After being on the radio for 37 years (with a few interruptions here and there), many people have asked me how I got on the radio doing a Jewish music program in the first place. It was really a convergence of several things.
First, I was fascinated with radio since early childhood. Our next-door neighbor was a ham radio operator, and his antenna was attached to our house. I would go over and see his set-up, and it was so exciting! This was decades before digital equipment, and there were tubes that lit up, dials, gauges and switches, and most prominently, a telegraph key. When he wasn’t speaking into the old-fashioned microphone, he was banging that key, talking to people all over the world, in lightning-quick Morse Code.
At the same time, my Dad, a”h, loved Jewish music, and my house was filled with it. He had one of those big old stereo consoles, like a piece of furniture, and he was always playing something on it. It made Jewish music a big part of our lives.
Later, when I attended Northwood High School, we had a radio station that broadcasted in a several-mile radius of the school. I mostly played rock music and broadcasted sporting events. One tape of me calling a basketball game still exists. My normally high-pitched voice (which allows me to sing tenor) was even higher then, and listening to it now put my family into convulsive, tear-filled laughter. Someday, when I am feeling brave, I’ll play it on the show!
At the same time, I began to collect vintage American radio programs, and got to hear how the great ones did it when radio was king. When I attended the University of Maryland, I didn’t really do anything with radio, but continued to collect Jewish music and was building a very nice collection. During those years, a new type of radio station began to grow in popularity.
WHFS, a station located in Bethesda, Maryland, was unlike anything else on the dial at the time. Instead of a tightly controlled playlist, the disc jockeys were given complete freedom to play whatever they wanted. Many up-and-coming bands found a home there, and they sponsored all kinds of concerts to help popularize the station.
A man named Jake Einstein ran the station, and he was a real character, much like his station. He encouraged independence and was ahead of his time. However, even innovators have to pay the bills, so on Sundays, he sold the air time to various specialty programs, mostly ethnic. There were French, Italian, Russian, Gospel, Spanish, and other foreign language programs, catering to their own communities. And there was a Jewish program called, “Now Jerusalem,” hosted by a woman named Joan Kirstein.
In May of 1980, the lineup changed, and changed my life at the same time. Jake had a pretty tough temper and people came and went. He fired Joan and needed someone to do a Jewish program. As it turned out, Jake and his wife, Rena, were friends of my grandparents. I guess he had mentioned it to my grandfather, who suggested that he call me. I was 23 years old, and it was a Friday afternoon when the phone rang. I answered and a voice said, “This is Jake Einstein. You want to be on the radio Sunday?” I immediately assured him that I most certainly did!
Well, that Sunday morning was Mother’s Day, May 16, 1980. I grabbed an armload of records and went on the air. On the way over to the station, I gave the program its first name, “The Jewish Music Hall,” which I copied from the famous “Kraft Music Hall” program. It felt great, and very natural. I was a little nervous, but no problem. I did a 90-minute show, and when it was over, I ran across the street to the pay phone to call my parents to see how they liked it.
It went over well, and the station got lots of calls. It was the beginning of decades of bringing Jewish music to the airwaves. The radio business has always been very mercurial, and especially in those days, stations were bought and sold all the time. After I was there for about a year and a half, Jake sold the whole Sunday block out and I was fired. I went on to other stations, with many other stories over the years, which will be the subject of many future columns.
WHFS itself was later sold and the “Golden Age of Radio” came to a close. There is a documentary about the station in the works, and I offered them my memories of those days. Jake went on to own other stations and passed away in 2007. I saw very little of him after I left WHFS at the end of 1981, but I always will be grateful to him for taking a chance on a kid with an armload of Jewish records, and for giving me my first platform to share what I loved with an audience who loved it, too.
NEXT TIME: A Star Fell
Questions or Comments?
By Larry Shor