Local listeners will hear the sound of 'Shalom' again

Radio program features talk and music of interest to Jewish audience

Baltimore ... Or Less

February 13, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

This radio story ends well -- just stay tuned.

Two days before their weekly two-hour show was set to air Jan. 23, Larry Cohen was in Israel, Jay Bernstein was in Baltimore. Cohen and Bernstein, producer and host of the Shalom USA talk radio show, were working on the second of two shows from Israel planned for their listeners on Baltimore's Live 105.7.

What could go wrong while broadcasting from the Middle East?

The week before, a mortar shell had exploded a block from where Cohen was broadcasting from the Gaza Strip. No one was hurt, and Shalom USA finished its Jan. 16 show. This time, the hosts were hoping for a more peaceful show.

Then, on Jan. 21, Bernstein got a call, and it wasn't a happy one. It was one of those calls where you learn your radio show -- 250 shows and counting -- is going off the air and, like, immediately. Radio is an immediate medium and bad news tends to be immediate. There would be no more Shalom USA from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sundays with Jay in Baltimore and Larry in Jerusalem. Come on home, Larry.

"We were stunned," says Cohen. "We couldn't even notify our listeners."

Local radio's dominoes had fallen again. Their show had become a casualty of WHFS 99.1 FM's recent switch from alternative rock to mainstream Spanish pop. After an uproar from rock fans, a retooled WHFS resurfaced on the weeknights and weekends on 105.7 FM.

That meant shalom, Shalom.

Since its quiet debut in 1999, Shalom USA has had an ambitious and quirky streak. Sending Cohen to Israel with remote equipment to produce a month's worth of material was somewhat typical for the program, which was heard by maybe 15,000 people on any given Sunday. Listeners might remember Christmas 2000, when the Shalom guys presented 12 straight hours of talk and music of Jewish interest -- counter-programming that has yet to be repeated locally any Dec. 25 since. Latke-eating contests just don't happen every day on the radio.

It wasn't as if these Baltimore natives were paid for their work. Cohen, a computer analyst, and Bernstein, an attorney, paid to air their program on the Infinity Broadcasting station. They sold ads and accepted donations to break even. Originally, the show was Shalom Baltimore, but over time, they went national in name and were syndicated in six other cities.

Their "two-man, nonprofit operation" has featured rabbis, educators, authors, journalists, politicians and activists. They had a running feature called "Coach Jaz," with then-Towson University basketball coach Mike Jaskulski, who talked about then-freshman basketball player Tamir Goodman, an observant Orthodox Jew.

"Our show is the only place in Baltimore," Bernstein says, "where people can hear news and talk about issues that are really hot topics in the Jewish community."

But this isn't a pity party for the Shalom guys. They know radio stations change formats like people change socks. Bernstein and Cohen still had their day jobs -- but the show was important to them. "It enriches the Jewish community," Bernstein says.

Now for the happy ending to this radio drama. Our intrepid hosts, Bernstein and Cohen, were able to find a new home for their weekend job. Shalom USA returns at the same time, different station. Starting next Sunday, the program can be heard 9-11 a.m. on WITH 1230 AM, a news talk station in Baltimore.

Rock on, guys.

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