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WNYC Director Seymour N. Siegel: Public Radio Visionary

WNYC History Notes Vol. 3, Issue 3

Friday, February 10, 2012 - 11:00 AM

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.

The Pre-War Period

Long before C-SPAN and Court TV, Seymour N. Siegel was a pioneering proponent of public access to government and the courts: for example, in 1934, WNYC broadcast the hearings into the tragic fire aboard the luxury ship Morro Castle, and that year the station also covered the House Un-American Activities Committee, which at the time was looking into Nazi and other domestic right-wing activities.

The following year Siegel had the station air a Congressional inquiry into patent racketeering. WNYC's broadcast of these events confirmed for Siegel that radio could play a major role in communicating issues to listeners.  Public response was positive and showed that listeners felt a sense of immediacy and participation when they heard these broadcasts.[1] Siegel then sent WNYC's microphone into Mott Street traffic court to focus on the police department's highway safety campaign, but New York's judges were alarmed and moved swiftly to keep radio from the state's courtrooms. Siegel protested, and wrote The New York Times:

"The microphone enables us for the first time to bring educational work from the court room into the homes of great masses of people. It enables us thereby to displace suspicion, mistrust and the attendant evils of ignorance and misinformation. If public officials become conscious that masses of the citizenry are 'listening in' to their utterances and pronouncements, they will feel more keenly the necessity for being prepared for their daily tasks and would discharge them with greater efficiency. Again, the possibility of being overheard by one who is familiar with the facts, and of being exposed thereby, will restrain many fabricating witnesses in the practice of perjury and exaggeration.

"The proponents of this move to eliminate broadcasting from the halls of justice claim that some witnesses, unaccustomed to the use of the microphone, may be frightened or intimidated when compelled to testify. This may be true in some instances; history abounds in illustrations of man's reluctance to accept new inventions, but eventually these have redounded to his advantage. It may well be that the microphone is not yet sufficiently developed for the broadcasting of the work in the court room. There may be practical objections to the immediate adoption of universal broadcasting of judicial and other proceedings, but to bar such broadcasting on the ground of a pious traditional generalization that it 'tends to diminish the solemnity and decorum which should attend all such proceedings' is short-sightedness of the worst kind."[2

Public hearings and the courts were just the beginning for Siegel. In January 1938, he put WNYC's microphones into the City Council chambers; the public loved it. Letters to the station called the broadcasts instructive, entertaining, exciting and a step forward in good government. New Yorkers suddenly had a greater interest in civic affairs, and The New York Times called it "one of the best shows in the city, appealing in equal degree to the studio audience in City Hall and the radio audience over WNYC." [3] The experiment lasted two years before politics and the Democratic majority succeeded in ending the broadcasts.

In the mid-1930s, the New York City Department of Health was frustrated with the unwillingness of most media to discuss venereal disease to combat widespread public ignorance on the topic. With Siegel's help, health officials began a monthly broadcast of the symptoms, dangers and means of preventing syphilis and gonorrhea.  Speaking before the Regional Conference on Social Hygiene in New York in early 1937, Siegel criticized the commercial stations for being afraid to take on the problem. Summarizing the work of the city in this field, he said that the approach had been gradual and that public reaction was gratifying. "We have received thousands of letters regarding the programs. ... There has not been one single unfavorable repercussion," he reported. [4] On March 13, 1938, Siegel invited the American Social Hygiene Association to take part in a combination drama and panel discussion on WNYC's weekly hour-long Forum of The Air. It was a record length program for the topic at that time.

Station Announcer: "1938! In Spain--war still goes on! In South America--dictatorships are set up! Conflict rages in the Far East! In the United States, hundreds of thousands more apply for relief! All over the world, the armament race is on! What really goes on behind the scenes! What is going on in our country! For instance, what legislation is passed in Albany, in New York City, in Washington, and why?  In the belief that our radio audience has an intense interest in the conduct of the affairs of the nation and the world, the City of New York presents today the third in a new series of Forum discussions, on the topic The War on Syphilis!"[5]

By March 1936, half of WNYC's broadcast hours were underwritten by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) through the Federal Music Project, with a smaller number of hours going to dramas through the Federal Theater Program Radio Division. The government subsidy paid for the WNYC Concert Orchestra (35 pieces) and at least a dozen other orchestras, string ensembles, concert bands, brass bands and singing groups who all performed on WNYC.  

