WRVR Riverside Radio: A Pioneering Noncommercial Station
This exhibit features recordings from WRVR-FM, the radio station of The Riverside Church in the City of New York, an innovator in noncommercial radio from 1961 to 1971. First and foremost the broadcast voice of a vibrant and distinctive Protestant congregation on Manhattan’s upper West Side, WRVR also helped shape public broadcasting’s early years through its experimental approaches. WRVR was committed to public affairs reporting and formed a news division to cover politics, civic issues, civil rights, and the emerging antiwar movement. WRVR was highly lauded for its arts and cultural programming, featuring classical, jazz, opera, rock, folk, and world music.
The WRVR-FM (Riverside Radio) Collection features over 3,700 recordings representing more than 4,000 hours of WRVR radio from the 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the programs were digitized from reel recordings in the archives of The Riverside Church as part of a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), through the efforts of The Riverside Church archivist Ricki Moskowitz. More than 1,000 recordings of WRVR’s program Just Jazz with Ed Beach were donated to the Library of Congress by its host, Ed Beach. The curator gratefully acknowledges assistance with this exhibit from Rob Bamberger, Thomas Barrick, Casey Davis, Alan Gevinson, Christopher Hartten, Vincent Kelley, Jon Newsom, Cynthia Nixon, Vincent Novara, Loras Schissel, Bill Siemering, Raymond White, Henry Neels, Miranda Villesvik, and an anonymous reviewer.
The Riverside Church and WRVR
The Riverside Church in the City of New York “often has had a leading hand in crafting the way that liberal American Protestants thought, worshipped, and responded to their times.” The church’s decade-long radio project in the 1960s is one manifestation of Riverside’s longstanding cultural power and influence not just in the immediate New York metropolitan area; even from its founding it became, in many ways, “the national cathedral of mainstream Protestantism.”1
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., funded the construction of Riverside’s dramatic limestone cathedral in the Morningside Heights neighborhood near Columbia University. With an endowment gift from the Rockefeller Family Foundation, the congregation of the Park Avenue Baptist Church relocated to the new building in 1930, pastored by liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick. Rev. Fosdick was well-known for his theological modernism, evident in his fiery 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” which powerfully argued the case for liberal Protestantism during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of that decade. With Rockefeller’s patronage, Fosdick established The Riverside Church as the premier liberal pulpit of its era and developed the church’s social gospel efforts into the wider city and beyond.2 The Riverside Church identified itself from its beginning as an “interdenominational, interracial, and international religious institution,”3 though nominally maintaining affiliation with both the Northern Baptist Convention and United Church of Christ. Fosdick had served since the late 1920s as the senior minister on NBC’s nondenominational Protestant radio program, National Vespers, and his successor at Riverside, Robert McCracken, was a frequent guest on the National Radio Pulpit radio program; from its inception, The Riverside Church had enduring connections to the two flagship radio programs of mainline Protestantism.4
Over the years The Riverside Church engaged in a wide range of local missionary and community service efforts, including ministry programs targeted towards groups such as international students, young businesswomen and men, servicemen, the aged, and others. Riverside called itself a “small town church in the big city,” with close to 3,900 members and 220 employed staff in 1960. Its high church formal Sunday services imbued Riverside with a sense of gravitas, and their interfaith work and engagement in the city’s civic life provided cultural authority. Riverside frequently collaborated with other religious and educational institutions situated nearby in Morningside Heights including Barnard College, Union Theological Seminary, Interchurch Center, and Columbia University. The demographics of the neighborhood were shifting in the late 1950s, with growing numbers of Puerto Rican and Black residents. As an increasing number of Riverside members lived outside the immediate neighborhood in other boroughs and suburbs, radio was seen as a way both to serve the diversifying local community and to knit together a geographically-dispersing congregation.5
A 1954 internal church survey recommended looking into radio and television as new avenues for Riverside to fulfill its mission and meet some of these emerging demographic needs.6 In 1956 a specially commissioned committee laid out plans to expand Riverside into radio and possibly television production and update its physical plant for broadcasting. This was followed by a year-long study of a Special FM Radio Committee, led by Francis S. Harmon. A Riverside trustee and former Board of Deacons chairman, Harmon was then serving as vice president of the National Council of Churches and of the Interchurch Center. He had previously been president of the YMCA and worked in motion picture distribution as an assistant to Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, the industry’s organization for self-regulation.7
