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Brooklyn Yiddish Radio, 1925-1946
An essay by Henry Sapoznik, from The Jews of Brooklyn

You could hear it in the kitchens of Brownsville, the restaurants of Flatbush, and the sweatshops of East New York. It was Yiddish radio, which provided, from its inception in the mid-1920s, some of the most dynamic and homespun programs in broadcasting history. Although Yiddish radio met the needs of millions of listeners, the tumultuous competition for frequencies in an overpacked broadcasting area would, by the mid-1940s, spell the end of this once vibrant medium.

Radio Comes to Brooklyn

Late in 1925, the Flatbush Radio Labs in downtown Brooklyn applied for a license to augment their production of radios with the production of actual radio programs. The station, WFRL, named for their parent company, changed its call letters to WLTH to reflect its new broadcast home, the swanky Leverich Towers Hotel at Clark and Willow Streets in Brooklyn Heights. Soon after, WBBC (the Brooklyn Broadcasting Company) emerged, as did a host of other Brooklyn-based radio stations. The land rush for Brooklyn radio was on.

Unfortunately, there were just not enough frequencies to house them all. Forced to share inadequate and weak frequencies, the fledgling radio stations were hobbled with clumsy and unenforceable time-share agreements. Newly expanding broadcasters began hopping frequencies—grabbing willy-nilly the best dial transmissions available. The result was a chaotic crush of programs ramming into one another, much like Coney Island bumper cars.

This traffic congestion on the dial forced the U.S. government in 1928 to enact a time-share arrangement among contentious Brooklyn stations. Rival stations were crowded together onto 1400 kilocycles, one of the least desirable dial positions. Indeed, the government's mandated schedule seemed designed to give station owners ulcers and their listeners whiplash. For example, on Sundays, WBBC aired from 9:00 to 10:30 A.M., returned from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M., and made a final appearance from 9:00 to 10:00 P.M. During the week, WBBC got morning hours on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 9:00 until 11:30. Its weekday P.M. arrangement was a crazy quilt of late afternoon and early evening hours alternating every other day with early afternoons and late evenings.

Other stations fared no better. And if this weren't enough, as Brooklyn stations battled tooth and nail over pip-squeak allocations of well under 500 watts, WABC, the jewel in the crown of the new Manhattan-based CBS network, was saturating the airwaves with broadcasts of 50,000 watts.

The Rise of Yiddish Radio

Despite (or because of) such problems, programming for the little Brooklyn stations was always a catch-as-catch-can affair. In the halcyon days of radio, when the shows were neighborhood productions—everything from kids hefting unwieldy accordions to showerstall sopranos—stations aired it all. But as competitive markets for listeners developed, Brooklyn stations bean to "narrowcast" and consolidate their local listener base. Most often targeted were Brooklyn's ethnic communities—Greeks, Italians, Irish, and Germans. The increasing population of Jews, however, provided an especially desirable audience. By the early 1930s, many low-power Kings County stations offered a variety of Yiddish programs to appeal to this group of listeners.

WLTH led the way. President and general manager Sam Gellard realized that to attract listeners living in Brooklyn, he'd have to air the best Yiddish talent. Gellard scoured the Yiddish theaters for performers and personalities who fit the bill. He snagged the young theater composer/pianist Sholom Secunda to host a children's talent show called Feter Sholom un zayn Klaynvarg (Uncle Sholom and His Little Guys). This popular show featured children singing, declaiming, strumming mandolins, and generally making their parents proud.

When the Jewish daily Forverts, a leftist newspaper based in the Lower East Side, assumed control of the faltering socialist station WEVD in 1932, they stole Secunda from WLTH. Shortly after, WEVD also lured the great Yiddish linguist/dramatist Nahum Stutchkoff away from WLTH. Stutchkoff was replaced by a little-noticed WLTH staffer, the eccentric and unique Victor Packer (1900-1958). Born in Bialystok, Packer early forged a taste for Yiddish theater in his hometown and soon hit the road with a multilingual avant-garde theater troupe. He arrived in the United States in the early 1920s and joined WLTH a decade later. Given the station's dwindling pool of talent and limited financial resources, Packer was directed to make much with little, which he did extraordinarily well. In the late 1930s he pioneered "man on the street" interviews (Shtimes Fin der Gas, Voices from the Street), schlepping a huge acetate cutting machine to centers of Brooklyn Jewish life to ask questions of everyday Yiddish speakers.

In December 1940, Packer dramatized, directed, and starred in a serial called Spies based on a book by Yiddish author Moshe Duchovne. An old-fashioned World War I-era potboiler about double identities, forbidden love, and international intrigue, it started out as a fully staged radio play with orchestral accompaniment and a live studio audience. Within a month, it was clear that even the sponsorship of Joe and Paul's clothiers, WLTH could not maintain the series, so Packer junked the actors, musicians, and audience and simply read the book aloud.

