JTA / March 10, 2005
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On the first floor of a stately old building in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires, nearly 100 mostly elderly Jewish men and women 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 his voice is heard by tens of thousands of people.
Saltzman is host of "Coffee Break," a talk show that airs every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Radio Jai, Latin America's only Jewish radio station.
On this particular day, Saltzman and co-hosts Alejandra Polack and Jaime Mizraji are discussing politics with Ricardo Alfonsín. He's the son of former Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín, who is widely respected in the Jewish community for bringing back democracy to Argentina after many years of military dictatorship.
"Among the Jewish community, our influence is very strong, but about 30% 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 Córboda, Radio Jai has around 200,000 listeners, says Miguel Steuermann, the station's founder and general manager. Since October 1999, Radio Jai has maintained a website at www.radiojai.com.ar, which now registers at least 300,000 hits a month.
"You can listen to us live on the Internet," says Steuermann. "These days, you can hear us better online overseas than on the radio here in Buenos Aires."
Radio Jai (the Spanish way of spelling "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 are involved with the radio station in one form or another, including 15 paid staffers.
What makes Radio Jai unique is that there's nothing like it anywhere else in Latin America — or even the United States.
"In the U.S., classic Jewish radio programs air a few hours a week in New York, New Jersey, Miami and a few other places," says Steuermann. "But the only full-time, 24-hour Jewish radio stations in the world are here and in France."
Steuermann, 39, was born and raised in Chile. He studied at Israel's Bar-Ilan University as well as the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. In addition, he worked for two years at the Israeli Embassy in Santiago, followed by a two-year stint at the Israeli Embassy in Asunción, Paraguay.
He says he was inspired to launch Radio Jai in 1992, following the terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people and injured over 100.
"After that attack, I felt that it was very important to have a strong Jewish voice in this part of the world," explained 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. 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 Radio Jai is so popular among the Argentine Jewish community is that it offers news directly from Israel in Spanish. Three times each day, it broadcasts transmissions from the Voice of Israel radio station.
Through its programs, Radio Jai has taken issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish poverty in Argentina to intermarriage and homosexuality. Another recurring theme is the investigation into the 1994 bombing of AMIA's Buenos Aires headquarters, and the coverups associated with that investigation.
Radio Jai's on-air guests have included former Argentine President Carlos Menem; world-renown writer Elie Weisel and Omar Abboud, secretary of the Argentine Islamic Center. In 1999, Shimon Peres visited Radio Jai's studios for a lengthy interview.
"Manuel Tenembaun, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said Radio Jai is the most important force to unite Latin America's Jewish community since the work of [Rabbi] Marshall Mayer 30 years ago," Steuermann told JTA. "He says that all the time."
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 also 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-bay 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, says 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 $1.00) per second of airtime; local advertisers include banks, cosmetics companies and most recently, the Jewish Agency or Sochnut."
"The Sochnut buys a few thousand dollars a month of airtime," said Steuermann. "Without them, we'd be much worse off."