BUENOS AIRES (Mar. 9)
On the first floor of a stately old building in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires, nearly 100 Jewish men and women, most of them elderly, enjoy a free kosher lunch, while a bearded Orthodox rabbi with a microphone lectures them on the weekly Torah portion. On the third floor of the same building, Daniel Saltzman also speaks into a microphone — but tens of thousands of people hear his voice.
Saltzman is host of “Coffee Break,” a talk show that airs every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Radio Jai, Argentina’s Jewish radio station.
On this day, Saltzman and co-hosts Alejandra Polack and Jaime Mizraji are discussing politics with Ricardo Alfonsin. He’s the son of former Argentine President Raul Alfonsin, who is widely respected in the Jewish community for bringing democracy back to Argentina after many years of military dictatorship.
“Among the Jewish community, our influence is very strong, but about 30 percent of our listeners are non-Jewish,” Saltzman told JTA during a commercial break. “Many of them are evangelicals — and others just like the music.”
Broadcasting on 96.3 FM in Buenos Aires and 107.5 FM in the interior city of Corboda, Radio Jai has around 200,000 listeners, said Miguel Steuermann, the station’s founder and general manager. Since October 1999, Radio Jai has maintained a Web site at www.radiojai.com.ar. It now registers at least 300,000 hits a month.
“You can listen to us live on the Internet,” said Steuermann. “These days, you can hear us better online overseas than on the radio here in Buenos Aires.”
Radio Jai — the Spanish spelling of the Hebrew word “chai,” or life — boasts a library of more than 1,000 CDs of Jewish music in Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, English, French and Ladino. Its studio is small but sophisticated, and more than 100 people, including 15 paid staffers, are involved with the radio station in one form or another.
Steuermann, 39, was born and raised in Chile. He studied at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. He worked for two years at the Israeli Embassy in Santiago and for another two years at the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay.
He said he was inspired to launch Radio Jai in 1992, in response to the terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people and injured more than 100.
“After that attack, I felt that it was very important to have a strong Jewish voice in this part of the world,” said Steuermann, who learned Yiddish at a Jesuit university in Chile and also speaks English, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese and German.
“Originally, my dream was to create a virtual community of Spanish-speaking Jews, an international satellite signal for the rest of the continent,” he continued. “Today, that dream has been realized thanks to the Internet.
“Argentine Jews who made aliyah years ago continue listening to Radio Jai in Israel every day online. They’re always sending messages to us. We even get e-mails from Jews in Ecuador and Bolivia.”
One reason for Radio Jai’s popularity among Argentine Jews is that it offers news in Spanish straight from Israel. Three times each day, it broadcasts transmissions from the Voice of Israel radio station.
Radio Jai has broadcast programs on issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish poverty in Argentina to intermarriage and homosexuality. The investigation into the 1994 bombing of AMIA’s Buenos Aires headquarters and the cover-ups associated with that investigation are recurrent topics.
Radio Jai’s on-air guests have included former Argentine President Carlos Menem; Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Weisel and Omar Abboud, secretary of the Argentine Islamic Center. In 1999, Israeli politician Shimon Peres visited Radio Jai’s studios for a lengthy interview.
Yet that popularity hasn’t always translated into financial support.
Three years ago, Radio Jai was in serious danger of going under. Saddled with a $70,000 debt and monthly expenses of $22,000, the station couldn’t pay its employees for months at a time and faced imminent bankruptcy. It had to shut down a transmitter in Rosario, Argentina’s second-largest city, because of financial problems there.
But the situation has improved since then, thanks mainly to Argentina’s economic recovery, which has allowed companies to spend more money on advertising — Radio Jai’s sole source of income.
“Today, we’re relatively stable, with a very meager budget of around $8,000,” Steuermann said. “That’s OK on a day-to-day basis, but with such a small budget, it’s impossible to update our equipment. For example, we now broadcast on 10,000 watts. If we want to buy a new 25,000-watt transmitter, we’re talking about $150,000 or more. And if we want a mobile transmitter, that’s another $25,000 or $30,000.”
For that reason, said Steuermann, the radio station is launching a series of fund-raising campaigns in Argentina and abroad. Not long ago, Radio Jai received a $1,000 check from an individual American Jewish donor. Steuermann is hoping for more such surprises in the mail.
Meanwhile, the radio station must depend on the Argentine business community to stay afloat. Radio Jai charges two and a half Argentine pesos — just under $1 — per second of air time. Local advertisers include banks, cosmetics companies, and most recently the Jewish Agency for Israel, or Sochnut.
“The Sochnut buys a few thousand dollars a month of air time,” said Steuermann. “Without them, we’d be much worse off.”