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‘Israel Story’ Wants to Record Series in English

Israeli take on ‘This American Life’ launches Indiegogo funding campaign

Elissa Goldstein
December 19, 2013
The team behind 'Israel Story'(Indiegogo)
The team behind 'Israel Story'(Indiegogo)

A security guard in a small parking lot in Tel Aviv who writes short stories.

An Orthodox woman from Alaska raising five children with Down’s syndrome in Tzfat.

Twenty-four hours at an all-night pancake restaurant on Israel’s route 2.

If these people and places sound like the stuff of great radio journalism—like characters out of, say, an Israeli version of This American Life—that’s because they are. The first season of Israel Story (“Sipur Yisraeli”) debuted online in 2012 and on Israeli Army radio in 2013, broadcasting exceptional stories of ordinary Israelis to Hebrew speakers the world over.

Now the creators of the program—childhood friends Mishy Harman, Ro’ee Gilron, Yochai Maital, and Shai Satran—want to bring the show to a wider audience by producing a mini-season of English episodes. They even have the endorsement of the high priest of longform radio journalism himself, Ira Glass, who magnanimously declared: “I’m going to donate to the show, even though they are shamelessly ripping us off.”

The seed for Israel Story was planted during a cross-country road trip Harman took a couple of years ago, after graduating from Harvard. Gilron—who, like Harman, had moved to the U.S. for college following army service—downloaded a bunch of TAL episodes for his friend, and “somewhere around Mississippi,” says Harman, “it became apparent to me that this was going to be my next big project: an Israeli ‘This American Life.’”

Upon returning to Israel, Harman and Gilron teamed up with Maital and Satran to form the official production team, enlisting the help of veteran TAL producer Nancy Updike, who is currently based in Israel (Glass hooked them up). It was a steep learning curve, says Harman, because they knew absolutely nothing about podcasting. “It’s a complete, ongoing learning process. We’re very cognizant of the fact that we can’t just import ‘This American Life’ to Israel.”

Most Israeli listeners have never encountered longform radio narratives (Harman says podcasting and podcasters are relatively new to Israel—“we all fit into one little room”) but they have embraced Israel Story enthusiastically. “We were overwhelmed by the response. We’ve had many people tell us, ‘I turned on the radio by chance and was so intrigued and engulfed by the story that I stayed in my car for 45 minutes to keep listening.’”

They began hosting live Moth-style storytelling events around the country, and before long, Israel Story had a dedicated cult following, as all good podcasts do. Harman estimates that each episode has approximately 150,000 listeners, from wide cross-section of Israeli society: “A lot of our fans are in their forties, fifties, sixties. Many come from religious backgrounds. So we’re pleasantly surprised—we thought it might be show for young, secular people like us, but it has a much broader appeal.”

Right now, the Indiegogo campaign for an English mini-season is full swing, so we can hopefully look forward to some translated episodes around spring 2014. “What we try to do is tell the story of a different Israel,” says Satran. “Not Bibi or Lapid, the Iranian bomb or the BDS movement. Instead we bring human interest stories of regular Israelis that rarely make it into the mainstream media.”

With 33 days remaining, 50 percent of the funds have been raised. If you want to snag an audio shout-out, tembel hat or unpublished Etgar Keret manuscript (swoon!), here’s your chance.

Elissa Goldstein is Tablet’s director of audience development. She also produces Unorthodox. Follow her on Twitter here.

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