Based on the Special FM Radio Committee’s advice, Riverside filed an FCC application in early 1957 to operate a station using the last unassigned FM channel in the New York metropolitan area. The application was granted in July 1959. Although its assigned frequency (FM 106.7) was in the commercial part of the spectrum, WRVR proposed to operate on a noncommercial basis. A high-quality 20,000 watt radio transmitter and soundproof studio were retrofitted into the Church at the cost of $130,000, and the station began broadcasting in January 1961. Its range was such that it could be easily heard in all of New York City and surrounding areas of Staten Island, Long Island, northern New Jersey, Westchester County, and Connecticut.8 Riverside set aside a budget of a quarter of a million dollars from the church endowment and bequests to pay for WRVR’s first two years and created the Riverside Broadcasting Company to govern the station.9 Initially WRVR broadcast Riverside’s Sunday services, along with about a hundred hours each week of concert recordings, public affairs shows, and programs featuring local arts and culture.10 The New York Times noted as WRVR began broadcasting, “Although religion will provide the heart of the programming, cultural, educational, news, and musical material will provide the body.”11
Two senior ministers at Riverside oversaw WRVR’s ten-year span as a notable New York City noncommercial radio station: Robert McCracken (1947–1967) and Ernest T. Campbell (1968–1976). In 1961, McCracken envisioned that WRVR would assist the Church to “wield a broad cultural influence and endeavor to lift the whole level of the life of society. It should be alert to the crucial issues of its generation and should seek to communicate to the people the contributions which are being made from every field of human endeavor toward the solution of these issues. Our Radio Station is a pioneering venture with this for its objective.”12
WRVR’s Noncommercial Era, 1961 – 1971
WRVR was highly unusual in being one of the few noncommercial, education-oriented FM stations anywhere in the U.S. controlled by a church, rather than by a school, college, or university.13 The Riverside Church hired Jack Summerfield, formerly of WGBH Boston, as station General Manager. He brought on journalist Walter Nixon to run its nascent news division. WRVR’s civil rights reporting, including a documentary series covering the 1963 Southern Christian Leadership Conference campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, titled Birmingham: Testament of Nonviolence, helped win the station its 1964 Peabody Award.14
In addition to religious and news programming, WRVR focused on arts and cultural programs – most notably long-form deep-dives into jazz recordings. Programs such as Just Jazz hosted by Ed Beach and Father Norman O’Connor’s jazz shows made WRVR the region’s premier station for jazz enthusiasts. Throughout its first year, WRVR also printed a monthly glossy WRVR New York Fine Arts Guide as a companion publication for the station, including inserts with live performance and educational television listings, and profiling people featured in WRVR programs and in the wider city arts scene. In the spring of 1962, Summerfield highlighted WRVR’s early programming breadth in remarks to the New York State Educational Radio-Television Association:
During its first year on the air, WRVR launched a number of special series and one-time broadcasts including: an eight-hour Folk Music Festival, broadcast live from The Riverside Church theatre with tapes made available for VOA [Voice of America] broadcast; an Hispano-American University of the Air four hours weekly; eight consecutive hours of live solo and chamber music originating from several of Riverside’s studios; a thirteen-week series of live piano recitals by Mary Louise Boehm and a violin-piano duo series with Miss Boehm and the Dutch violinist Kees Kooper; interviews with musicians about their art and with cartoonists about ‘The Cartoonist’s Art’ distributed by the NAEB [National Association of Educational Broadcasters]; a complete reading by Robert J. McCracken, Minister of The Riverside Church, of the New English Bible, New Testament, released by the John Milton Society as a Talking Book for the Blind; regular news reports from the United Nations and the Voice of America; three weekly book programs utilizing interviews, readings, and commentary; regular live broadcasts of concerts from the Metropolitan Museum; and Saturday through Thursday midnight presentations of ‘Portion of the Week,’ the Bible as read in the synagogue with Rabbinic commentary.15
Through Summerfield, WRVR played an active role in developing regional educational broadcasting networks, including the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) and the Educational Radio Network / National Educational Radio Network (ERN or NERN) in the Northeastern states, an early predecessor of National Public Radio (NPR). NERN had grown out of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council in the Boston area, with more than a dozen educational and cultural institutions sharing recordings and developing efforts at live radio networking.16 In April 1961, WRVR became the NERN New York City FM affiliate.17 WRVR’s FineArts Guide noted in October 1961 that NERN would serve “nearly a quarter of the country’s population [that] lives in the continuous metropolitan community of the Atlantic Seaboard,” people who represented “the Free World’s most powerful concentration of leadership in education, government, law, science, religion, medicine, industry, and culture.” Through NERN, “Riverside Radio listeners will be participating … in a venture which promises to develop in radio broadcasting its most imperative role: that of the authoritative, responsible, and dedicated disseminator of knowledge in all fields of endeavor.”18
In December 1961, a group of listeners wrote in praise of the new station: “We are writing this note to express our appreciation for the countless hours of pleasure your wonderful programs have given us. From literature to music to science to politics, your station has been unexcelled in binding the world and making us see the interrelatedness not only of all knowledge but of all peoples as well.… Let us take this opportunity to try to thank you for everything you are doing to make so many lives richer.”19
By 1965 WRVR had twenty employees and four interns from Columbia University. The station had acquired a large music library of recordings, in addition to the recordings it made of live performances in its own spaces and vicinity.20 It produced a promotional fifth anniversary show looking back on its achievements as a noncommercial FM station.
