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The Hijacking of Lion FM

September 28, 2010 – 8:56 pm311 Comments

Amid reports of widespread volunteer dissatisfaction, bullying, and a lack of accountability and transparency at Lion FM, Bram Presser, a Lion FM presenter until controversially cut last week, explains that the station urgently needs rescuing from its own executive.

Many of you will by now be familiar with last week’s censorship debacle that saw Adam Krongold and my radio show, 100%, summarily yanked off the air mid-episode. Various explanations have been put forth by those at Lion FM, the most prevalent being that Adam and I refused to sign a contract, which was a prerequisite to being on air. They are right. We didn’t sign because the agreement given to us goes against all good journalistic ethics and borders on the illegal. So why were we censored? The reality is far simpler. We committed the egregious crime of daring to mention that we supported a two state solution as the most rational and humane path to peace in Israel. Within minutes, a phone call was supposedly made, the plug was pulled and Adam and I were personae non grata.

Like many in the Melbourne Jewish community, I was excited when I heard about the establishment of Lion FM. I applauded the efforts of those who got it off the ground. However, from the very beginning it was apparent that the station – supposedly an asset for us all – was being run in a somewhat questionable manner by people with no radio experience and a political agenda to push. Although initially reluctant to get involved, I was eventually swayed when I saw that there was another group who were trying to wrestle the station back from its executive and make it a vibrant, community-focused media enterprise. They wanted people with profile and experience and I was excited to do my part to help build a true community radio station that encourages robust debate on Jewish issues, fosters young talent and promotes a positive image of Jews in our city.

Adam and I, along with producer Eva Migdal, put together a show called 100% which was to be a light-hearted current affairs and entertainment program. Each week we would choose a theme and yack about it for an hour. From the start it went well – we had a good and fast-growing listernership. Feedback was great. Two episodes in, we were told we would have to sign a volunteer’s agreement if we wanted to continue. Being a lawyer in my spare time, I read through the agreement and was truly appalled. Not only did it dictate content, reflecting a singular political agenda, but it gave unfettered right to my private life and information to members of the executive. It was drafted as if everything to do with Lion FM was top secret – as if the executive were running ASIO or the CIA rather than a simple, inclusive community radio station.

I have been involved with many journalistic pursuits in the last fifteen years and have never been forced to sign anything as archaic as this. Indeed, anyone at all au fait with their rights would have refused to sign it. I spoke with the then president of Lion FM, Michael Lipshutz, who assured me that nobody at the station was interested in censoring presenters. After some heated, but I believe constructive debate, he conceded that it was not necessary for a presenter to sign the agreement, but instead we should work together to draft a separate Presenter’s Agreement that would not tread on the integrity of Adam or myself as media persons.

The next time we went to the studio, we were met by another of the executive, Menachem Khoen, who had already garnered quite a reputation for aggression, bordering on bullying, towards those at the station who disagreed with his political position. He informed us that he would be sitting in on our taping session. I said I could not work like that – there was already bad blood between him and me because he didn’t want me on-air if I hadn’t signed the agreement. He said that if I didn’t like the way he ran his station I could get out. So I began to leave. Thankfully, Adam is far more diplomatic than I am, and convinced Menachem to leave and me to return. As we began taping, Menachem barged back into the studio and demanded to know why I wouldn’t sign. He asked if I was anti-Zionist and hated Israel. He said if I wouldn’t sign I’d have to leave. I explained that Michael Lipshutz and I had worked through the issue, that Adam and I had permission to tape and be aired while a new Presenter’s Agreement was being drafted in good faith.

I though that was the end of the problem until our show went to air last Wednesday. The episode was called 100% Peace, in which Adam and I discussed the notion of peace in all its manifestations. The day before had been International Peace Day and so the timing was perfect. Furthermore, the latest rounds of peace talks between Netanyahu and Abbas had just wrapped up. It was only natural that we would discuss the Middle East Peace Process, especially given that we are a Jewish station. Failure to mention it would be ignoring the elephant in the room. We voiced the opinion – hardly a radical one nowadays – that we supported a Palestinian State standing proudly alongside a secure, safe Israel. Although I had been assured by Michael Lipshutz that the executive was not interested in censoring legitimate debate, there is no question what happened next. We were taken off air because the opinion we voiced was deemed contrary to the “pro-Zionist” constitution. I have since been accused of hating Israel and rallying against Lion FM’s constitution.

In an attempt to control the damage caused by the fallout, another of the executive has claimed this was not a case of censorship and that we were only taken off air because we had not signed the Volunteer’s Agreement. The problem with that argument is that, in fact, Adam had signed a new Presenter’s Agreement, drafted by Michael Lipshutz, on our behalf. Granted it was with a cover note saying he was signing under duress and that, in principle, he was against having to sign something of this sort. I was given a reprieve from signing because I am overseas – ironically, in Israel – and was told I could do a similar thing upon my return. Adam’s signature was deemed to be enough for both of us. So, contrary to that executive member’s claim, we had in fact signed. Furthermore, I was told that Menachem wanted us off the air because he thought we were anti-Israel and we had dared to question him on issues surrounding the Volunteer’s Agreement. As the fight intensified, Michael Lipshutz resigned as President because he was concerned with the way the station was being run. I will say what Michael, given his diplomatic manner, will not. Lion FM has been hijacked by the extremist right, which seeks to exclude anyone who might disagree with their anti-peace, pro-Shas agenda. They are using what should be a community asset to silence debate and promulgate histrionic alarmist propaganda that not only is generally repudiated by the wider community, but also gives a wholly unacceptable and unrepresentative image of what the Melbourne Jewish community stands for to the wider community.

I for one am extremely worried about the viability of Lion FM in the long run. The license granted to the station is a community license that, under ACMA Guidelines, requires it to be inclusive of the entire community. That means it must be a forum for all views, no matter if they accord with the views of the executive. It is ironic that I welcome the executive to voice their (admittedly repugnant) ideas as part of a healthy debate on air, yet they would not afford me, with far more mainstream and moderate views, the same courtesy. Guidelines aside, freedom of the press is a basic tenet of a healthy democracy.

Truth be told, Adam and I merely wanted to be left in peace to do a show that has thus far proven successful, popular and fun. With an almost bare program grid, Lion FM needs to be encouraging good radio people to get involved, not scaring them away. It needs to embrace the wealth of talent and, yes, viewpoints in our community and not fear the fostering of healthy, robust debate. Most talented, experienced people I know, not to mention donors, refuse to be a part of Lion’s current trajectory. The current executive is quite literally killing the station.

I still hold out hope that Lion FM will become a great station with a permanent license. It will be a jewel in the crown of our fantastic community, and a crucial means of reaching out to the wider community to show what we have to offer. In a political climate that sees us so often maligned, a professionally run, well-balanced, entertaining and informative local radio station can only be a benefit. Let’s hope that the current Lion FM executive hand the reigns over to those with more experience in the running of a radio station; those who might actually fulfil the requirements of the community license by welcoming all views so long as they do not transgress hate laws or otherwise contravene ACMA and other broadcasting rules. The wings are filled with capable, excellent individuals waiting to heed the call.

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