By Jaime Uranovsky
At Limmud Cape Town 2019, Mishy Harman, a Jerusalemite who is also an alumnus of Harvard, Cambridge and the Hebrew University, shared some of the stories that have come out of his seven years abroad.
One of those stories is about the creation of another story: Israel Story, Israel’s most popular podcast, with hundreds of thousands of listeners in 192 countries.
Before moving back to Israel after seven years, Mishy decided to mark the end of his journey abroad by completing another journey: a road-trip across America, spanning 33 states and 20 000km.
Together with his dog, Naomi, Mishy drove from Massachusetts to San Francisco. It was while spending hours at a time in the car that Mishy began listening to a podcast recommended by his best friend, titled This American Life.
The latter podcast in essence popularised the podcast and, a good eight years ago when Mishy was listening to it, few people around the world, including Mishy, had heard of the term. Today, there are over
700 000 active podcasts in the US alone.
This American Life tells the stories of thousands of ordinary people living in America.
Mishy recounts, “Though I was sitting in my car and these stories and these voices were coming out of my earbuds into my ears, I was being transported magically to all these lives of all these other Americans who I would never meet and would never encounter… it was dizzying and invigorating and so exciting and I thought, I really need to do something similar to this in Israel.”
On returning to Jerusalem, Mishy teamed up with three childhood friends and contacted This American Life. Subsequently, the group travelled to New York to observe how the podcast was made and then returned to Israel ready to create their own version titled Israel Story.
Mishy notes, “Israel is a particularly fragmented society. Jerusalem has about 900 000 people; about a third are Arabs, a third are Haredim. I grew up not having a single Arab or Haredi friend and I wasn’t unique in that — we surround ourselves with people who are very similar to us. This was something that was pretty prevalent around Israel but the truth of the matter is that this isn’t unique to Israel at all.”
The team hoped that a podcast would “tell human interest stories of the rich human tapestry of Israel” by showcasing how rarely people conform to the stereotypes placed upon them.
“We thought that we might allow people to suspend their judgement just a little bit longer and actually listen to the words and the voices and the stories of people who they otherwise wouldn’t interact with in their normal lives. Maybe if we could get someone to listen to a story and for the first 30 seconds or three minutes they can’t totally place the person who’s telling the story in terms of the demographic map of Israel, maybe they can exercise something which we don’t get that many opportunities to exercise in Israel, our muscle of empathy.”
It took the team almost a year to record the first episode and they initially had 11 listeners (comprising each of their immediate families). At this stage, Israel had never had a podcast and it was unlikely that anyone knew what one was; Israel Story was very much a hobby.
Mishy explains, “We said that if we continue with this for many, many years maybe something would happen years down the line and a local radio station would pick up our show and air it in the middle of the night. We all had other jobs. This was something we did between 10pm and 4am.”
This changed when Mishy fortuitously spotted the head of Israel’s army radio station at an event.
Since Israel has only two national radio stations (one owned by the army and the other by the state), Mishy realised the enormity of the opportunity before him. Suffice to say that during Channukah of that year, four episodes were played by this very radio station and Israel Story became an immediate success.
“Thousands and thousands of people started writing in to the radio station and to us saying, ‘This is the first time that I listened to a story of a Haredi woman from Tzvat or a Bedouin girl from Hura or an Eritrean refugee in south Tel Aviv or a Russian immigrant from Ashdod.’ This was a huge validation of what we were trying to do.”
Today, Israel Story is Israel’s biggest podcast, currently in its fourth season in both English and Hebrew.
To Mishy, the podcast has allowed him to “step outside of my own limited and restricted bubble in Jerusalem and to go out and get to know my own country which is a gift that I feel most Israelis don’t even get to have. I’ve come to think of my microphone as a magical wand because it gets me access into strangers’ living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens and, suddenly, I can talk to Haredim and Ethiopians and Palestinians; it’s a real gift.”
To download a PDF of the Chronicle for October, click here
To read the editor’s column this month, titled ‘Why we need more difficult females’ click here
To read the most read story online in September, click here