Packer also created game shows (Frages Af der Luft / Questions in the Air), an early example of a disc jockey show (The Music Store), musical comedy programs including one with Yiddish theater star Aaron Lebedeff (The Sante Cheese Program) and another featuring two treacly twin sisters (Reyzele un Sheyndele: di Freylekhe Tzviling) sponsored by Kirsch Double Fruit Beverages. But it was as a writer and performer of Dadaist Yiddish poetry that Packer would make his most unique contribution to radio. In a series of original sound poems, Packer read about subways, trains, Coney Island, and sports, and even included an overheated translation of Rudyard Kipling's "Boots." Twenty years ahead of the better-known hip poetry of Lord Buckley, Packer established a unique place for himself in the avant-garde of avant-garde performance.

WLTH also featured the ongoing comic serial Der Brownsviller Zeyde (The Brownsville Grandpa) starring Yiddish theater star Boruch Lumet. WLTH also aired one of a phalanx of singing women cantors, Freyedele Oysher as "Freydele di Khazente" (Freydele the Lady Cantor).

WBBC, as interested as WLTH in showcasing Yiddish talent, promoted its Yiddish-speaking commercial manager Arnold Jaffe to Yiddish programming manager. Despite a thick speech impediment that made him nearly incomprehensible, Jaffe developed a formidable cadre of Yiddish performers. He signed the lively Yiddish theater couple Moyshe Oysher (brother of Freydele) and his wife Florence Weiss to appear on the triweeekly Stanton Street Clothiers program, where they hawked garments from the Lower East Side haberdashery consortium. He also signed cantor Leybele Waldman, the famed "Radio Cantor," to star in a weekly request program.

Other stations had their own rosters. Over at tiny WCNW in Brownsville, a weekly talent show called The Parkway Theater Program featured "the well known actress and star" Madame Bertha Hart. A genial Yiddish-speaking Margaret Dumont, Madame Hart offered her mike to a wide swatch of local Brooklyn talent. The hostess's regular exaltations of "wonderful" and "magnificent" following every guest performance (regardless of quality) underscored the show's local feel. After her guests performed, Madame Hart reminded listeners that they were for hire and repeated their addresses and phone numbers numerous times.

The Parkway Theater Program that aired November 11, 1936 demonstrated (unintentionally!) that most performers and audiences were recent immigrants. Programming on this date was to celebrate the eighteenth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. After using a bit of Kabballistic ciphering to cite the eighteenth anniversary in relation to its Hebrew equivalent of "Life" and peace, Madame Hart exhorted her guests to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner." After the first few bars, however, it became clear that although everyone knew the melody, nobody knew the words.

WCNW also featured live broadcasts from the stage of the Parkway Theater of the works of Jacob Jacobs (the lyricist of the crossover hit "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn"). These broadcasts, surviving today on deteriorating sixteen-inch aluminum discs, are the only known live examples of Yiddish theater in its prime.

The variety and quality of these local shows were ably chronicled by the first publication to take an interest in Yiddish radio: the English-language weekly Brooklyn Jewish Examiner. The paper offered its readers program listings, highlights of upcoming shows of Jewish interest, and features on Jewish radio personalities. Most important, it ran a regular radio column by "Dial Settings" (a.k.a. Sam Brown), a fierce and vinegary critic who vividly documented the relationship between the Jewish community of Brooklyn and radio broadcasters and advertisers. Despite its acidic critic, the Examiner soon had its own show on WLTH. Aired on Sundays in mid-1931, The Examiner program featured noted rabbis from across the borough repeating the sermons they'd offered their congregations the previous day. The Examiner program later moved to WBBC and then to WFOX.

During its heyday in the 1930s, fans of Yiddish programs could tune in to hear their native language on fifteen-minute programs any day of the week. Monday nights at 9:30, WLTH would air Songs of Israel, sponsored by Horowitz-Margareten matzos. Listeners were encouraged to write in to receive their free bilingual Yiddish/English Songs of Israel songbook. WCNW aired Jewish Science Talk on Wednesdays at 12:30, sponsored by Max Bernstein, a furrier at 507 Nostrand Avenue. A weekly address by the Jewish communal leader Gustave Hartman followed. Thursday mornings, WFOX offered the Hebrew-language Ivriah Program, while at the same time WBBC aired Tales from the Talmud in Yiddish and English. That same evening Jewish listeners could tune in to WLTH's Jewish Musicalia, which broadcast operettas like Kol Nidre and Ben Ami. The remainder of the week was filled with more programs reflecting every aspect of the communal, religious, and cultural life of Brooklyn's growing Jewish population.

Both WCNW and WBBC broadcast klezmer music, a favorite with its Yiddish-speaking audience. Sometimes different stations shared musicians, thereby cutting costs. As klezmer clarinetists Max Epstein describes it:

I used to play five times a week and that started right after Labor Day until June 30. You played in one studio but you had two or three different stations coming in. One would go off the air; this one would go on the air. They used the same transmitters, see? So I played on almost all of them—WARD, WBBC, WCGU, WCNW, all of them. It made no difference to me because I didn't have to go anywhere. I just stayed in the same studio in the downtown section of Brooklyn and that was it.

