A Modest Proposal For Think Radio

Irwin Gonshak

By Irwin Gonshak for The Sound Palette

Proposed: That One Radio Station in Every US City Be Devoted Exclusively to Broadcasting a University of the Air.

Herman Melville said the whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale. My Harvard and Yale was the radio… back in the 1930s and 40s. After school I would run home to the radio and listen to world heavyweight champion James Braddock teach me how to box in ten easy lessons. WOR’s Let’s Pretend taught me the strange tales from the four winds. A little later on, Professor Gilbert Highet on WCBS taught me about the Greek and Roman classics, about Homer and Virgil. WQXR’s The Author Meets the Critics taught me about James Joyce and Thomas Mann. WEAF’s Town Hall Meeting of the Air taught me about the conflict between isolationists and the interventionists before World War II.

In 1940, Edward R. Murrow called radio the biggest classroom in the world. As Director of Talks at WCBS, he had world leaders, scientists, artists gives scripted talks to the radio audience on their field of endeavor; for example– Albert Einstein talked about his Theory of Relativity, Eleanor Roosevelt talked about human rights. Radio taught history, languages, literature, drama, science, music– all the disciplines. I’ve always felt that radio can do anything, quickly and cheaply. No expensive equipment needed. Radio can reach the listener anywhere, anytime. Radios are in all homes, many times over.

I’ve spent my life in radio, writing and producing hundreds of dramatic scripts on every imaginable subject from Monsoons in India to the Underground Railroad. Radio can teach Japanese. Radio can teach parenting. Radio can teach Shakespeare.

My passion is radio drama. At WNBC, I wrote dozens of scripts on Jewish history and culture for The Eternal Light series which was broadcast on Sundays from the Radio City Music Hall studio– live, coast to coast. At WNYE-FM, then run by the NYC Board of Education, we used radio drama to supplement the curriculum– and from 9 AM–3 PM weekdays, our 15 minute educational radio dramas were heard by students in schools across the city. I wrote hundreds of radio scripts for WNYE-FM about the whole world: Out of the Past, Private Eye on the Environment, Dateline, Africa!, Read Me the Comics!, Drug Abuse! Dead End!, Math Plus!, 20th Century Science,and dozens of other series that dealt with subjects students were studying in the classroom.

In 1976, the NYC budget crisis led to the abandonment of the production staff at WNYE-FM. Yet I continued to produce educational radio programs by winning grants for WNYE-FM. For example, with the grants we were able to produce a series on teaching the US Constitution with the New York Historical Society; a documentary on Troubled Times, Troubled Teenagers with Margaret Mead; a dramatic series on Holocaust Experiences based on survivors’ memoirs; Emergency Stance with FEMA;Safety Zone/ Stay Alert! on child abuse prevention. Using the talents of nineteen poets from Teachers & Writers Collaborative, we were able to broadcast a series on poetic forms. In a language series, teachers from the NYC public schools, Japan Society, Columbia University, SUNY, CUNY introduced listeners to Russian, Greek, Chinese, Yiddish and Japanese. With the Library of America and Teachers & Writers Collaborative, we produced a series called Teacher as Historian with talks by scholars nationwide on American History. A weekly series from the University of Missouri, Kansas City with the Organization of American Historians was broadcast on Teacher as Historian. Many of these series continue to be rebroadcast on WNYE-FM/ 91.5-RADIO NEW YORK which is now operated by the NYC Government.

Currently I am radio producer for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and produce a series called EVERYTHING GOES?– literary readings, talks, discussions, dramas– on all subjects– broadcast every weekday from 6:30–7 PM on WNYE-FM. Recently to further the cause of radio drama, we produced a BIG APPLE SHORT RADIO DRAMA FESTIVAL ON WNYE-FM— with scores of scripts submitted worldwide– with the support of the Writers Guild of America, East, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Brooklyn College Radio, NYU Dept. of TV/Radio, Hassberry Theatre Company, and others.

Most radio today is diverting, informational, commercial, forgetable, but not educational. There are no radio stations that devote their entire broadcast day to courses in world literature or foreign languages or ancient history or world geography or science or… Yet education is a national priority. Once again– as it was in years past– we need instructional radio that will, as Agatha Christie’s private detective Hercule Poirot says, “make your little grey cells work!”

What should be done? The government should set aside one radio station in every city for a consortium of colleges and other educational institutions (with the necessary funds) to broadcast instructional series throughout the day and evening, seven days a week. Then, at least, listeners would have the opportunity to educate themselves conveniently and pleasantly, on that part of the dial reserved for THINK RADIO– THE UNIVERSITY OF THE AIR.

Irwin Gonshak is Chair of the WGAE Short Radio Drama Committee, as well as radio producer for Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Email Irwin: igonshak@aol.com


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