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Labor Broadcast

In addition to its newspapers, in the 1920s Rochester’s labor community utilized the new technology of radio to get its message out. As an ad in the Labor Herald noted in 1922, “Radio is sweeping the country, carrying into the homes of rich and poor alike a modern facility for pleasure and education which is binding our peoples together in a new and democratic brotherhood.” The first ever radio labor program was broadcast from Denver on Labor Day, 1925 and two years later the Chicago Federation of Labor was running its own radio station, WCLF. Chicago labor lost its struggle with the Federal Radio Commission over the “right to use the air continuously with high power transmission,” and the dream of a national labor radio network linked to WCLF faded, but unions in many communities created alternatives. The AFL in 1931 correctly assessed the importance such a network would have had: “Radio takes its place along side of the development of the printing press and the public school; it is the super means of education, propaganda and entertainment. Whoever controls radio broadcasting in the years to come will control the nation.”

In 1928 the Committee on Radio Broadcasting of Rochester’s Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) contracted with Station WHEC for 24 half hours on Wednesday and Friday evenings. The first broadcast was reported as “a decided step on the part of Rochester’s Organized Labor forces, as they put themselves in touch with the most modern method of reaching the great mass of people.” Topics of these broadcasts ranged from “the purposes of the labor movement” and “the work of the NYS Federation of Labor’ to “Workmen’s Compensation Laws.’

That first broadcast included remarks by William Dennison, chairman of the CTLC’s Radio Committee (on “the purposes of the labor movement and what could be accomplished by means of regular broadcasting to the people of this section of the country”); John O’Flynn, CTLC President (on “what is being done in a broad way in the city to advance the interests of labor, and at the same time to help the industrial situation”); and Emanuel Koveleski, chair of the CTLC Legislative Committee (on “the work of the committee in Albany and on the work of the NYS Federation of Labor”). The next program dealt with Workmen’s Compensation Laws.

The programs were then reviewed at CTLC meetings, where the Radio Committee “requested the delegates to give their impression as to how the programs were being received and any suggestions as to their betterment. There was considerable discussion on the amount of time to be devoted to the addresses. Some of the delegates favoring a full half-hour address, while others believed a short, snappy talk was more effective. A plea was made to the younger delegates to interest themselves in this work.” Radio Committee meetings were scheduled every Wednesday evening, immediately following the broadcasts, to map out future programs. The editor of the CTLC’s Labor Herald and Citizen received so many favorable comments on the radio talks that he requested and published copies of them.

Subsequent broadcasts included presentations by speakers from several unions on a wide range of labor topics including labor legislation, convict labor, the stone trade, “Why Workers Strike,” the building trades, the 5-day week, federal labor legislation, safety issues, union label products including bread andmilk, and church and labor.

Since the Radio Committee was abandoned in 1943, Rochester labor has had no sustained presence on air except for a brief period in the 1990s, when RLC staff produced 5-minute weekly labor segments for WXXI. Similarly, although in 1964 the RLC had become an affiliate of the Rochester Area Educational Television Association (which established WXXI-TV) with the intent of increasing the flow of local educational and cultural programming, the Council has had little involvement with or exposure on local television, public or commercial. An exception was the Council’s 1991 contract with WROC Channel 13 to air a series of ten episodes of We Do the Work, produced by the California Working Group. Although the series was broadcast on Public Broadcasting stations around the country, WXXI declined to air it; the Council then arranged to subsidize commercial broadcast by asking affiliates to sponsor specific episodes in return for promotional time.