ABOARD THE PEACE SHIP — The Voice of Peace, a floating pirate radio station that once crisscrossed Middle Eastern war fronts to spread its message, has forsaken politics for pop music and cigarette commercials.
The word peace is rarely mentioned, except in the station identification, in which a booming voice tells millions of listeners from Alexandria to Damascus in English, Hebrew, French and Arabic: "From somewhere in the Mediterranean, we are the Voice of Peace."
The station's founder, flamboyant Israeli Abie Nathan, said in a recent interview that the peace issue has been on the back burner since the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty.
"Times have changed. Tension is less in the region today than when we first arrived in May, 1973," said Nathan, 60, who flew fighter planes and made millions selling hamburgers on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street before taking up the peace crusade in the 1960s.
'Still on Standby'
"But the ship is still on standby for any emergency in the area to get involved to bring people together," Nathan said.
In its heyday, the Peace Ship made headlines with spectacular acts, such as dodging bullets to broadcast peace messages from Beirut during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and, two years later, delivering 100,000 flowers to the people of Egypt in a gesture to encourage peacemaking.
But the traveling days are over. The 48-year-old former cargo vessel with two baby-blue doves painted on the bridge is anchored off Tel Aviv.
The 500-ton ship is pointed out to sightseers, and its British disc jockeys are regular customers at the White House tavern, frequented by a young crowd.
2 Shipboard Studios
The station broadcasts around the clock from two small shipboard studios, playing mostly pop music, but also standards, country music and songs in Russian and Arabic, said program coordinator Mike Darby, 31, of Birmingham, England.
Under a recent format change, only songs that have been in the Top 40 get on the air during the 18 hours set aside for pop music. "We used to play peace songs all the time, but people got fed up," Nathan said.
Up to 15 commercials an hour for anything from cigarettes to jeans provide money to cover the station's monthly expenses of about $30,000.
Nathan said that extra money goes to charitable projects, such as taking elderly people to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, during the Jewish High Holy Days.
Disc jockeys still occasionally run the "water jingle," a spot urging listeners to drink more water. Nathan originally had produced the jingle in 1978 while on a 45-day water-only fast to protest Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
When the ditty first came out, a beer company threatened to cut off advertising if Nathan didn't stop playing it. In response, Nathan told his DJs to play the jingle around the clock. "We angered all the drink manufacturers," he said. "They all boycotted us."
In deference to its original mission, the station observes a daily moment of silence for the war dead everywhere.
Nathan, who in the past raised money for Cambodian refugees and distributed relief supplies to Central American earthquake victims, said he plans to broadcast a South African song every hour as part of a new campaign for the release of imprisoned black guerrilla leader Nelson Mandela.
"But the reality is that there is not so much to do with peace on the Peace Ship," said disc jockey Tim Shepherd, 24, of Birmingham. "It's more of a music station."
He is one of seven disc jockeys. Most said they didn't come for idealistic reasons but to gain work experience and land a radio job on return to England. "It's the only opening in radio," said Steve Richards, 24, of Cambridge, England.