February 8, 2001
‘L’Chayim Radio’ Silenced
"I was thinking back to my childhood and the origins of my interest in Judaism," said Mel Wax, native of New York and longtime Los Angeles-area resident, "and it came from the Yiddish records my grandfather gave me."
Like many others in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Wax was a regular listener of KCSN's "L'Chayim Radio," a weekly radio show dedicated to Jewish music, traditions and events.
"I listen to the radio a lot in my car, but it was the only show I listened to at home," Wax said. "I think that the city with the second largest Jewish population deserves a show like that."
Sunday, Feb. 4, marked the final airing of "L'Chayim Radio." With little warning, the show was canceled by KCSN.
"It was definitely a shock. It has been on the air for 27 years, and I have been doing the show for 17 of those years," said its host, Michael Russ, cantor of Congregation B'nai Emet in Simi Valley.
Though not often done in radio, the station allowed one final show, which generated a strong audience response.
"I was amazed on Sunday," Russ said. "Mark Eastman, my volunteer assistant, couldn't be there, so my wife came in. The phone was ringing off the hooks. I couldn't talk to most of them, but my wife told me that people were crying."
The show was born as "Kol Shalom" in 1973 when Mark Alyn and Sid Kaufman joined forces to bring Jewish news, information and music to listeners of the radio station at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Kaufman soon left the program, but the show continued as "L'Chayim Radio" with Alyn for 10 more years.
Alyn said the original was somewhat more serious in nature than Russ' show. "We did live remote broadcasts. We went to Israel," he said. "We taped Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the evening and aired them in the morning for those who couldn't attend. We were even syndicated to a few other stations. We tried to be a voice, a sugar-coated voice, for the community."
When Alyn left to move on to other broadcasting opportunities, Russ volunteered to take over. Donating his time from 10 a.m. to noon every Sunday, Russ focused primarily on music, bringing everything from traditional holiday fare to klezmer and even reggae -- all with a Jewish focus -- to the Los Angeles airwaves.
Along with the music, Russ's show served as an outlet for Jewish organizations and voices. "Different organizations sent me announcements, and I would read them on the air," Russ said, "or sometimes I'd have Jewish nonprofit organizations come to the station.... They would come on and tell about their event or program. It was very community-based."
Local celebrities in the Jewish community such as Ed Asner and Monty Hall, as well as figures from the Jewish music scene, like Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman, were frequent guests of the show.
Russ said he knew that the station's management was not extremely happy with the show. "Rene Engle, the station manager, came in two to three years ago. He's very Jewish. We sat down together, and he told me that Jewish radio was problematic for him. A Jewish guy was the first guy to ever have a problem with a Jewish show."
Engle insisted that the show's cancellation was a programming and fundraising decision. "We have a problem when a program is so narrowly focused and seems not to be attracting an audience at all," Engle said. "For a program that has been in the community for such a long time, it has never built an audience, and that audience has diminished in the four years that I have been here. Radio stations just have to make programming changes that are to the benefit of the listeners and to the benefit of the station."
Engle indicated that the station had not come to a decision about what will replace the show but has been "developing some other concepts for a while."
His response to the idea that the Los Angeles Jewish community needs Jewish radio programming is that KCSN provides Jewish content by covering Jewish events and programs during the station's other shows. "We do a lot of Jewish-related things in ways that have more impact because they are done for a general audience," he said.
Russ believes that the show had a wide following, citing Canadians who would listen whenever they visited Los Angeles. He also remembers receiving calls from Muslim and Christian listeners. "It was a very positive thing for the Jewish community," he said. Recently, the program began broadcasting over the Internet, making it accessible worldwide.
Cantor Kenny Ellis, who sat in for Russ on many occasions, also laments the loss of the show. "The community is really the one who is going to suffer from this," he said. "It had importance for people who are shut in and have no other available outlet for Jewish culture, as well as for all other members of the Jewish community. With the amount of Jewish people in Los Angeles, there is not enough Jewish culture on TV or radio. This was filling that void, and now it is a black hole."
Russ has not lost all hope about the future of "L'Chayim Radio." Though he has limited experience in the world of radio, he is hoping to find a new venue. "People have been very encouraging. They keep saying, 'Please, find a way to do this someplace else.'"
Until then, Wax may need to search out his grandfather's old record collection. "I would like people to do something," said Wax, suggesting that fans of the program call and write the president of CSUN and complain. "A time comes when you have to make noise." And if that noise is music, what could be better?n