Had he been born two or three decades later, Miki Gurdus would probably have been just another middle-aged man glued to his smartphone, scrolling through endless torrents of social-media ephemera. But Gurdus, who passed away in Israel this week at the age of 73, was born with a radio. And early on, he knew the device would change his life.
His first transistor was a small plastic gizmo, so poorly made that it would frequently electrocute the young Gurdus as he tried to listen to short-wave transmissions from around the world. But the boy didn’t care: Growing up in the Israel of the 1950s, and feeling perpetually under siege in a small nation surrounded by enemies, Gudrus looked to his radio for the promise of a larger world outside. He listened to it nonstop, until it overheated one day and went up in flames.
Most boys move on from their youthful obsessions, but Gurdus never did. And as soon as he completed his army service, he applied for a job with the Israel Broadcast Authority. His expertise, he said, was listening to news from everywhere. He was hired, and his boss, amused, labeled him kashavenu, Hebrew for “our listener.”
And listen Gurdus did. Commanding six languages—Hebrew, English, Arabic, French, Russian, and Polish—as well as numerous shortwave radios and as many as 11 television sets, he tuned in not only to broadcasts from far and wide but, often, to private conversations, military wire exchanges, and other dispatches not meant for public consumption. In late June of 1976, for example, he interrupted a radio broadcast to announce that he had just picked up a conversation between Palestinian terrorists and an air traffic controller in Libya announcing that they had just hijacked an Air France flight and intended to land it in Benghazi en route to Entebbe, Uganda. It wouldn’t be his last scoop: In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Israeli military intelligence got the news from Gurdus, who had intercepted the transmissions of the Iraqi army.
While most of his efforts went toward breaking news, Gurdus often proved instrumental in helping to save the lives of Israeli citizens and foreign dignitaries alike. After the Yom Kippur War, for example, Egyptian TV started broadcasting images of Israeli fighter pilots shot down and held as prisoners. Gurdus took note and alerted the army, which, in turn, sent photographers to take snapshots of Gurdus’s screens and learn which of the men missing in action were still alive. A year later, in 1974, Gurdus intercepted a mayday call from Cyprus’ president, Makarios III, believed to be dead after an assassination attempt that launched a coup d’etat.
“He was calling for help,” Gurdus recalled in a later interview. “I heard him.” Gurdus reported the news to IDF intelligence, which in turn alerted Britain, helping to save Makarios’s life.
With each passing decade, Gurdus’ fame grew. A reporter interviewing him in 2003 described his office as “half Aladdin’s cave and half control tower, a labyrinth of television screens, radios, remote controls, electric wires, speakers, model airplanes and photos of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush stuck on the walls.” And in the center of it all was Gurdus, tartan slippers on his feet and dark shades covering his eye, to protect his vision from the glare of a dozen screens. Even as Israel’s media landscape flourished and more and more commercial radio and television channels debuted, giving rise to new generations of reporters, anchors, and celebrities, Gurdus remained a national treasure, a name you knew even if you weren’t sure exactly what “our listener” did.
And then came the internet.
Gurdus, in his typical tough manner, minimized it, calling it just another arrow in his quiver. “The internet is just another tool for me,” he said in a recent interview, “and not a major one at that because you can’t compete with what’s broadcast on all these satellites. Besides, neither the internet nor anything else can make me stop working, or make me irrelevant. I’ll continue to report the news, to listen, and to try and deliver scoops. I’ll be there for as long as I’m breathing.”
Work on he did, but technology proved to be a more formidable foe than he had imagined. Our listener wasn’t quite as essential now that anyone anywhere could listen in on anything at any time. His expertise, his erudition, his skills as a reporter were no longer valued in a world where all is sound and fury. He remained revered, but no one skipped a beat at the mention of his name anymore, anticipating some bit of breaking news unobtainable elsewhere. He became just another voice in the shouty chorus.
Earlier this week, Gurdus passed away in his home in Yehud. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin both eulogized him, the latter calling him “our mythological listener, the man who brought into our nation faraway voices even before the internet.” His loss is substantial, and not just for Israelis. We may have an endless stream of information permanently at our disposal, but what we so sorely lack is what Gurdus had elevated into an art: the ability to sit by the radio or the television set or the computer, patiently and diligently, and just listen.
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