Siegel wrote at the time:"If the Federal Music Project has helped the City Station by supplying a substantial  sustaining musical basis, WNYC in turn has unquestionably brought infinitely larger audiences than could ever be crowded into a concert hall.  In the program of educating the listening public to the appreciation of the higher type of music, WNYC has done its part."[6] WPA funding had also brought new studios and a state-of-the-art Brooklyn transmitter site to the station by October 1937. Siegel maintained that the WPA underwriting of WNYC in this period was a major influence on Mayor La Guardia's change in attitude toward the station. [7] 

From July 1924 to January 1938, WNYC had been a part of city's Department of Bridges, Plant and Structures — in other words, the city's public works department. But following through on a WNYC reform program sparked by Siegel, the La Guardia administration, with the required approvals, created the Municipal Broadcasting System, a communications agency reporting directly to the Mayor. Its first Director was Morris S. Novik, a veteran of WEVD, under whom Siegel became program director. 

The Post-War Period

The end of the La Guardia Administration also meant that Morris Novik's time at WNYC was over. So after a stint in the Navy from May 1941 to February 1946, Seymour Siegel returned to civilian life, serving as Acting Director of WNYC until his formal appointment as Director by Mayor O'Dwyer on November 6, 1947.  Siegel continued to build on the advances made under Novik's tenure at WNYC and as a veteran he made sure there were programs to address the needs of those in transition to civilian life, the issues of the post-war economy, and the hopes everyone had for the United Nations. These broadcasts included Johnny Came Home, a drama series about the issues facing returning vets, and Economics of Peace, a series of roundtable discussions from New York University, which were followed by panel talks from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The programs ran into the 1950s and were complemented with lectures from Cooper Union and the New York Academy of Medicine.  

In April 1946, WNYC carried the first and complete sessions of the United Nations Security Council and soon after included General Assembly and other sessions, the only New York City station to do so. Siegel started the WNYC film unit in 1949, which became the foundation for the world's first non-commercial municipal television station, WUHF — later WNYC-TV, Channel 31.[8] He also continued the American Music Festival series, and by the early 1950s there were annual book, art and Shakespeare festival program series as well. Cultural and music criticism and commentary were kept current with a roster including Gilbert Seldes, David Randolph, Edward Tatnall Canby, Walter Stegman, Robert C. Weinberg, Alan Wagner and Oliver Daniel.

Early in 1948, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB), was "making tentative plans looking toward the eventual establishment of an FM network of non-commercial and educational stations." Siegel, a major player in the group, said a public network of this kind would benefit individual stations through the exchange of a variety of public service programming. Siegel emphasized that the network's evolution would be a gradual process extending over a period of time [9]; yet, by June 1950, the network had nearly 100 stations and was providing a program service of some nine hours a week, distributed on tape to 35 of those stations through WNYC. Being the distribution arm for the fledgling public radio network was more than WNYC could handle at the time and the operations moved to the Division of Communications at the University of Illinois. [10] Siegel continued to be active with the NAEB, serving as its President from 1950-1952.

WNYC Director Seymour N. Siegel 

(WNYC Archive Collections)

Sy Siegel Gets Around

Siegel was also the U.S. representative to the International Radio University Conference in Paris in April of 1953, as well as the U.S. representative to the Prix Italia General Assembly, the prestigious Italian media award ceremony later that year. Two years later, Siegel was elected president of the Prix Italia General Assembly. That same evening in 1955, the Prix Italia for best radio musical composition went to Henry Brant for his work, December, a radio cantata for orchestra and 100 voices first broadcast over WNYC. Brant won the million lire prize in competition with composers from fourteen other nations. 

During the Cold War, Siegel served as the Director of Civil Defense Communications for New York City. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France, and in 1952, received the English Speaking Union award for International Understanding. Perhaps his highest honor was as a member of the Broadcasters Advisory Council to the President of the United States. Siegel was credited specifically by President Johnson at the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967.  

Through the 1950s and '60s, Siegel continued WNYC's efforts at playing the best in classical music, as well as airing The New York Herald Tribune Books and Authors Luncheons, guest talks from the Overseas Press Club, and Campus Press Conference roundtables.  Always one to stay on top of current events, Siegel brought the issues and turmoil of the '60s to WNYC's airwaves with the programs City Close-up, Community Action and Black Man in America.

