Monday, February 13, 2017

What’s Yiddish for Radio?

World Radio Day (February 13) was created by UNESCO in order to honor the incredible and diverse contribution radio has made to the world. Not only has radio broadcasting allowed for the greater and faster dissemination of information, but it has created a vital network of connection between people around the world.

In the United States commercially licensed radio broadcasts began in 1920. Along with larger national networks, like NBC and CBS, smaller, local stations sought out niche markets by focusing on particular ethnic groups. Among these many stations vying for bandwidth were a small but hardy group of Yiddish radio stations.

The first steady Yiddish Broadcast was Brooklyn-based WLTH (Broadcast from Leverich Towers Hotel), whose general manager, Sam Gellard, brought in popular Yiddish performers such as Sholom Secunda, in order to attract a Brooklyn listener audience. They offered a wide range of programming, such as their Sunday Examiner, which hosted local rabbis repeating their Shabbat sermons. One of WLTH’s greatest assets was radio host Victor Packer, who broadcast four hours a day with a range of entertainment, including man-on-the-street interviews, game shows, music programs and comedy slots. He even read his own Dadist Yiddish poetry about everything and anything.

Another important Yiddish radio station was WEVD, a socialist station that was purchased by The Forward newspaper in 1932. One of WEVD’s most popular Yiddish programs was The Forward Hour, a Sunday morning variety show. The station broadcast lively programs of Jewish interest until it was sold in 1981.

Smaller Yiddish stations fought for audiences as well. Both WCBW and WBBC had popular Klezmer music programs. Many of these micro-stations were merged to form WBYN by the FCC in January 1941. By the 1950s, however, the heyday of radio was fading fast. Like small stations nationwide, the Yiddish radio broadcasts could not compete with larger stations or the rising popularity of television.

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