WRVR Riverside Radio: A Pioneering Noncommercial Station

Public Affairs on WRVR

Jack Summerfield, WRVR general manager from 1961 – 1968, shaped the station’s approach to rigorous and expansive public affairs programming. Occasionally WRVR scooped other news organizations, as with Walter Nixon’s reporting on certain aspects of the Cuban Missile Crisis.51 It developed many regular and special programs focused on local, national, and international events and topics of public concern, including ones that drew on the strengths of the documentary unit’s penchant for recording the ambient sound of New York itself.52 To some extent, its interactive listener call-in programs (like the military draft special described in Section 3 of this exhibit) also functioned as public affairs content, putting people on the air – unedited – to ask questions and share observations and stories. Night Call, which used WRVR studios during its 20-month run in 1968-1969, was one such show. Night Call was hosted by Black DJ Del Shields every weeknight around midnight, usually with an in-studio guest. It was carried over 92 stations nationwide with the sponsorship of the United Methodist Church and the National Council of Churches. People of all races and backgrounds collect-called into the station’s phone line to converse with Shields and his guests in a free-flowing, unscripted interchange that made the show a local and national phenomenon.53

Del Shields, left, interviews guest Mayor John V. Lindsay on Night Call, while Station Manager Walter P. Sheppard looks on in the summer of 1968, courtesy of The Riverside Church Archives.
Del Shields, left, interviews guest Mayor John V. Lindsay on Night Call, while Station Manager Walter P. Sheppard looks on in the summer of 1968, courtesy of The Riverside Church Archives.

WRVR’s location in upper Manhattan with proximity to several major universities, theological schools, and the United Nations gave producers a ready network of civic leaders, scholars, journalists, and activists for its programs.54 This wide range is suggested by a few examples from the collection.

WRVR Public Affairs Unit produced a number of different public affairs shows, among them the variety talk show Pulsebeat 70 hosted by Barney Lane three evenings a week, with segments such as “Congressional Comment” by members of Congress (produced by the United Church of Christ Communication Department), reports from the United Nations, and urban affairs coverage.

On “The Advocates,” guests debated a topic and invited listeners to vote by mail.

WRVR also produced a weekly show called Politics. This January 1970 episode of the series includes interviews with two of Manhattan’s elected district leaders.

The news division made occasional specials, such as Walter Nixon’s March 1963 coverage of the expulsion of the Jewish Center of King’s Highway, Brooklyn, from the United Synagogues of America over bingo fundraising.

A four-part series described the stages of aging: What Aging Means, with Dr. Dorothy Hill Larsen, consultant to The Riverside Church’s Tower League. The series also was made available for sale as cassette tapes.55

Riverside Radio aired a number of programs that traced feminist and women’s rights movements, including an undated moderated dialogue in a Gateway to Ideas episode titled “Changing Attitudes Towards Women.” Another example in the collection is a 1970 Five Colleges Forum on sexual politics and the oppression of women, featuring a speech by feminist Barnard philosophy professor Kate Millett, taped at Smith College with audience questions about patriarchy, women’s liberation, legal equality, and abortion.

Riverside also pioneered forthright radio coverage of gay and lesbian communities when it rebroadcast a 1965 series, The Homosexual: A New Minority. In ten episodes originating from KXKX, the station of the San Francisco Theological Seminary and moderated by Methodist minister John D. Moore, guests discussed social, psychological, and religious dimensions of LGBTQ life, civil liberties and legal considerations, and issues of discrimination. All the programs in the series are in the collection.

WRVR often devoted entire hours-long broadcasts to prerecorded speeches or lectures by notable public figures, even those far outside the political mainstream, like John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s address at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, from April 1963. The Birch Society, founded in 1958, was a crusading far-right anti-Communist organization that believed the United States and the United Nations faced an internal Communist threat.56 WRVR’s rebroadcast of Welch’s speech suggests the station’s commitment to informing its audience of political and cultural developments of public concern.

An illustration of the National Educational Radio Network (NERN) featured on the cover of the October 1961 WRVR Fine Arts Guide, courtesy of The Riverside Church Archives.
An illustration of the National Educational Radio Network (NERN) featured on the cover of the October 1961 WRVR Fine Arts Guide, courtesy of The Riverside Church Archives.

A long-running WRVR series, Late, Late Lecture, rebroadcast speeches and lectures of general interest delivered around the country, often recorded at universities or professional society meetings. There are thirty-one Late, Late Lectures in the WRVR Collection, including talks by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, novelist Katherine Ann Porter, poet John Ciardi, former president Harry Truman, poet and playwright Jean Cocteau, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, cartoonist Herbert Block, and many others – not all of them identified on the recordings, such as the speaker of “American Anxieties: The Political Results,” which aired in October 1964.

Some of WRVR’s public affairs programming came through the sharing of broadcasts of recordings with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB), the National Educational Radio Network (NERN), and other educational broadcast stations.57 The collection includes numerous examples of this shared content, like a NERN “Special of the Week” from April 1965 with American ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, speaking to a New York City convention of newspaper publishers.

The collection contains twenty-one episodes of a 1971 WRVR interview show focused on civil engineering and the environment, This Land Is Your Land, hosted by Dr. Gerald Strobel, founder of Ecology and Environment. The show undoubtedly was influenced by the emerging environmental movement (the first Earth Day was held in April 1970). In this example from March 1971, a guest from New York City’s Department of Sanitation explains the city’s solid waste disposal process and future prospects for reducing waste through recycling.

During the ten years of WRVR at The Riverside Church, the demographics of its neighboring East Harlem neighborhood was changing, with increasing numbers of Black and Latino residents. WRVR’s weekly program Urban Affairs Report often addressed local and city-wide concerns, city planning, and urban quality of life issues. For example, the Urban Affairs Report from January 24, 1970, rebroadcast an edited recording of a public meeting focused on gentrification and “urban renewal” on New York’s West Side.

Supporting the needs of WRVR’s local community meant producing civic affairs programming not only in English but also in Spanish. These efforts were spearheaded by Riverside’s Hispano-American Minister, Pablo Cotto.58 Reverend Cotto discussed church outreach efforts to the Hispanic community in a multipart series from April 1961, The Hispanic Voice of Riverside.

WRVR also produced a weekly show called Hispanic Community, a bilingual program focused on cultural and public affairs of New York’s Hispanic community and the international Spanish-speaking world. Hispanic Community was hosted by Peter Bloch, president of the Association for Puerto Rican Hispanic Culture; the WRVR collection contains about twenty recordings from this series, including a 1970 panel dedicated to efforts at community-informed policing in East Harlem and New York’s 23rd Precinct.

Next: Covering the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements