Nearly nine decades of broadcasting in the New York metropolitan area covers a lot of ground, especially when your mandate has always been to serve the public interest. The WNYC History Notes is an archive blog series that aims to tell that story, though it is far from complete. We keep discovering new things about this place! So, it's an ongoing research project whose focus is to compile, organize and document station related staff, events, programs and some iconic moments since the idea of a municipal broadcasting station was just a twinkle in Grover A. Whalen's eye in 1922. Also included here are a number of collaborative inter-departmental blog pieces that add to this ever expanding narrative or, if you will, the tale of the transmission.
On January 3, 1934, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia swore into office Seymour N. Siegel as WNYC's Assistant Program Director. Immediately after Siegel affirmed his commitment to the people of the City of New York, the mayor promptly ordered him to "go across the street and close down the joint." The "joint" was WNYC. One of La Guardia's campaign promises was to close the station and just a few days earlier he had released his cost-cutting program of ten major reforms. Number nine on the list was "abolition of the municipal broadcasting station, WNYC." But after carefully surveying the situation Siegel determined there wasn't anything a little good management and TLC couldn't fix. A panel of experts was convened, a thorough study was done and recommendations were made and implemented. Because of Sy Siegel, WNYC became a political asset for the mayor and a ground-breaking public broadcaster.
Ted Cott was just 17 in 1934 when Seymour N. Siegel hired him to be the station's Drama Director. Cott had been a volunteer doing weekly radio plays with other City College students when his promising work came to the attention of Mayor La Guardia, who insisted 'the young man' be hired. La Guardia had only been Mayor about six or seven months and had campaigned to shut WNYC down, believing it was a waste of money. But Siegel had engineered a stay of execution and needed to bring in some fresh ideas and talent to further convince La Guardia that the station was worth keeping. Since there was no equivalent civil service post at WNYC's parent agency, the New York City Department of Plant and Structures, Cott was hired as a ticket taker for Staten Island Ferry and reported for work at WNYC. 
Long before language mavens Patricia T. O'Conner or Richard Lederer ever matched puns with Leonard Lopate, WNYC had Frank Horace Vizetelly (1864-1938). Known in his day as the "Dean of Lexicographers," Vizetelly was a major force behind the Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary. The etymologist, however, was not limited to the discussion of words and their origins: on WNYC he covered a wide range of topics. Among his talks were "The Ant and Its Ways," "The Story of the Sneeze," and "The Story of the Garter." Before WNYC he was on WOR, and after WNYC he moved to WJZ and WABC.
Between 1924 and 1925, world traveler, inventor, geologist, archeologist, metalurgical chemist and researcher James Churchward delivered more than two dozen lectures over WNYC. A former colonel in the British Army, Churchward gave talks based on decades of research that focused on what he called, 'the motherland of man,' the lost continent of Mu.
Between the summer of 1925 and spring 1932, Victor Harrison-Berlitz, the General Manager of 410 U.S. Berlitz language schools, taught French, Spanish, German and Italian over WNYC. The regular classes were a pioneering effort for American radio.
From July 1939 to March 1942, conductor and composer Macklin Marrow led the WNYC Concert Orchestra. The 35-piece ensemble was sponsored by The New York City Music Project, a unit of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). One of Marrow's earliest assignments at the station was the August 2, 1939, dedication of the WNYC WPA murals when the orchestra performed the scherzo from William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony (audio above).
"This microphone is not an ordinary instrument,
For it looks out on vistas wide indeed:
My voice commingles now with northern lights and
asteroids and Alexander's skeleton,
With dead volcanoes and with donkey's ears
It swims with minnows and it's in the Sphinx's jaw.
It drifts among whatever spirits pass across the night.
Here is a thought to fasten to your throat:
Who knows who may be listening? And where?"
The conclusion to Seems Radio Is Here to Stay
Walter James Miller (1918-2010) was Professor Emeritus at New York University and host of WNYC’s Reader’s Almanac (1970-1985) and WNYC-TV’s Book World (1968-1970). He conducted early interviews with writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Erica Jong, Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Gallagher and Jerzy Kosinski.
Woody Guthrie left California and arrived in New York City early in 1940. By summer he was making his first appearance on WNYC, on Henrietta Yurchenco and Paul Kresh's second Adventures in Music program on July 13. The show's theme was folk music of the mountains and the plains, featuring Jim Garland, Sarah Ann Ogan and Guthrie, who was introduced as "a modern troubadour who sings as he pleases and makes up his own tunes as he goes." Guthrie performed "Hobo Blues," "Dusty Old Dust," and "Tom Joad."
Check Out the Slide Show!
WNYC's first Music Supervisor (Music Director) Herman Neuman was a an accomplished conductor and composer and oversaw the department from its beginning in 1924 to 1967. He continued to do his regular "world" music program (classical), Hands Across the Sea into the 1970s.
