WRVR Riverside Radio: A Pioneering Noncommercial Station
WRVR’s Religious Broadcasting
When WRVR went on the air in 1961, only about ninety of the nation’s four thousand radio stations were operated or owned by religious organizations.42 Most of those had grown out of a long tradition of missionary-focused Protestant broadcasting, which aimed to strengthen the Christian faithful and expand their numbers through evangelism and conversion, often accompanied by fundraising appeals. Advocacy organizations such as the National Religious Broadcasters (founded in 1944) sought to carve out part of the American media landscape for ministry-oriented stations and programs.43 WRVR, although technically owned by a church, offered a different philosophy: to be “liberal and dynamic in its approach to religion; interracial in its fellowship; international in its outlook; interdenominational in its inclusive fellowship; and intercultural in its concern.”44 WRVR aired wide-ranging and inclusive religious broadcasting, showcasing the varied religious life of The Riverside Church itself as well as diverse interfaith programming.
Full broadcasts of Sunday Riverside Church services were a weekly staple on WRVR, at the time of the station’s founding becoming the only New York City radio station to air a regular weekly Protestant Church service in its entirety.45 Editions of the FineArts Guide included a clip-out form to mail in for printed copies of Riverside sermons at 10 cents each. Riverside religious programming included holiday specials, guest appearances by notable preachers, and other sermons and lectures, such as a five-part series in 1962, Karl Barth’s Lectures on Evangelical Theology. WRVR also aired daily prerecorded five-minute prayers or sermon excerpts from emeritus minister Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick.46
The Riverside Church was, in many ways, the paradigmatic embodiment of the liberal Protestant establishment. Even the first WRVR Sunday sermon (January 1, 1961), which was delivered by Dr. Robert McCracken, illustrates Riverside’s progressive theology. McCracken’s sermon, “The Acid Test,” wove contemporary news items together with New Testament readings, critiquing American Christians as complacent and prosperous, and issuing a strenuous call towards a modern social gospel.47
Another recording created during the McCracken years featured the efforts of the Riverside Neighbors Committee, which oversaw seventy-five small groups within the Church’s large and geographically dispersed congregation. Each group was invited to gather at home to hear a panel discussion by the lay leaders of the Neighbors Committee on how to help their big inner-city church overcome the “anonymity and alienation” so often found in large congregations. This provides a notable 1960s example of what would later be echoed in the “small group movement” within American megachurches.48
WRVR produced recordings from other church events, for example The Riverside Church’s March 1965 retrospective, “Where the New Began,” celebrating Riverside’s history including its long-established church school, arts and crafts division, and social service committee work.
WRVR also regularly broadcast entire Church committee and business meetings, leaving a documentary record of the day-to-day governing of a large urban congregation, such as this adoption of the 1962 budget at the 1961 members’ meeting.
Another example is a recording (undated, circa 1968) of the proceedings of the Religious Society of The Riverside Church, announcing Dr. Campbell to succeed Dr. McCracken as Riverside’s preaching minister.
WRVR’s November 1961 FineArts Guide proclaimed that the station “seeks to present activities which will reflect the total life of the Church and be an integral part of it, drawing sustenance from the Church and contributing strength and vitality to it. In its program operations WRVR seeks to represent the whole Church…. As Riverside Radio WRVR assumes its role in communicating the Word imaginatively but realistically, we see increasingly the need to throw off the denominational and ecclesiastical trimmings.”49 For example, note the tagline, “international, interracial, interdenominational,” at the end of brief carillon performances inserted periodically for station identification.
One way that the station discarded the “denominational and ecclesiastical trimmings” was by highlighting interfaith programming, like rebroadcasting the semi-annual General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originating from Salt Lake City, Utah.50 WRVR also produced special programs looking at Catholic life in America, such as a 1965 conversation with Father Joseph F. Scheuer and Fordham communications professor Edward Wakin, authors of a study about how life was changing for American nuns. WRVR programs considered the theological, ecumenical, and liturgical reforms of the Vatican II Council.
One regular, long-running interfaith effort was Portion of the Week, a weekly Torah reading with commentary by guest rabbis drawn from over forty-five synagogues and Jewish centers in the greater New York / New Jersey metropolitan area. The collection features over 300 episodes, such as this example from March 1962. Orthodox Rabbi Samuel Landa of the Ozone Park (New York) Jewish Center comments on the first chapters of Leviticus.
WRVR also provided space for other interfaith productions honoring Jewish culture and history. It partnered with the Jewish Theological Seminary to produce a series exploring Jewish holidays, including a 1966 program explaining the significance of Sukkot.
The station recorded and then rebroadcast a May 28, 1965, Sabbath service of the Park Avenue Synagogue devoted to the remembrance of victims of the Holocaust, during which the synagogue hosted former President Dwight Eisenhower and awarded him a silver-bound Bible in appreciation for his role in liberating European concentration camps. The speaker was Rabbi Judah Nadich, who had been a World War II military chaplain and Eisenhower’s adviser on Jewish affairs.
The WRVR Collection includes numerous recordings that highlight American religious life across different traditions, and appearances at the Riverside pulpit by guest preachers, scholars, and theologians including Martin Luther King, Jr., James I. McCord, Edwin T. Dahlberg, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and many others.