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Yiddish or highbrow? WEVD’s uneasy bilingual history

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The Yiddish Radio Project []

I am reading Ari Y. Kelman’s excellent book, Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States, and agreeing with the admonition found in the tome’s introduction: radio historians don’t focus enough on non-English speaking broadcasters. “The presence of non-English language programming on U.S. radio has been almost completely overlooked,” Kelman writes.

Non-English broadcasting also gets overlooked by most radio bloggers, including myself. This is a big shortfall when you consider the scope and significance of Spanish language radio on the west coast, Florida, and elsewhere.

Having kicked myself and promised to make amends, I am enjoying Kelman’s account of how complicated Yiddish radio was in the 1930s, particularly when broadcast on New York City’s historic radio frequency: WEVD, named after the socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs (see my post on late-WEVD talk radio host Ed Koch). The station showed a “less than appreciative attitude” toward Yiddish radio shows during that decade, Kelman notes, yet it put them on the air, making the signal the “most beloved outlet for Yiddish radio in America.”

Established in 1927, WEVD almost mismanaged itself into extinction over the next four years. Finally the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper came, well, forward, with considerable monetary backing for the station. The signal’s principals then made a case for renewal to the government: sure, a brief acknowledged, the station would offer programs to minorities, but bottom line: “WEVD is a public forum open to the presentation of all viewpoints in matters of public interest.”

With that settled, a host of ethnic programs the media outfit had inaugurated in the 1920s received lower priority. The original multiethnic lineup included series like Seeing the Irish Cities, Hits and Bits of Scotch, and the Nestle Colored Club Art Hour. Now talk shows featuring the philosopher John Dewey and socialist leader Morris Hillquit took the evening stage, followed by lectures from Clarence Darrow and Bertrand Russell. “Gone were the more entertaining ethnic programs in favor of a more serious, more studious program schedule,” Kelman notes.

Yiddish programming continued to flourish at WEVD, but the station’s manager broadcast it during the day, not during the all-important evenings, when working class families listened around the dinner hour (“drive time” radio had yet to be invented). “Management considered Yiddish “a second-class language and hardly recognized either the growing creativity or contribution of Yiddish programming,” Kelman writes. And yet it was the Yiddish content that drew commercial sponsorships, allowing the station to support itself. Here’s is the author’s description of WEVD’s Yiddish lineup:

By mid-decade, WEVD had introduced Marc Scheid’s radio adaptation of the popular newspaper column, the Bintl briv (Bundle of Letters), Nukhem Stutchkoff’s first family dramas, dramatizations of Yiddish literature, and countless musical performances. It boasted a schedule of nearly twenty-five hours of Yiddish programming each week, supported by a healthy roster of sponsors.

Despite this, when the station moved to better digs in 1938, guests for the ceremony noted WEVD’s contributions to education and politics, “but none mentioned Yiddish.”

What are we to make of this interesting story? Why did the Jewish Daily Forward deprioritize Yiddish programming while depending on it for needed station income? Doubtless pressure from the emerging Federal Communications Commission played a role. Perhaps a desire for greater social legitimacy, informed by the “highbrow” versus “lowbrow” cultural assumptions of the period, also influenced WEVD’s policies.

Whatever the reasons, Kelman’s fine book reminds us that from the dawn of radio, community based stations have had to make difficult decisions about their audiences and the languages that they spoke. To this day, they still do.

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2 Responses to Yiddish or highbrow? WEVD’s uneasy bilingual history

  1. Bruce Triggs April 7, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    Thanks for this and your list of radio history books (linked to above).

    Ethnic music recordings were also neglected. Almost all the Polish, Finnish, German, Jewish etc kids abandoned their ethnic musics along with their languages by the 60s and 70s. This created the curious scene in the middle-class “folk revival” where kids like Bob Dylan were looking to the blues or country music to create an imaginary heritage, having lost their own.

    The result is we have this huge wedge of our non-English language culture that was forgotten. Some of it is on record, which is great, but very little has been made available digitally. Hopefully more and more will enter the public domain and be catalogued. It’d be nice to have more of this cultural history seep back up into the present.


  1. More radio history books for the holidays (or any time) | Radio Survivor - December 8, 2013

    […] Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio in the United States: a really smart book that’s not just about Yiddish radio, but how to think about the history of non-English speaking radio in the United States. My review here. […]

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