Bunton on Andrea Stanton, 'This Is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine'

Author: 
Andrea Stanton
Reviewer: 
Martin Bunton

Andrea Stanton. This Is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 270 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-292-74749-4.

Reviewed by Martin Bunton (University of Victoria) Published on H-Levant (May, 2015) Commissioned by Laila Parsons

Of the many arresting scenes gathered together in Sarah Graham Brown’s 1980 photographic essay, Palestinians and their Society 1880-1946 (1981), one of the most dramatic is a night shot of villagers crowding a car radio, attentively listening to the broadcasts of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS). Launched in March 1936, the PBS enjoyed little more than a decade as a state institution before its programming was overtaken by events on the ground. In this short period of time, the PBS established for itself an important role in the political and social life of mandate Palestine. But its impact has been little addressed in the extant scholarship.

Andrea L. Stanton’s This is Jerusalem Calling does a fine job of uncovering this neglected decade of Palestine’s radio history. Government records indicate that by 1947 approximately 10 percent of the population held radio set licenses. While acknowledging the difficulty in gauging precisely the overall reception of the service, Stanton argues that these licenses represent only a fraction of the number of listeners in a home or at a public venue like a café or, presumably, a parked car. (Aside from mention of a ban implemented in 1940, car radios do not feature in her study). Indeed, her numbers suggest that, as a source of news and entertainment, the PBS reached a far larger audience than the combined circulations of all newspapers.

Although a disproportionately high number of license holders were Jewish, Stanton’s history focuses on the Palestinian Arab community. This is due in part to the fact that the origins of the PBS can be traced directly to Britain’s increasing concern in the 1930s with the destabilising and proletarianizing effect of Arab urban migration. The original intention was to design friendly rural broadcasts, on subjects such as modern farming practices, that would anchor the peasantry to the land, while simultaneously countering the subversive propaganda being issued by German/Italian radio. Accordingly, the Palestine government, otherwise infamous for its parsimoniousness, invested significant funds in the distribution of subsidized village radios, all pre-tuned so that they broadcast only the PBS. This government scheme may have reached only a limited proportion of the population, but private radio set sellers quickly learned that the rural market was as savvy as the urban market, and set about engaging all Palestinians as sophisticated consumers. 

This discrepancy between the government’s view of the Palestinian Arab audience as a potentially dangerous force in need of pacification and the private market’s engagement with them as modern, sophisticated consumers points to the tension inherent to radio’s transformative impact. As with the introduction of any new social media, radio can be studied on multiple levels: technology and infrastructure; dominant personalities; commodity culture; audience reception; and associated political institutions. Stanton’s study of the broad impact of the PBS is at its best when framing the narrative in a comparative perspective. Describing the mid-1930s as a “golden era for state-run radio,” she highlights useful (though necessarily imperfect) parallels with a much broader set of global developments (p. 6).

Drawing on the wider literature, Stanton for example effectively connects radio as a broadcasting medium to actual physical objects that attracted consumer interest and instituted new, mostly urban and middle-class, social behaviors. Her analysis of Palestinian newspaper advertisements (especially those placed by T. S Boutagy & Sons, a family-owned trading goods store based in Haifa) explores the ways in which the acquisition of a radio set communicated “modern” and “cosmopolitan” to friends or neighbors. She further explores the role of programming (especially when content was placed under the responsibility of ‘Ajaj Nuwayid, a well-known intellectual and journalist) in transforming domestic spaces as a means of actualizing particular visions of a nationalist Palestinian modernity. In this regard, Stanton references the work of Partha Chatterjee to explain how broadcasts--on, say, how to rationally manage a household--could serve as “’proof of society’s advancement against colonial state claims to the contrary” (p. 148).

Stanton’s conclusion focuses on Arab-Jewish contestations over whose “national” radio station the PBS was, effectively turning the station into a synecdoche for the country itself. Like the mandate state, the PBS’s origins as a colonial institution did not prevent the Arab and Zionist communities from eventually demanding sole recognition of their “natural” claims to it. Furthermore, these contested claims ended up in the physical carving-up of the institution while, watching from the sidelines, the British staff exercised “confused and only partial control” (p. 173). In addition to helping fill a large gap in the literature on radio in the Middle East, Stanton makes a significant contribution to the history of colonial rule in Palestine during this crucial decade.

 

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Citation: Martin Bunton. Review of Andrea Stanton, This Is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. May, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44161

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