New Talk Radio Format: Minorities Spar With Chasids

By Benjamin Soskis

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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When WWRL-AM (1600), one of the nation’s oldest black-owned and -operated radio stations, hosted an event last week at the Times Square Planet Hollywood to celebrate its new line-up, the buffet was laden with treyf Buffalo wings and hamburgers. But there was another table, too, stacked with glatt kosher meals.

This was no catering snafu; the culinary selections reflected the New York station’s new programming reality. In December, the station introduced a new morning show, a talk program featuring former Village Voice reporter Peter Noel and Shmuley Boteach, the former Lubavitch emissary to Oxford, founder of the L’Chaim Society and celebrity author of — among other titles — “Kosher Sex.” “The Peter and Shmuley Show,” airing weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and labeled “the radio equivalent of ‘Lethal Weapon’” by The New York Times, involves fierce, if always respectful, confrontations between the two hosts on the major issues of the day.

Last month the station unveiled its new afternoon talk show, featuring Felipe Luciano, a liberal community activist and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, and Shea Hecht, a public figure within the Crown Heights chasidic community and a former member of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Decency Committee. That’s right: WWRL, a station that made a name for itself during the 1970s with its blend of gospel, R&B and sports news, now boasts eight full hours a day of liberal blacks and Hispanics tussling with conservative chasidic Jews.

Obviously, the new shows represent both a commercial gamble and a bold, if risky, step in interfaith and inter-ethnic relations. After all, it’s extremely rare for a white host — let alone a chasidic one — to appear on a black-targeted station, and it’s equally rare for a white audience to tune in to a black-operated station for anything but music. There is no guarantee that New York’s large West Indian community, not so long ago WWRL’s main target audience, will tune in to hear disputations on the Middle East, or that white listeners will be comfortable turning to a station that long featured a weekly Saturday morning broadcast from Reverend Al Sharpton.

But Adrienne Gaines, the station’s general manager, believes that after the September 11 terrorist attacks, listeners appreciate the need to cross boundaries and educate themselves about the unfamiliar. “I think it’s a different world now. If I had to answer this before 9/11, I don’t think I would be doing this program.” But now, she said, “This is necessary. Music doesn’t explain what’s going on in the world.” Of course, Gaines also views this new dialogue as a business opportunity, a chance to reach out and cobble together a new — and potentially profitable — radio community. As she recently told the Crains New York Business magazine, “What the advertiser gets [with WWRL’s new format] is the opportunity to reach large, diverse consumer groups that are family-oriented, health conscious and brand loyal.”

From initial indicators, WWRL’s gamble does seem to be paying off. Official numbers will not be available until the end of April, but the station claims that since the introduction of the Peter and Shmuley Show, it has seen a 90% increase in white and Hispanic listeners. Boteach reports that while at first the show received almost all African-American callers, now the ratio is closer to 60%-40%, and even hostile callers preface their remarks with assurances of respect. Hecht also offers anecdotal evidence that members of the city’s chasidic community are tuning in, but admits that they are not yet comfortable enough to call. “I know they’re listening because I get into shul on Shabbes and they say, ‘Why didn’t you say this or that,” he insists. “And then I ask, ‘Why didn’t you call?’”

The programming represents a dramatic move away from the traditional model of black-Jewish relationships — epitomized by the Cornel West-Michael Lerner partnership — which often focused on the groups’ shared history and experience of persecution. But as several critics have pointed out, that approach, often cloistered on academic campuses, shied away from a frank admission of the divergent socioeconomic conditions of the two communities.

In a way, WWRL’s new programming offers a response to that criticism. After all, chasidim often do share neighborhoods and communities with racial minorities. An attempt to create a radio community consisting of chasidic Jews and West Indians could be viewed as a simple recognition of that fact.

Of course, shared space does not always produce affinity and affection, as the Crown Heights neighborhood came to learn a decade ago. If proximity can breed familiarity, it can also remind the communities of their mutual alienness. It is one of the paradoxes of black-Jewish relations that the black and Jewish communities that actually share neighborhoods and communal concerns share little else culturally or politically.

Hecht and Luciano’s afternoon show, which is rooted firmly in a community ethos, reflects that paradox even more than the Peter and Shmuley Show. Much of their discussion is devoted to demystifying Jewish culture to blacks and black culture to chasidic Jews, as when Hecht insisted that chasidic Jews play basketball, or when Luciano compared his own mother’s Pentecostal observances to chasidic ethical strictures. The communities’ cultural differences were both affirmed and defused in one interaction last week when Luciano, after grooving on-air to Wilson Pickett’s classic “In the Midnight Hour,” asked his co-host if he ever danced to soul. Hecht chuckled and replied, “No, only to the U’ Pheratzta,” referring to a traditional Jewish song. And when the two men talk about community issues — detailing incidents of crime on blocks that they both know well or praising local politicians who serve the two communities — their kinship and commonality is evident.

But the dialogue is not always so comfortable. After all, the entire premise of a successful dual-host talk-radio show is not conciliation, but confrontation. If the hosts ever agreed on too much, the show would be a dud. The programmers certainly realized the dramatic potential implicit in the profound political differences between Luciano’s liberalism and Hecht’s conservatism — and the two communities they represent.

And it is when the sparks fly between the two in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a war against Iraq that the phones really light up. Callers denounce Israeli violence and occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories regarding a concerted Jewish push for a war against Iraq. Others vigorously defend Israel against Palestinian terrorism, and one caller last week insisted that the United States would not be safe until all Arabs were expelled. Hecht and Luciano try their best to promote a vigorous disagreement without encouraging racist or antisemitic callers. It can make for entertaining, if slightly uncomfortable, programming.

This is exactly the tension that WWRL hopes will produce popular acclaim. As Boteach claimed, “The point of the show is not to take on black-Jewish relations. The point of the show is to be a competitive, mainstream radio show.”

No one at WWRL denies the interracial and interfaith implications for the programming. “As long as we have to live together, we might as well talk and find out about each other,” said Rennie Bishop, the afternoon show’s programming director.

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