On July 2, 1946, David Randolph began a series of weekly broadcasts on WNYC called Music for the Connoisseur, later known as The David Randolph Concert.*
On his fourth broadcast, he surveyed the subject of humor in music. With that, David pioneered the thematic radio broadcast devoted to a single musical subject with commentary. Above, you can listen to the full broadcast of "Composers' Senses of Humor," David's 375th show that aired in June, 1954.
The programs were later syndicated nationally on the 72-station network of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB). The broadcasts garnered four Ohio State University Awards as "the best programs of music and commentary in the nation," and aired for 33 years. They also resulted in invitations from 23 publishers to write a book, and This Is Music: A Guide to the Pleasures of Listening was published by McGraw-Hill in 1964. It was described by the New York Times as "one of the best of the year."
Beginning as an office boy for The World, Tommy Cowan went on to be Thomas Edison’s receptionist, greeting important visitors to the inventor’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. From there he was the first announcer on the air in the New York metropolitan area when WJZ Newark started broadcasting in 1921. He announced the first World Series broadcast based on descriptions phoned into him from the game, as well as covering the June, 1924 Democratic National Convention from Madison Square Garden.
W. O. Tewson was an editor and literary critic heard regularly on WNYC between March, 1928 and September, 1934 discussing literature and books. He wrote for The New York Times, Hearst newspapers, and was the editor of The New York Evening Post's literary review.
Keeping Fit was a regular series of health and exercise talks by Joe Ruddy on WNYC in 1926.
Thornton Fisher (1888-1975) began his broadcasting career in 1923 at AT&T's WEAF in New York as one of radio's earliest sports commentators. He switched to WNYC the following year, not long after the municipal station began broadcasting. The Evening Leader of Corning, New York praised Fisher's Tuesday and Thursday evening program, Sports Analysis, and said, "he is one of the keenest sports writers and cartoonists in the world of journalism. His love for all sports, coupled with his sparkling wit and understanding of every phase of every game, have created an immortal place for him as chronicler of the progress of sports."
As New York City's Broadcasting Supervisor, Raymond Asserson was charged with designing and building the first WNYC facility by then Commissioner for Plant and Structures, Grover A. Whalen. Generally behind the scenes in bringing WNYC to life, Asserson made his mark publicly before the House Merchant Marine Committee on March 12, 1924. Testifying on behalf of Whalen, the former Navy engineer charged that through its patents, AT&T had stymied New York City's efforts to set up a radio station and had effectively created a radio monopoly.
From 1940 to 1942 Ralph Berton hosted WNYC's daily foray into jazz called Metropolitan Review, dedicated to "the finest in recorded hot jazz." The program was radio's first serious jazz music show on the air.
Contrary to prevailing belief, the Jewish Daily Forward's first radio program was not on WEVD (a leader in Jewish and Yiddish radio programming in the 1930s and 40s), but on WNYC! The Yiddish newspaper marked the May 21, 1926 broadcast nine days later by printing the photos on the left with the following caption:
"The First Forward Radio Concert --Isa Kremer, the world famous balladiste, who was the featured soloist of the Forward radio hour May 21, from WNYC. (Left) The famous Stringwood Ensemble, which rendered a program of classical music."*
Theodor Adorno was a key figure in the German refugee-led Institute for Social Research when it resettled at Columbia University before the U.S. entry into World War II. At Columbia he was also associated with the Office of Radio Research and headed up the Music Division of what became known as the Princeton Radio Project (1937-1941), studying the effects of mass media on society. Beginning in late April, 1940 he presented a new series of music programs on WNYC. The announcer introduced them this way:
Dr. John Haynes Holmes addressed tens of thousands at an anti-Nazi rally in Battery Park on May 10, 1933, broadcast over WNYC. The Pastor of the Community Church recalled his earlier protests of the pogroms against the Jews in Czarist Russia and said, Hitler was "more cruel than the Czar."
New York Mayor John P. O'Brien* pinned a gold medal on Wiley Post, 'round-the-world flier' on the steps of City Hall, July 26, 1933. Post's wife Edna Mae is on the right behind the WNYC microphone.
The author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) worked with WNYC producer Marty Goldensohn on a 1998 series known as Reports on the Afterlife. A year earlier, Vonnegut explained these reports would come as a result of "controlled near-death experiences."
Following the landfall of Hurricane Irene this past weekend, flood waters overtook the WNYC AM transmitter site in Kearny, NJ, causing the station to stop over-the-air broadcasting. WNYC has owned several other transmitters in its history -- indeed, the AM tower used to be in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in the location that will soon become WNYC Transmitter Park. This AM transmitter was dedicated in a ceremony on October 31, 1937.
In a rare appearance behind the microphone, Major Edwin H. Armstrong, the inventor of frequency modulation (FM) broadcasting, addressed the WNYC audience 63 years ago today. The occasion was the launch of WNYC's new FM transmitter.
