MONTREAL — Since its debut in 1999 on subcarrier radio, a secondary signal from the main transmission, and its May 2007 launch at 1650 kHz on the AM dial, Radio Shalom has persevered as a 24-hour, volunteer-run Jewish radio station despite persistent predictions of its imminent demise.
The rumours have only made the non-profit station more determined than ever to remain viable, says president Charles Barchechath, and to prove all those pessimistic prognosticators wrong.
The station recently launched an all-out effort to attract more non-francophone listeners and more advertisers in general.
“We don’t understand it,” said Barchechath, a retired businessman who succeeded founding president Robert Lévy at the helm. “People have perceived us as the “Sephardic” radio station, but this is absolutely not the case.
“We are the only Jewish radio station in Canada and the only bilingual station commissioned by the CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission], and we alternate two hours of French with two hours of English, 24 hours a day.
“We are the voice of the Canadian Jewish community, and the source of Jewish and Israeli news for many, many people.”
The station – whose call letters are CJRS (Canadian Jewish Radio Station) – is making use of Barchechath’s experience and expertise as a businessman to develop Radio Shalom’s potential and “position it” more fully for the Jewish market, to create momentum, he said in an interview where he was joined by Lévy.
A freshly minted board of directors led by Barchechath includes prominent representative figures, including Ralph Bénatar, Sylvain Abitbol, Neil Bernstein, David Bensoussan, Henri Abitan, Dolly Mergui, Patricia Rimok and Lévy.
Barchechath said there’s every reason to be optimistic about being able to attract more English-language listeners and about the station’s overall future, despite a deficit of $10,000 each year, modest advertising revenue and the need to rely on donors in trying to meet a $500,000 annual operating budget.
But Barchechath and Lévy are convinced that the potential is there. Last year, Radio Shalom was the only source of advertising in the city for a Passover matzah being sold at Walmart, “and it completely sold out,” Barchechath said.
And last May, the station held a sold-out fundraiser at the Olympia Theatre featuring comedian Sugar Sammy.
According to a recent survey, more than 100,000 listeners tune in to Radio Shalom each week. Thirty-six per cent are English-speaking, and more than 60 per cent are between the ages of 36 and 64. Close to 80 per cent are university graduates and have incomes of more than $50,000.
At a humble 1,000 watts, the station is picked up as far as the American border and the Laurentians, but there is no limit on the Internet. Since 2010, there have been 4.5 million visits recorded to www.radio-shalom.ca, 144,000 each month.
“We are heard everywhere,” Barchechath said, brandishing letters the station has received from countries including Italy, Denmark, France and Austria.
English-language programming at the station has remained reliable under veteran hosts such as Stanley Asher, Howard Silbiger, Julien Bauer and Stephen Scheinberg, covering everything from current affairs and news analysis to travel and music. But more recent programs that have also been catching on include the popular Money and Business with Sam Ezerzer, the Jewish Comedy Hour with Beta Wayne, Wellness with Dr. Sima Goel and Designs With Sherry.
In addition to the equal time given for programming in French, Radio Shalom broadcasts several hours each week in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Ladino, and contains religious, Jewish and liturgical musical content, ranging from Sid Dworkin’s Cantor’s Corner to klezmer to the Rocking Rabbi Show. A source for much of the news is Kol Yisrael radio in Israel.
From the onset to the completion of Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, Radio Shalom hands over its broadcast antenna to a non-Jewish gospel music station.
The station itself, tucked away in a nondescript building on an industrial road in Town of Mount-Royal, has only two salaried employees, but four well-equipped broadcast booths from which the dedicated volunteer hosts do their stuff.
“We operate with no money – and with the help of God,” Barchechath said with a laugh.