In 1967 WRVR reported receiving 25,000 pieces of listener mail annually.21 A new program director was hired, Walter P. Sheppard, most recently of WBUR Boston. Sheppard, who previously had produced several series for NERN, initiated Riverside Radio Theater in 1966, contracting playwrights for original or unproduced scripts.22 Sheppard then assumed leadership of the station after Jack Summerfield left in 1968.23 In the late 1960s, WRVR experimented with new formats, including a free-wheeling overnight call-in show, Night Call.24 By 1970, the station had garnered twenty-two prizes for its programs and for broadcasting excellence. For its tenth anniversary show, “Beating Our Own Drum,” WRVR replayed lengthy excerpts of its prizewinning Birmingham documentary, along with listener praise for the station.
WRVR cost around $200,000 a year to operate. Endowment funds helped during its first two years, and it received a $100,000 annual grant from the James Foundation from 1962 to 1965.25 Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., gifted the station $400,000 in 1966.26 Other foundations contributed smaller grants throughout the 1960s.27 Some church members and people from the community made their own financial contributions to the station,28 but the station struggled to cover its operating costs. Rockefeller endowment funding and other foundation funding was due to expire after 1970, which occasioned some soul-searching about the station’s future. See, for example, a March 1970 dialogue between Dr. Campbell and Dr. Richard Gilbert, executive director of the Division of Mass Media of the United Presbyterian Church USA Board of National Missions, to discuss fresh approaches to religious mass media.
Summerfield recalls that WRVR sought underwriting from corporate grants, but they were hard to come by.29 In February 1971, facing a budget shortfall as sustaining gift funding ran dry, The Riverside Church announced that WRVR would begin accepting limited commercial advertising to bring in revenue to support the station and upgrade the transmitting equipment, with the help of a broadcasting management consulting company, RTV International. At that time it was expected that the format would remain unchanged, and the station continued to air Riverside’s Sunday services during its transition to commercial broadcasting.30 Over the summer of 1971, the station appointed a new general manager, John Wicklein, and announced it would become a commercial all-news station by the fall.31 Instead, the new WRVR weighted its format towards news and public affairs, while retaining the church’s services, musical performances, and Ed Beach’s popular show Just Jazz.32 In 1974, with WRVR running $1.8 million in the red, it moved to an all-jazz format and fired most of the broadcast talent, including some of its Black and Hispanic hosts.33
In 1976 The Riverside Church sold WRVR’s FCC license and equipment to Sonderling Broadcasting for $2.3 million dollars, despite protests from a local group called “Citizens Committee to Save Jazz Radio.” In 1980, Sonderling was bought by Viacom, which abruptly changed WRVR to a country station, sparking a lawsuit that eventually reached the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, filed by those angry at the city for losing a consistent radio home for jazz.34
The regulatory structure of American radio, from its earliest days, favored commercial broadcasters over educational, public, and listener-supported radio stations, a situation that held throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century.35 FM radio blossomed after World War II, with about twenty percent of FM radio channels reserved for noncommercial use,36 thanks in part to lobbying by the NAEB. Noncommercial stations often struggled with “weak signals, poor financing, and lack of interconnection.”37 WRVR in the 1960s, therefore, was a notable exception: it had a powerful signal at the other end of the FM spectrum from most educational-use stations, it was well-financed at its outset, and it was part of the NERN regional consortium of educational and cultural broadcasters.38
Its first station manager, Jack Summerfield, considered WRVR unique as “a church [that] would become a licensee for reasons transcending its own parochial interests.”39 Historian of religion Judith Weisenfeld observed that “despite WRVR’s relatively short lived history, it had a lasting impact on discussions of public affairs in New York City in its time, on many listeners over the years, and on the future of noncommercial radio in the United States. Many New Yorkers still recall WRVR’s forthright and probing shows on social and political issues and its insistent support of jazz and fusion as important art forms. Some of its staff have gone on to have productive careers in media and continue to influence the shape of radio broadcasting in America.”40
The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act created a new legislative structure for noncommercial television and radio. When NPR was established in 1970, it did not include WRVR among its flagship stations. Yet WRVR had pioneered a decade-long model of cultural, news, and public-affairs programming that would inform the culture and practices of public radio and had indelibly left its mark on a broad swath of New York City listeners.41