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Philadelphia radio announcer closing in on 50 years of spinning Jewish platters

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PHILADELPHIA — He isn't a turbocharged, larger-than-life character, like Jerry Blavat. Nor is he a benign presence still embracing the peace-and-love ethos of the 1960s, like Pierre Robert. Or an agent provocateur, nonchalantly hurling verbal Molotov cocktails, on the order of Angelo Cataldi or Howard Eskin.

Nonetheless, there's no question that Barry Reisman is as much a local radio institution as any of the above-named broadcasters.

Since 1965, Reisman has occupied a unique niche on the local airwaves as the Delaware Valley's go-to source for Jewish music, playing records by an eclectic roster of performers, from Yiddish theater icon Molly Picon and mid-20th-century cantor/recording star Jan Peerce to the Klezmatics, a leading act of the contemporary klezmer scene, and Mordechai Ben David, a major Hasidic pop star.

Not that Reisman is having any of it.

"I just go in and do my show and love doing it. I don't think of myself in that way," he protested when asked about the "institution" appellation.

Maybe he doesn't, but many listeners would likely disagree with Reisman, whose eponymous program on WWDB (860-AM) airs weekdays from 9 to 10 a.m. and Sunday from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

One such fan is Harris Bookfor, 56, a native of the Northeast's Castor Gardens section, now living in Alexandria, Virginia

"Barry is a Jewish Philly icon," wrote Bookfor — who tunes in to "The Barry Reisman Show" via the Internet — in a Facebook message. "When I have bagels, lox and Sunday morning brunch, I have to be listening to Barry Reisman. The food tastes better when Barry is playing music.

"We listened to him as a family in the '60s. My grandmother listened with us. I remember my family dancing to his music and laughing at the comedy he shared with us. A few weeks ago, my granddaughter and daughter listened to Barry with us during Sunday brunch. He's touched five generations in our family."

A radio bug in his ear

It's not that Reisman, 71, ever saw himself spending his life as local radio's Jewish-music guy.

"I did not intend to do it for a long time. I wanted to be in radio, but I wasn't sure of what phase of radio I would be in," he said over a recent lunch at Ponzio's, the Cherry Hill landmark that is just a bagel's throw from the home the father of two grown daughters shares with Roselyn, his wife of 40 years.

"But the radio bug definitely bit me, and this was something I could do. I had some Jewish albums and begged, borrowed and stole others, and I gave it a shot."

Reisman was in his early 20s when he got his first Jewish-music gig, a weekly half-hour shift on WTEL-AM, on the same frequency he broadcasts over today. But his love of the medium predates that.

"I always had an interest in radio broadcasting," he recalled.

"When I was a kid, I used to have a habit of speaking so fast that people couldn't understand me. I started listening to the radio to see how they talked, and I got hooked on Frank Ford, (Joe) Grady and (Ed) Hurst . . . all the guys on Wibbage (WIBG-AM)," he added, referring to some of the iconic local personalities who inspired him.

As a teenager, the Olney High School grad bought a kit and assembled a unit that allowed him to "broadcast" over a block or two from his West Oak Lane house. That sealed the deal. "The lady down the block said, 'I heard you on the radio.' That was it."

Sure to Shore

While attending St. Joseph's College (now University), Reisman, whose family had a pretzel-manufacturing business that was a Delaware Valley mainstay for decades, wrote to several local radio personalities, asking if he could come to their studios and watch them work.

Eddie Newman, heard on WTEL, not only welcomed the youngster to his studio but, after he purchased Atlantic City's WRNJ-FM in 1962, offered Reisman a regular shift.

"I didn't even catch a breath before I said, 'Yeah,' " Reisman said.

That led to summer-vacation stints at two other Shore outlets for the education major who, for a few postgrad years, taught in Camden. But radio remained his first love, and in February 1965 he started a half-hour, Sunday morning Jewish-music program on WTEL.

The program's popularity was such that, within months, he left for WQAL-FM (now Mix 106.1), which gave him an hour on Sundays. That eventually became a four-hour shift.

"I expected to do it for six months," he admitted. "But the program started to expand and become commercially successful. It caught me by surprise."

In 1971, WQAL was sold. Reisman moved to WIBF-FM (now Praise 103.9), where he remained for more than 20 years before signing on at WWDB.

Master of his medium

In addition to playing records, Reisman has interviewed all manner of Jewish movers and shakers, from entertainers like Jackie Mason and William Shatner to such news makers as Rabbi Meir Kahane, the ultra-militant founder of the Jewish Defense League.

It's that versatility, along with his longevity, that impresses Reisman's close friend, philanthropist Kal Rudman, who, like Reisman, is a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame.

"In terms of being a radio broadcaster, Barry Reisman is amazing. He is a master," said Rudman. "But it's not how heavy he is, it's how long he has been heavy."

Although he is at an age where many people are enjoying retirement, Reisman has no such plans. But even after 50 years in broadcasting, he understands that radio is a capricious field at best.

"You're only as good as your last show," he reasoned. "I've been fortunate that there's always been a station that wanted (the show). I have no plans to stop, but I can't tell you about tomorrow."


Online:

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Information from: The Philadelphia Daily News, http://www.phillydailynews.com/

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