There are few couplings more magical than late-night and radio. Whether its pre-“American Graffiti” Wolfman Jack, spinning rockabilly from an AM tower near the Mexican border, or Allison Steele, “the nightbird,” floating through the jazzy Manhattan air on the old free-form hipster FM, the wee small hours are when radio is most intimate and for you alone. You listen, blanketed by night’s darkness, in the car coming home from somewhere, or even on your pillow. For 19 years, Jewish audiences have had Zev Brenner on WMCA Saturday nights and now on WPAT during weeknights, too.
According to ratings, Brenner has several hundred thousand listeners. Radio ratings are not as exact as television’s, so let’s look there: Brenner’s Friday morning TV show on WPXN (Channel 31) earned
a 1-share in the November Nielsen’s, which is remarkable for a Jewish talk show. By comparison, the Ricky Lake show in the same 11 a.m. time slot has a 3-share. Reruns of sitcom “Caroline in the City” pulls a 2.
The other week, in a candidate’s debate at Harlem’s Apollo theater, Vice President Al Gore said America was “better off” for having a local black-owned radio station such as WLIB. Sen. Bill Bradley also said “we need more minority media.” Both support affirmative action bills to increase the number of blacks in media ownership, but chances are that neither ever thought of Orthodox broadcasters as a minority that could also use a boost.
Brenner, 41, leases his time on WPAT, WMCA and WPXN-TV, unlike WLIB which was founded and owned by prominent black New Yorkers such as Percy Sutton, with David Dinkins among the investors.
Brenner says, “When the verdict came down in the Diallo case, where are you going to go to hear the black reaction? You turn to WLIB. To a certain extent, Jewish radio has learned from black radio.”
Whether it was the Rabin assassination or the police shooting of Borough Park’s Gary Busch, Brenner’s show is the place where Jews call in to connect to events and each other.
But there is no station with full-time Jewish programming. Brenner’s Saturday night flagship show is on WMCA, a Christian station.
Brenner says he’d like “to do this 24 hours a day, six days a week, aside from Shabbos, of course.”
Brenner and his audience, for the most part, call it “Shabbos,” not Shabbat. There’s a difference. His is an old-time Orthodox audience; an audience too often misunderstood or even insulted by much of the Jewish media. What’s dear to the Orthodox is dear to Brenner. He is them: a father of four who sends his children to yeshivas, a Jew who finds a late minyan Sunday morning after working the night.
He knows that many of his listeners “don’t read secular newspaper or watch television, so radio is one of their few media outlets. Where else can they speak to Bibi Netanyahu or Shulamit Aloni or Rudy Giuliani and get things off their chest?”
Brenner’s wife, Adena Berkowitz, is quite involved, actually, with the larger world. An attorney, she serves as community liason for Public Advocate Mark Green, is a consultant to Hadassah, and serves on the board of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Menachem Leib falls asleep five minutes into Brenner’s WMCA midnight show. Menachem Leib, 7 years old, goes around Brenner’s desk and, cat-like, nestles into daddy’s arms, dropping his tired head on Brenner’s shoulder while Brenner keeps talking into the mike. At the break, the boy is tucked in. Brenner, broadcasts from a studio in his ninth-floor West Side apartment. The studio is a small room with peach walls, wooden bookshelves crammed with everything from Ben Hecht’s “Perfidy,” to A.B. Yehoshua. There are piles of tapes — audio and visual — a computer, and a pair of mikes.
He shares his mike with just about everyone, from the last four Israeli prime ministers to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who gave his first Jewish interview to Brenner after the Crown Heights pogrom, as Brenner unashamedly calls it.
Often, Brenner has to settle down a passionate caller or a passionate guest. When Ruthy from Flatbush says, “You should not even be considering the Palestinians people … they’re known to be animals,” Brenner quickly tells her she can’t denigrate human beings like that. “You may not agree with a certain terrorism and violence that permeates Palestinian society, but to call all of them animals does a terrible disservice to whatever cause you’re espousing.”
He doesn’t cut her off, allowing her to rephrase her thoughts. He allows callers to engage in real conversation, rather than a one-liner and out.
A minute later, a Neturei Karta spokesman says, “It was the Zionist presence that … provoked all the so-called pogroms.”
Now Brenner has to jump in on the other side: “What do you mean, so-called pogroms? Jews were killed with the consent of ruling authorities. That is not a so-called pogrom. That is a pogrom … Jews have every right to settle in Eretz Yisroel.”
But he remains calm, a mensch, never missing an opportunity to lighten up the proceedings.
When one caller tells of Jewish skiers planning a political protest, on skis, on the snowy Austrian border, Brenner asks: “Aren’t you heading down a slippery slope?”
Brenner — “We’re all Jewish, all night tonight” — tells listeners, “We’re going to give you a chance to win a loaf of A & B Famous Frozen Gefilte Fish, or a box of delicious cookies from Mezonos Maven.”
The questions are about identifying the uniqueness of the Jerusalem Zoo, (“all biblical animals,” answers Charles from Flushing); the place of the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles (“Yad Vashem,” says Raizy from Borough Park) and who said: “Better to keep Sharm El Sheikh and not have peace with Egypt than to surrender Sharm El Sheikh and have peace”?
That’s right, Adon from Borough Park, it was Moshe Dayan.
It is halfway to morning. Good night Estee from Monsey. Good night sweet Jews who live alone with no voice in the apartment but Zev’s. Kosher hamburger joints close on Avenue J and he’s on car radios. It’s raining in Jerusalem, reports Brenner’s newscast. Clarinets play a niggun as background music for the ads from Ma and Pa shops in Williamsburg. All through the night, God’s in his heaven and Zev Brenner’s on the radio.