daily news review of the Israeli media, which is put out by the Israeli government and the consulate here in New York.
Then there are the news releases, faxes and e-mail transmissions that begin to pile up. And, of course, we read the important dailies...American and Israeli. Magazine and periodicals let us know what's happening in the secular and Yeshiva worlds and we get a review of events in the Arab world.
One of the most important sources of news comes from the territories. That's where much of the news is happening. Shomron News Service, Yesha News Service, Arutz Sheva and letters from Hebron are the dispatches. Some of them, especially Shomron are valuable news sources because the government and Israeli dailies don't always cover the detailed events on the other side of the Green Line, where many Americans and religious Zionists live.
But some of it is propaganda and promotion and not at all accurate. Today anybody with a computer, modem and decent program can get a message on the Internet or to newspapers and radio operations such as ours. Understandably, many of the stories have to be checked out or confirmed.
One such service is Arutz Sheva, or Channel Seven, a station operated by anti-peace process activists. Arutz Sheva broadcasts its programs on Israeli radio airwaves from a boat in the Mediterranean anchored in international waters. The newscasts are also put on e- mail and sent around the world.
This is the station that Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni wants to have put out of business. The government would also like to see operations like Yesha News Service and Shomron News Service, the best of the lot, out of business. But as long as they don't broadcast, they're safe. In the other words, if these services are just transmitted for computer reception and are not on radio frequencies...the government can't touch them...at least so far.
The Journalist's Commitment
Some of you may remember me as a producer of the weekly radio news program Jewish Spectrum or From Chidon, the weekly telephone radio quiz show...the original big prize distributor. $500 was the grand prize winning for answering five questions on Tanach and/or on Jewish affairs. That was seven, eight years ago. And it was a nice respite from the grind of news, which nowadays...can be termed the shock of the news...in which I am back.
A good newscaster is a reader and storyteller, yes. But he or she is also a journalist...gathering, writing and editing the day's news events. Once the cast is put on paper, it is read over the air. And the trick in reading is to make it flow, come alive, with the right inflections and pauses...an art in itself. The downside is you get so used to reading material you're stuck to the script...like now.
You know, some say that journalists are historians or interlopers...or just plain busybodies. They want to be "Mekayem" the maxim of the late comedian Jimmy Durante, who was fond of saying "Everybody wants to get into the act." Others say that journalists are people who can't do anything else too well.
The truth is that the good journalist is a good communicator, a skilled artist in the crafts of research, writing and human interest. A reporter has to know how to gather facts, adjudge them and write a story with accuracy, graphic detail and speed under deadline pressure. But always searching for the truth and tempering that truth with a view from the other side.
The committed journalist works to tell the news how it is...not how he's like it to be or how you, the leader or listener, would like it to be. A newscast writer has to have judgment and discernment. We get lots of news releases from political groups, Zionist groups, religious and educational groups, from businesses and from writers who want to save the Jewish people or Jewish soul, each one pushing its agenda.
We have to evaluate their newsworthiness. What is newsworthiness? To ask it simply, what makes Jewish news? Well, that's a difficult question...but I try to follow a principle I learned early on: Jewish news is news that has the greatest impact on the greatest number of Jewish people, or segments thereof, and also have overriding interest to our listeners. The two have to be balanced: impact and interest...and that's the formula.
The other part...and maybe the most difficult...is remaining objective...or as objective as possible. A serious newscast is not advocacy...that's for the organizations... and it's not mainly entertainment...that comes before and after news on radio. Nor should it always dwell on conflict or on the negative, which, I personally find too much of in media in general.
Talking in front of a microphone eleven times in four hours daily, as I do, has its element of glamour and power, I suppose. But somehow neither of them turn me on. Digging for the truth and reporting on it in a balanced way...does. Maybe I'm a little weird.
Another trait of a good radio journalist is confirming critical information. I remember when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Z"tl, was in the hospital in a respirator, we got a call from someone in Monsey wailing that the Rebbe had died.
My colleague was about to announce it on the air but my boss advised him to leave the item out of the newscast until we checked on it. I called Lubavitch headquarters...and it turned out to be a false alarm.
Talking about newsworthiness, I've been sifting through publications and e-mail stories, looking for what prominent Torah scholars say about the law of "Rodef," the Maimonidean Law of the Pursuer, which Yigal Amir has implied is his justification for killing Yitzhak Rabin, A"H. We'll find out what his exact claim is when the trial opens this Tuesday.
I never before had a particular interest in the laws of "Rodef" but now the subject is most newsworthy. Wouldn't you know that last week I discovered that two former Chief Rabbis of Israel...Avraham Shapira, a vocal critic of the peace process, and Rav Mordechai Elihu, former chief Sephardic Rabbi, put out a statement that neither the government of Israel nor its leaders can ever be categorized as "Rodfim" if they act with intention of helping the Jewish people. There has to be malicious intent. Now that's news!
Two weeks ago at the Agudath Israel Convention in New Jersey, Rav Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, told a large audience that Amir was misguided halachically because the law of "Rodef" refers to someone who is pursuing you directly. There's an immediate threat...not a long-term one. And the Novominsker is an important figure on the Council of Torah Sages. So that becomes news. It isn't always neatly fed to us.
The stories we've been running or following in the past week include:
The preparation of the trial of Yigal Amir;
The disposition of those associated with the Rabin murder, including the suspects in custody, the wounded bodyguard and the mysterious Shen Bet officer said to be died;
The Orthodox participation in the Madison Square rally;
The aftermath of the high court decision to recognize conversions in Israel by conservative and reform Rabbis, a story which might have greater impact on Jewish destiny than the peace process;
The disposition of various opposition leaders and settler groups in Israel including Moshe Levinger, Eyal people, the three Zu Artzeinu leaders and various Rabbis. One interesting story on the board now is an interview with Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem B'Yavneh;
Prime Minister Peres' talks with Clinton, King Hassan of Morocco and Secretary of State Christopher;
Possible breakthrough in talks with Syria and the feelings in the Golan Heights;
And the most important story...the dramatic IDF troops withdrawal from Sh-chem, or Nablus.
I want to talk about this for a moment because this story leads to another quality in broadcast journalism...that is perceiving new developments (haroeh-et hanolad). The Israeli army quietly pulled out of Sh'chem in the middle of the night...and there was ne'ery a peep from the opposition.
Can you imagine giving up the city of Abraham and Ya'akov's residency with no demonstration and no public outcry. If you were a reporter what would that suggest to you? The opposition...the Jewish nationalists and religious Zionists...are to preoccupied nursing their guilt? Would it say to you that the radical right wingers...the big-time demonstrators are in jail, under house detention or have backed off? Would it say there's a general mood of conciliation and let-the-government do its thing? Or maybe all three.
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