WRVR Riverside Radio: A Pioneering Noncommercial Station
Covering the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements
News programs regularly aired on WRVR included BBC World Report; a short daily live feed from Washington D.C., with Voice of America announcer Raymond Swing; National Council of Churches’ Church World News; and a regular program of news commentary produced in-house with Riverside’s Executive Minister, Gordon Gilkey Views the News.59 WRVR aired exclusive local coverage of the 1971 hearings of the Knapp Commission investigating corruption in the New York City Police Department.
But because it had its own news division, WRVR did much more. Perhaps WRVR’s most important contribution to news and documentary reporting in the 1960s was their attention to the unfolding Black civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and their exploration of these events through innovative, long-form documentaries.
Some examples of WRVR’s civil rights coverage include the following:
Full coverage of a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) weekly press conference from May 14, 1963, with CORE’s leader, James Farmer, taking place in Washington, D.C., over a live Educational Radio Network hookup to panels of journalists in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In the press conference, Farmer responded to questions about the “present mood” of Black Americans, the goals and strategies of CORE and the Freedom Task Force, and movement leaders’ views of President Kennedy’s civil rights policies.
A six-hour documentary series recorded on-scene in Alabama by Jack Summerfield and journalist Walter Nixon during the May 1963 Birmingham campaign, Birmingham: Testament of Nonviolence. Without commentary or analysis, Summerfield and Nixon edited long audio-recorded sequences into harrowing and suspenseful episodes that captured the momentousness and uncertainty of the effort to desegregate Birmingham’s schools and public spaces using nonviolent action.60 Rev. Bob Polk, minister to youth of The Riverside Church, joined Summerfield and Nixon for part 4 of the series, “Back to School in Birmingham,” and the broadcast includes excerpts from his discussion with Black teenagers involved in the direct action campaign on their attitudes and experiences.
New York Times radio reporter Jack Gould argued that “the effectiveness of the WRVR coverage lay in the station’s determination to let the events speak for themselves.” The documentary not only covered moments of great tension and drama, but also “unhurried interviews with persons of all conceivable shades of opinion in Birmingham. In consequence the listener felt in the center of unfolding history in the South and had a kaleidoscopic view of the diverse forces influencing its course.” Gould suggested that only a noncommercial radio station could afford such “depth of treatment and outspokenness seldom available elsewhere on the dial.”61 Birmingham: Testament of Nonviolence won multiple awards and contributed to the station’s winning its Peabody Award in 1964. It was offered for rebroadcast on the NAEB Radio Network and “received nationwide publicity as outstanding examples of radio journalism.”62
The WRVR collection contains all six episodes from the series and a 1970 rebroadcast containing excerpts.
While in Birmingham, Summerfield and Nixon produced additional broadcasts, including “An Oriental Views His Life in Birmingham” and “The Birmingham Story: Personal Comment by Dick Gregory.”
WRVR programs on the antiwar movement in New York and elsewhere include:
“Vietnam: A Crisis of Conscience” event, sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, held at The Riverside Church on 4 April 1967, with an audience of three thousand in attendance. Speakers included Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, John C. Bennett of Union Theological Seminar, Henry Steele Commager of Amherst College, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered a seminal anti-war speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Calling for a ceasefire, King’s speech critiqued U.S. foreign policy as colonialism and expressed sympathy for the Viet Cong and other global revolutionary movements.63 [Note: This recording is available for listening at the Library of Congress and GBH.]
An hour-long interview by Jean Vinward with three members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Dave Bromm, Mark Donnelly, and Jonathan Horowitz. This program aired in September 1967.
An undated show (possibly from October 20, 1967), interviewing a group of Yale Divinity students who were turning in their draft cards as resistors, as they prepared to travel to a march and sit-in at the Pentagon.
A two and a half-hour call-in show about the military draft, produced by WRVR’s Urban Affairs Unit aired March 21, 1968, aired in response to many requests from listeners. It was intended to help allay concerns about new Selective Service regulations. Callers received practical advice on deferments, conscientious objection, and order of call, from a panel of experts.
In 1969, The Riverside Church began a series of memorials for American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War by solemnly reading their names and hometowns. The WRVR collection contains several recordings from this project, like “Reading of the War Dead” from November 16, 1968, with over two hours of names read.
Live speeches and music recorded at the Moratorium March Against Death in Washington, D.C., November 15, 1969, by speakers and performers, such as Dick Gregory, Tom Paxton, Dr. Benjamin Spock, former Undersecretary of Commerce Howard Samuels, Peter Yarrow, Arlo Guthrie, Leonard Bernstein, Vietnam War veteran Curtis Stocker, David Dellinger, National Welfare Rights Organization Vice-Chairman Beulah Sanders, Senator Charles Goodell, Ossie Davis, Senator George McGovern, Father Kirkpatrick, Pete Seeger, and Coretta Scott King.
The Eastern Public Radio Network's coverage of the Rally for Peace in Washington D.C., November 15, 1969, weaving in prerecorded segments and news commentary by Bob Kerry and Bonnie Lane.