WNYC's Chief Engineer Isaac Brimberg, from a 1930s photo. Brimberg was a pioneer in radio broadcasting. He joined WNYC at its opening in 1924 and was named Chief Engineer in 1929. He oversaw the WPA construction of our new studios and our state-of-the-art transmission facilities at Greenpoint, Brooklyn--both opening in October 1937. Brimberg was also responsible for setting up our shortwave facility W2XVP in 1941 and our experimental FM station W39NY, now WNYC-FM. Major Isaac Brimberg was in the Army Signal Corps in 1943 when he died tragically on leave in a car accident at the age of 40.
In 1937, WNYC opened a new transmitter site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Flanked by two 304-foot towers, the site featured massive, illuminated WNYC call letters and a north symbol so that planes flying overhead on a clear night could easily get their bearings. WNYC-AM left the site in 1990, and the towers came down about 10 years later. The 10 Kent Street site is now a project of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is in the process of creating WNYC Transmitter Park.
Nikola Tesla, the father of alternating current and one of the greatest inventors of all time, died on January 7, 1943 at the New Yorker Hotel. Three days later, WNYC broadcast this memorial to him. The Croatian-born violinist Zlatko Baloković performed Ave Maria live in the studio, as well as a piece known to be a favorite of Tesla's, identified as Therefore Beyond the Hills is My Village, My Native Land. Mayor F. H. La Guardia read a moving tribute to Tesla written by Slovenian-American author Louis Adamic. Announcer Joe Fishler concluded the program this way:
On the morning of September 11, 2001, WNYC was broadcasting from studios then located in the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan.
Shortly after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center that morning, WNYC’s FM transmitter, which was located atop the World Trade Center, was destroyed and WNYC FM went off the air. But WNYC continued to broadcast on its AM signal throughout the day.
The audio above is a recording of what WNYC broadcast throughout the day on September 11, 2001, beginning shortly after the first plane struck the World Trade Center. It includes the first eyewitness account of the attacks recorded and broadcast that day.
Hom Hong Wei (1915-2011) at his WNYC engineering shop workbench in the early 1940s.
Thomas Edison's 'right hand man' praises WNYC's static-free sound in this 1936 missive.
Robert Sonkin and Charles Todd were working at the City College Department of Public Speaking when they decided to spend their summer vacations in 1940 and '41 at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps of central California. With the help of Alan Lomax, their project was underwritten by the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Carrying a "portable" 50-pound Presto disc cutter, they recorded cowboy songs, traditional ballads, square dance calls, camp council meetings, storytelling sessions and the personal experiences of the Dust Bowl refugees who lived in the camps. Drawing from more than 200 field recordings, the folklorists produced the above documentary for WNYC in 1942, one of three in a broadcast series called Songs of the Okies.
Below are audio files from the WNYC archive of commemorations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
What were the first FM programs? For answers, read on…
From the mid-1930s to early 1940s, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) distributed thousands of transcription discs to hundreds of radio stations around the United States, including WNYC.
Al Arkus started at WNYC by producing, directing and reading newscasts. He also directed and announced for Edward Tatnall Canby, David Randolph and Oscar Brand. Children’s programming became one of his favorite genres: he wrote, produced and narrated The Music Maestro, a weekly educational music program, and appeared regularly on The Children’s Story Fair, a show with a cast of 'kids' wandering on a magic midway to adventures in an opera house, a record room, a side show, a concert hall and similar locations. Al also wrote, directed and produced Here's Heidy, a children's program with storyteller Heidy Mayer that moved to WOR in 1949.
WNYC music critic, reviewer, audiophile and host Edward Tatnall Canby (1912-1998) began his nearly 25-year stint at WNYC in 1947. His show, The New Recordings, was described that first year as "a program of wide-ranging comment on music in general and the new records in particular." It was based on his weekly column in The Saturday Review. The name of the program was changed and is probably best recalled as Recordings, E.T.C.
Moscow's Park of Culture and Rest was one of the topics in a controversial series of travelogues aired by WNYC in late 1937 and early 1938. Critics of the station charged the broadcasts were Soviet propaganda meant to gloss over the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.
In the '60s, WNYC tried to bridge the cultural Cold War-divide by periodically airing some Radio Moscow programs. Among them is a celebration of Cosmonautics Day and Moscow Mailbag, a segment devoted to debunking common myths about Russia.
This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.
A review of WNYC's first 24 years (1924-1948). Item contains re-enactments and actualities from the old WNYC collection, including Grover Whalen's speech upon WNYC's inaugural broadcast, a performance of the Police ...
Seventy years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II. Step back with WNYC to December 7, 1941, to listen to a broadcast about the attack and an address by then-New York City Mayor LaGuardia.