‘Golden age’ long gone, but radio carries torch today
By Joseph Cannavo
At a time when Italian-Americans are thought of simply as mainstream Americans, and their ethnically based radio programs and newspapers are done in English, it is easy to forget there was a time when Italian language radio and press were second to the mainstream English language media, especially along the northeast corridor between Boston and Philadelphia.
By the late 1890s Italian language newspapers had begun springing up along the northeast corridor in areas populated heavily by Italian immigrant families. By the 1920s, Philadelphia had Il Popolo Italiano and L’Opinione; Boston, La Gazzetta del Massachusetts; and San Francisco, Il Corriere del Popolo. However, none ever attained the prominence of New York’s Il Progresso Italo-Americano.
It was 1928 before Il Progresso, as it was commonly known, rose to dominance and became the epitome of Italian-American ethnic political brokerage. Purchased that year by Genoroso Pope, the circulation doubled to 200,000 in New York and shortly thereafter spread out into Philadelphia, after he purchased L’Opinione.
He encouraged his readers to learn English, become citizens and vote. Though New York and Philadelphia each had their own editions, Italians anywhere who read the paper were greatly influenced by national issues as well as cultural and social issues of concern to millions of Italians who had made America their new home. Politically being pro-Fascist, the owner had a strong hold on how Italians should view Fascism and even persuaded President Roosevelt to take a neutral attitude over Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. However, in 1941 he broke with Mussolini and enthusiastically threw his support behind America’s war effort. There were “renegades” among the readers, the majority of who believed in him and followed his lead. He was even credited with delivering the Italian vote to President Harry S. Truman in the 1948 election.
By the early 1980s readership of the Italian language newspapers had dwindled drastically. Time and the very assimilation that Pope had encouraged took its tolls. The descendents of the Italian immigrant might still be able to speak an outdated dialect or something one might refer to as Italianese. However, reading or in some cases caring about the Italian language was almost nil. Most Italian language papers are now gone, including “Il Progresso Italo-Americano.” After its demise former employees of Il Progresso, with funding aid from the Italian government, established America Oggi, which is published daily, entirely in Italian. Any others that exist are published weekly or monthly. Today Italian-Americans and aficionados of things Italian rely on English language publications like The Delaware Valley Italian-American Herald to get their news.
Italian language radio, whose broadcasts once dominated the airwaves, has a similar history to that of the press. Italian language radio broadcasts started in New York in 1916 when a station called WGL was bought by a Sicilian-born importer name John Iraci, and became WOV. To this day these call letters remain synonymous with the story of Italian radio in the United States. In fact, the station would eventually become the flagship station for Italian language radio in this country. The first broadcasts were very few and weren’t regularly scheduled. Even as late
as 1925, Italian radio programs on Philadelphia’s 10-watt WABY were few and barely audible a mile away.
However, given the kind of impact that this target audience could have for advertisers, in Italian communities throughout the country, stations with strong signals began hiring broadcasters and scheduling regular programming. By 1935 over 100 stations were broadcasting in Italian, the principals being WOV in New York, WPEN in Philadelphia and WAAB in Boston. Advertisers came aboard en masse, especially the purveyors of olive oil, wine, and pasta products. Thanks to this broadcast phenomena, in Italian homes every morning, the day started with “una tazza di Caffè Medaglia d’Oro,” a cup of Medaglia d’Oro Coffee, and,“l’eccessiva acidità,” acid indigestion was relieved with the ever-famous Brioschi. Names like Giorgio Padovani, Diana Baldi, Ralph Borrelli, Anna Russo and Gennaro Gardenia became household names. So strong was the influence that these programs had on consumers and the loyalty which was attached to it that Philadelphia’s Ralph Borrelli once received a call from a listener that went something like this: “Please Mr. Borrelli, we are not rich people. We bought the radio and we bought the refrigerator. But we just can’t afford the new furniture.”
While many programs originated locally, national sponsors chose to buy block programs, which originated in New York, but were heard in other cities by way of the coaxial cable or recorded transcription. Among the best remembered was the DeNobili Cigars Co.’s “Celebrity Profiles” with Pietro Novasio; WEVD’s Paramount Macaroni Program; the comedy of Anna and Roberto Ciaramella, presented by the Gem Oil Co.; Torino Food’s’ “The Adventures of Pasquale C.O.D.; and “The Voice of The Italian Ladies Garment Workers’ Union Local 89,” with Vanni Montana.
In the mid-1960s Italian radio began to decline, with FM stations (then considered secondary to the AM frequency) offering limited time to the Italian programs, while AM stations looked to the growing Spanish language market. New York’s WHBI-FM and Philly’s WDAS-FM took on the role as radio stations serving the dwindling Italian language community. However as station owners realized the potential of the FM band, the non-profitable Italian programs were eliminated or found homes again on local AM stations. Gone was the “golden age of Italian radio” in the United States. Those remaining consisted mainly of local announcers “spinning discs.” The melodramatic radio soap operas of” Il Teatro dell’Aria” and the classical style comedy of Italo-American comedians like Sandrino Giglio disappeared from the airwaves. Italy RAI, the Italian Radio and TV network, supplied specialized programming to U.S. stations that carried Italian programs. However, since there was no advertising attached to them, rarely did they get aired. Today the Italian language radio programs are far and few between, and usually presented on a weekly basis. Those who still want or need 24/7 Italian language programs can listen to ICN, a station owned by America Oggi and partially sustained by subsidies from the Italian government. The catch is you need to subscribe and purchase a special adapter with internet hookup.
As for Italian language television in the past, there is little to be said. In the 1950s the Bontempis introduced an Italian-oriented food show, which for a period was successful. Soon other food and cooking shows soon flooded TV’s airwaves. When UHF channels began to appear in the 1960s, actual Italian television shows found their way to the airwaves, but they quickly were caught up in the decline of America’s Italian language mass communications media. It never had a “golden age,” and any notable current TV programming in Italian is via cable and satellite as a premium service. The most recent addition to the premium satellite service is TV7 Lazio. There is a new heightened interest in Italian, and the Herald intends to keep its readers informed of the Italian language’s role in America’s digital age.
Today Italian-American radio, as opposed to Italian language radio, is the new avenue to reach and entertain today’s Italian-Americans, who don’t understand Italian, but cling to their ethnic roots. Being frozen in the time tunnel created by their parents and grandparents, listeners want the music dating prior to the 1970s or recorded by artists like Al Martino, Connie Francis, Toni Arden and Jimmy Roselli, just to name a few. Today among others, radio personalities like Melissa Cannavo-Marino, Don Giovanni, John Richetta and Joe Capogreco fill this gap. Contemporary Italian recording artists are also featured, but their music receives 99 percent of its exposure on the very few Italian language radio programs that remain on the air. Nonetheless Italian pride lives on as witnessed by the increase in the study of Italian in our schools, the attendance at Italian festivals, and the big interest in genealogical research. Ultimately the result will be an Italian-American mass media that will endure and always support our proud heritage and history.
Editor’s note: While many of today’s generation are connecting to the musical, cultural and folk customs of their grandparents and great-grandparents, many have begun to want to know and learn more about today’s Italian artists and their music and Italy’s contemporary lifestyles.