Morris S. Novik: Public Radio Pioneer

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WNYC Director Morris S. Novik (1903-1996), circa 1945

Morris S. Novik was appointed by Mayor F. H. La Guardia to be the first Director of the Municipal Broadcasting System on February 9, 1938. During the nearly eight years he oversaw WNYC, he tirelessly worked to make the station an innovative and model public broadcaster. In fact, Novik laid claim to coining the phrase "public broadcasting" while at WNYC.

Novik was born in Nevel, Russia, and emigrated with his family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he was 11 years old. He became active in politics at the age of 15, working for the anti-war activist Scott Nearing.

During the 1920s, he headed up the local chapter of the Young People's Socialist League and worked for the labor newspaper The Daily Record before joining the staff of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union as the director of Unity House, the summer resort for union members.

There, he launched the Discussion Guild, which presented lectures and debates with leading thinkers of the day, including Will Durant, John Dewey, Clarence Darrow and Bertrand Russell (both Darrow and Russell retained Novik as a lecture agent). In 1932, Novik was hired by WEVD, which had been  recently purchased by the Forward Association, the group behind the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper. At WEVD he started the University of the Air, a regular feature of lectures, discussions, and debates around socialist and labor issues. In the 1930s he was also a mover and shaker in the American Labor Party. [1]

Given Novik's reputation for innovation at WEVD and his work with labor and progressive politics, he was sought out by Mayor F. H. La Guardia to be the first Director of the Municipal Broadcasting System. When the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, Novik knew that keeping democratic values alive and on the air was more important than ever before. He took the job. [2] But his socialist and labor background almost immediately became part of a political football that prompted a protracted investigation by the City Council into alleged Soviet propaganda on WNYC.

His hiring, too, was no doubt a disappointment, at least at first, to Seymour N. Siegel, who had taken the station far during the mayor's first term and had hopes of assuming the leadership of the station himself. Nevertheless, Siegel remained a strong 'right hand' to Novik until he took leave to enter the Navy in May, 1941.   

Political distractions aside, it was under Novik's leadership that WNYC played a vital role at the 1939-1940 World's Fair with extensive broadcast coverage. It began with the construction of state-of-the-art studios in the City of New York Building in the shadow of the Trylon and Perisphere.

At the time, Novik told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "WNYC is keeping constantly in mind that this World's Fair will be more than just a show, of course we intend that many of our programs will be designed to bring out the serious side of the Fair, its cultural, social and educational significance." [3]

Another major Novik undertaking was the annual American Music Festival in February 1940. The festival was a response to the dominant Euro-centric musical attitudes of the time. Reflecting on the festival's birth, Novik said in an interview with The New York Times, "Our American music festival has a two-fold purpose. One purpose is to build the municipal radio station into an even greater force in the cultural life of the community, and the second is to promote the cause of good American music. American broadcasters have done a splendid job in developing appreciation of classical music. Radio must do still another important  job by focusing attention on American music, and by demonstrating that Americans have written good — even great —music." [4]

Understanding the power of radio and the advantages of FM, Novik wasted little time in applying to the FCC for a license on the new broadcast band in May 1940, and having Chief Engineer Isaac Brimberg make the technical preparations. In the meantime, he had to raise the necessary city funds for a transmitter, no small task in wartime New York City.

But thanks, in part, to the waiving of royalty payments by FM inventor and patent holder Major Edwin Armstrong, WNYC's new "static-less" signal (W39NY) was on the air in March 1943, 1,000 watts at 43.9 FM. [5] For a brief period, there were also WNYC shortwave broadcasts overseas using call letters and transmitter of W2XVP out of the Municipal Building studios. Additionally, Novik helped Mayor La Guardia with the creation of "weekly underground broadcasts for the people of Italy." [6]

On the home front, there were many priorities, among them, fighting racism head-on with what Novik called "drama with a purpose." This included radio plays about leading African-Americans who overcame racial bigotry and prejudice. Novik wrote,"They carried a message, and in an excitingly written and produced script these programs carried a punch that made the listener aware of certain inequalities that were common practice."

And then there was the more subtle, I'm Your Next Door Neighbor, a weekly Saturday night series of dramas dealing with the adventures of a typical New York family. Novik described it this way: "The family happened to be a Negro family living in Harlem and the dramas each week dealt with the problems, business, and home life of this typical family unit. The cast included white and Negro actors playing their respective roles and often interchanging roles. Tolerance and prejudice were not the theme of the series, but during the course of normal events it was brought home to the listener that there were certain evils that perhaps he was not aware of previously." [7]  This was just part of what Novik strongly believed was an essential mission for American radio; what he called "educating for democracy." [8]

After WNYC, Novik helped start radio stations in Detroit and Cleveland. In 1950, he purchased WLIB, New York where he established programming aimed at black listeners that continued under his brother Harry from 1955 to 1971, when the station was purchased by Percy Sutton and Inner City Broadcasting, becoming the first black-owned station in the city.

Novik continued to maintain his ties with organized labor, serving first as communications consultant to the American Federation of Labor, and then the merged AFL-CIO. President Truman appointed him a delegate to the 1952 UNESCO conference in Paris and he was an advisor to the UNESCO London conference the following year. President Kennedy selected Novik to serve on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information in 1962. He was reappointed to the commission by President Johnson.[9] Morris S. Novik died in 1996, just short of his 93rd birthday.

[1] Three works were source material for Novik's early years. Wikipedia, his November 12, 1996 obituary in The New York Times by Lawrence Van Gelder and the historical note in the Morris S. Novik Papers finding aid at the University of Maryland, College Park written by Thomas J. Connors.

[2] Connors, Ibid.

[3] Ranson, Jo, "Radio Dial Log," March 13, 1939 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

[4] "40 Concerts to Give U.S. Music," The New York Times, February 3, 1940, pg.9.

[5] Novik, Morris S., "WNYC Wartime Report: This We Have Done," December 7, 1945.

[6] Wikipedia, Ibid.

[7] Novik, Ibid.

[8] Novik, Morris S., "Educating for Democracy," The Masterwork Bulletin, September-October, 1940, pg. 1.

[9] Connors, Ibid.

Special thanks to Archivist Douglas DiCarlo and the La Guardia and Wagner Archives at CUNY.