With the 1970s came severe budget cuts to most city agencies, and the Municipal Broadcasting System was no exception. On May 5, 1971, facing a 30 percent staff reduction and an operating budget cut of more than half ($1.2 million to $480,000), Siegel handed in his resignation to Mayor Lindsay. After 37 years at WNYC, Siegel said he was "terribly disappointed the budget makers hadn't made WNYC a higher priority."[11] It was a harsh blow to Siegel, who had successfully countered hostility and indifference from earlier mayors, city comptrollers, and a host of others through the decades. Their penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to WNYC was met with creativity and grace by a man who knew how to stretch a dollar and work the system for the benefit of WNYC's listeners. 

Siegel went on to head up the Broadcasting Foundation of America, a non-profit distributor of foreign broadcast programming for American stations. He also taught telecommunications at the City University of New York (CUNY) and later became Dean for Educational Technology at CUNY. In the 1970s Siegel was an adjunct professor at Emerson College in Boston where his seminars for graduate students on broadcasting were reportedly "awesome." Emerson conferred an Honorary Doctorate (LLD) on him as well. Siegel had been working on his PhD in foreign affairs at Columbia University but did not complete it, as Mayor La Guardia changed the course of his career. Sy Siegel died in July 1978, at the age of 69.

___________________________________________

[1] Luscombe, Irving Foulds, WNYC: 1922-1940--The Early History of a Twentieth-Century Urban Service, PhD Thesis, NYU, 1969,  pgs. 170-171.

[2] Siegel, Seymour N., "Court-Room Broadcasting," The New York Times, October 26, 1935, pg. 14.

[3] "Council Session is Spiced by Exchanges of 'Pleasantries' Between Political Foes," The New York Times, January 11, 1938, pg. 2.

[4] Siegel, Seymour N., Remarks at the Regional Conference on Social Hygiene, Hotel Pennsylvania, February 3, 1937.

[5] The WNYC script reprinted in Journal of Social Hygiene, March 23, 1938, pgs. 153-160. The script was written by Dorothy Davids, WNYC Forum Director.

[6] Lanset, Andy, WNYC History Notes, (E-newsletter), Vol, 2, Issue 31, August 22, 2003

[7] Scher, Saul Nathaniel, Voice of the City: The History of WNYC, New York City's Municipal Radio Station, 1924-1962, PhD Thesis, NYU, 1965, pg. 165.

[8] Siegel first applied for and received a permit to constuct a UHF television station to broadcast over channel 31 in 1953 although WUHF did not hit the air with tests until October 23,1961. A year later on November 1, 1962, WUHF became WNYC-TV and began regular programming.  Source: WNYC TV: The World's First Non-Commercial Municipal Television Station, The Morse Communications Research Center, 1964, pgs 1-2.

[9] Gould, Jack, "The News of Radio," The New York Times, February 3, 1948, pg. 50.

[10] Bidlack, Cecil S., "Some Experiences with Mass-Production Tape Duplicating," Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, January 1956, Vol. 4, Number 1, pg. 31.

[11] Carroll, Maurice, "Siegel Resigning as WNYC's Chief," The New York Times, May 9, 1971., pg.33.

Broadcast on WNYC Today in:

1930: Municipal Reference Library Director Rebecca Rankin talks about the city's water supply. Note: From 1928-1938 Rankin pioneered the use of radio (WNYC) for publicity and outreach.  Faced with budget cuts to services and publications, Rankin and her staff presented more than 300 radio lectures over WNYC to promote the library and civic education.  See: RANKIN.

1949: Hadassah gives its first Henrietta Szold Award to Eleanor Roosevelt. Ms. Roosevelt says in part, "I was in Paris and couldn't go to Israel; I had the good fortune of having Mr. [Henry] Morgenthau invite my grandson to go. And he came back with a deep impression of what it meant to see a young nation being born, to see the enthusiasm of young people, but also deeply impressed at what that young nation could do for refugees, particularly for children. And a little bit ashamed that we couldn't do the same thing in this country. Nevertheless I think probably that unselfishness which seems to be able to take other people and share with them in the most extraordinary way will probably bring great reward in the future to the young nation of Israel." (With thanks to the Center for Jewish History)

1954: Burl Ives and Sir Edmund Hillary speak at the New York Herald Tribune Books and Authors Luncheon. 

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Comments [1]

Richard Pyatt from New York City

Thanks for the remembrance of Sy Siegel...
He was a great communication innovator and NYC owes
him a tribute. He was a fearless leader and
my boss and mentor for all my years at WNYC.

Feb. 11 2012 06:34 PM

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