On the air with Topol and Golda

By Michael Freedland, June 6, 2012
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The old expression has it that it's a hard life being a Jew. That being so, try running a Jewish radio programme. Manchester's Jews are discovering this with the threatened closure of their 20-year-old show: Jewish Hour.

My BBC show, in London, called (at first tongue in cheek, but later without apology) You Don't have To Be Jewish, ran for 24 years and was constantly in trouble. If 24 years was considered survival, then the fact that it became the longest-running regional programme in the country, at one time with 100,000 listeners, perhaps goes to prove one thing - don't give up. In fact, there's an argument to say that, if Dame Shirley Porter hadn't got up a few people's noses, we might now be marking our 41st anniversary.

That we are not celebrating this could be put down to the vagaries of commercial radio. After 20 years on what was then Radio London, it was privatised - taken over by LBC, a station bought by Dame Shirley. After a year, she lost the newly purchased licence and all the programmes that were in her manifesto were axed - YDHTBJ included.

Radio London was as new as we were when the show went on the air with a 20-minute slot once a fortnight. It eventually became two hour-long programmes every week, with a worldwide net of some of the best broadcasters. And that, I think, was the secret - or rather one of the secrets. (Oh yes, during the first Lebanon war, our Israel correspondent was one Chaim Herzog, soon to be president of the state.)

Our Israel reporter was one Chaim Herzog

All were paid, but not much, for their appearances, thanks to another secret: we didn't get a penny from the BBC or LBC, let alone the princely £70 that goes to Jewish Hour. We had to get people on our side, first the Board of Deputies, then the marvellous Clive Marks, who ran the Lord Ashdown Trust, and finally, at LBC, a commercial sponsor. Every week, there was a crisis, but the money came. Admittedly, there was no recession then but I like to think it was because I presumptuously tried to run it as if it were The World At One or the Today programme, with our share of scoops, like the rescue of the Entebbe hostages, which we broke as survivors landed at Ben Gurion airport.

I only partly apologise for this apparent lack of modesty, because we tried to live up to our title. One of my cherished memories was the Catholic priest who wrote pleading for the resurrection of our Monday repeat. "As you know," he wrote , "I have other things to do on a Sunday morning."

I reasoned that Jews weren't interested in parochial stuff. Ilford Jews might have cared about their local shul, but those in Hendon didn't. Yet there were things that concerned Jews wherever they lived - which is why we covered Israel constantly and why, when we were the first programme to go to what was then Leningrad to meet refuseniks in Russia, Radio 4 repeated the edition.

Every Israeli Prime Minister since Golda Meir (who once took 10 minutes to explain why she couldn't give me five minutes for the interview I later did), and every British premier from Harold Wilson, was a guest.

Likewise, virtually every entertainer you could imagine, always talking about Jewish subjects without necessarily being Jewish themselves. Morecambe and Wise came on and so, inevitably, did Topol.

But a word of warning to other would-be broadcasters: be wary of communal machers. They want pounds of kosher flesh. When YDHTBJ was on air, they queued up to appear, made phone calls inquiring about my family. From the time we closed down, I haven't heard a word from any of them. Perhaps you do have to be Jewish to understand that.

Michael Freedland is a writer and broadcaster

    Last updated: 4:07pm, June 6 2012