"But first a word from our sponsor"

Programming was paid for part and parcel by advertising. Indeed, this was Dial Setting's pet peeve: "We listened the other night to three Jewish programs emanating from a Brooklyn station out Brownsville way…. Out of the 33 minutes allotted, 22 were devoted to advertising" (September 19, 1933). Despite the potential negative effects of so much advertising, Jewish programming could survive only by reaching out to middle-class shopkeepers or Jewish specialty producers of kosher foods. By charging local businessman for advertising time, radio stations allowed these vendors to become bite-size patrons of the arts, low rent de' Medici who brought culture to the masses and customers to the shops. Indeed, a promotional brochure published by WLTH in the 1930s shows a map of Brooklyn overlaid with concentric circles emanating from a transmitting tower. Proudly claiming that it had access to what advertisers wanted—the ears and pocketbooks of Jewish listeners—WLTH was especially successful in both underwriting its costs and marketing itself to its audience through its use of the Jewish business community.

The beginning of the end

In April, 1933, Brooklyn station WCGU was taken over by one of the most colorful—and controversial—personalities in the history of Brooklyn radio: "Rabbi" Aaron Kronenberg. Kronenberg, who claimed to be a rabbi, appointed himself station director and changed the call letters to WARD, a political sop to the Fifth Ward in Brooklyn, where the station was located. In short order, Kronenberg would show himself to be one of the canniest of the radio moguls. He entered the frequency fray with a robust enthusiasm that turned up the heat among the warring stations.

In 1934, the Brooklyn Eagle's new owner, Colonel M. Preston Goodfellow, decided to apply for a broadcast license for his paper. On the one hand, given the Eagle's solid reputation and the fact that newspaper ownership of radio stations was as old as commercial broadcasting itself, the Eagle was a perfect and logical choice to be the sponsor of a powerful new radio station. On the other hand, the paper—a conservative bastion of the old-line Protestant stock—had never taken any interest in Brooklyn's ethnic communities. Why should its new radio station? This worried segments of the Jewish radio community. When the Eagle entered the fray for frequencies and airtime, all the smaller stations banded together to resist the paper's initiative.

In March of 1934 WLTH, WVFW, and WARD organized as Broadcasters of Brooklyn, Inc., uniting under a common banner to resist the perceived hegemony of the Eagle. The Broadcasters of Brooklyn arrangement was especially difficult for Gellard's WLTH to maintain, since the station was housed in the Eagle building and often broadcast for the paper. Packing up, Gellard moved WLTH to its auxiliary Manhattan studios at 105 Second Avenue, in effect transferring the first radio station founded in Brooklyn to the City. Despite its new address, WLTH continued to sign on and off with its old motto, The Voice of Brooklyn. It took WLTH four years to come up with a new slogan: The Radio Theater of the Air.

The End of Brooklyn Radio

Meanwhile, Broadcasters of Brooklyn was involved in nonstop hearings concerning their broadcast competency. In a complicated bit of scheduling, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) merged two different hearings: the Brooklyn Eagle's license request and the license renewal of Broadcasters of Brooklyn. What linked them were charges leveled against Aaron Kronenberg's WARD.

On December 12, 1934, the Regional Labor Board of New York Compliance Bureau brought Aaron Kronenberg up on charges of sweatshop conditions filed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Two fired former "disgruntled" employees claimed that Kronenberg ran a sweatshop whose "only difference to the better known clothing factories was that the needles we were using weren't sewing machine needles, but phonograph needles." In addition, Kronenberg was accused by advertisers of fraudulent charges, and even with attempting to bribe an FRC inspector. On November 15, 1935, as a result of these hearings, the FRC ordered the Broadcasters of Brooklyn off the air, ostensibly to make room for the new Brooklyn Eagle station (WBDE). More behind-the-scenes wrangling killed WBDE, which never aired. And the Broadcasters of Brooklyn continued their time-share scuffling among themselves.

When the dust finally settled, "Dial Settings" was optimistic that, "as a result of protests by Jewish radio audiences, small broadcast stations will be saved from extinction and from being swallowed up by larger networks. As bad as Jewish programs are we would not like to see them disappear. After all, they do offer some diversion to the older Jews … it gives one satisfaction to observe the expression on their faces as they crowd around a radio when a Yiddish program is on."

But community-based Jewish radio was living on borrowed time. In an effort to rationalize the chaos of the Brooklyn airwaves, the FCC announced in January 1941 that WBBC, WLTH, WVFW, and WARD would merge into a new station, WBYN, which would become the full-time 500-watt occupant of a new frequency, 1430 kilocycles. But even this wouldn't last. By 1946, WBYN was sold to the Newark News and transformed into WNJR.

The tumultuous era of Brooklyn Jewish radio was off the air.

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