Tuesday, May 24, 2011

30 years of Bloomsdays on the Radio

Dozens of actors, writers and engineers, from coast to coast, come together every year to create our seven hour broadcast of artists interpreting James Joyce's Ulysses, Radio Bloomsday. Last year, we interviewed our artistic director and the Director of Arts Programming at WBAI, Janet Coleman, who is working with us on Radio Bloomsday from her European tour of Neutral Hero, a new play by Richard Maxwell, another Radio Bloomsday performer. This year we turn our attention to our producer, Larry Josephson (pictured at left). Larry has been broadcasting Bloomsday on the radio for thirty years. A Peabody-Award-Winner he has spent 45 years in public radio as host, producer, manager and engineer. He started the nonprofit, The Radio Foundation in 1977 as a means to produce and distribute his work, and that of others.

Larry was the host of an infamous grumpy morning program on WBAI, New York (1966-72). A series of local and national programs followed: “MODERN TIMES,” “BRIDGES: A Liberal/Conservative Dialogue;” an 8-hour documentary, “ONLY IN AMERICA: The Story of American Jews;” and “What Is Judaism? Conversations with Rabbi Ismar Schorsch About Seven Jewish Holidays.”

Josephson is also responsible for the revival of Bob & Ray on public radio, CD and in Carnegie Hall, after they were no longer commercial. He holds a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, and has taught radio production at the New School and NYU.

Director Caraid O'Brien interviews Larry at his Upper West Side studio.

How long have you been producing Ulysses for the radio?

1981 was the first year I produced Bloomsday for radio. In the late 70s there was a Bloomsday marathon reading broadcast on WBAI from the Shakespeare & Company bookstore on 81st and Broadway, now a discount cosmetics outlet. When the store went out of business I went to Isaiah Sheffer and suggested we take over the tradition and broadcast a show live from Symphony Space, which we did for 27 years. In 2008, I decided to produce a Bloomsday exclusively for radio, broadcast live and on tape from the WBAI studios on Wall Street. The radio-only concept allows us to record actors who can’t come down to WBAI live—Alec Baldwin, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Wallace Shawn, Anne Enright, Paul Muldoon, Bob Odenkirk and many others. I invited Caraid O’Brien to direct and to perform Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Janet Coleman, WBAI’s Arts Director, serves as Artistic Director of the project.

What was your first experience with Ulysses?

The first time I encountered the book was in 1978, hearing it read over WBAI from Shakespeare & Company. I loved it as sound art, to me it’s verbal music. I believe that it was written to be read aloud, to be declaimed, whatever Joyce’s intention. It’s a feast for the ear as much as for the eye.

Most educated people haven’t read the book. If I had nickel for every time someone confessed to me that they have never read Ulysses, or started and gave up, I’d be a wealthy man.

So your first encounter with Ulysses was when it was read aloud at a Bloomsday?


And since then you have devoted 30 years to performances of Ulysses on the radio?


Larry (with beard) in a 1969 photo by Richard Avedon for a piece on WBAI in New York Magazine.

What are your favorite parts of the book?

The opening of the book has a certain resonance, “Stately Plump Buck Mulligan…, and Molly, the end of Molly, starting from “the night we missed the boat at Algeciras” ... to the final “Yes.” It’s some kind of a miracle that a man could write Penelope. I can’t think of another man who could have gotten into a woman's mind like Joyce did. Caraid, I like your Molly best, it sparkles like champagne. Fionnula Flanagan's is completely different, like a full bodied wine. Both are amazing performances. The stamina, not to mention bladder control, required boggles the mind.

Ulysses is very funny. I love the jokes: Mr. Deasy’s line from the second chapter – “Why didn't they kick the Jews out of Ireland? Because they never let them in.” That’s funny and sad.

What else speaks to you about Ulysses?

I love the language. And the languages: English, Greek, Latin, Gaelic. That it’s about all of life and death, sex and food—and drink---compressed into one day. And how disrespectful and mocking it is to the church and the clergy. I like the fact that there is an incredible amount of scholarship about Joyce and Ulysses, Joyce and his relationship to his wife, Nora Barnacle, the letters and poems we read. And its publishing history, including the battle with censors. The fact that Bloomsday is celebrated all over the world on the same day is inspiring to me; it’s great to be a part of that.

I also like the sound of the character names: Blazes Boylan, Patty Dignam (R.I.P), Stephen Dedalus, Mr. Deasy, Corny Kelleher, Bella Cohen, Father Conmee, S.J, and, of course, Mr. Leopold Bloom.

You have produced a radio documentary on history of the Jews in America. Do you relate to Bloom’s Jewishness?

I don’t think of Bloom as a Jewish character (according to Jewish law he isn’t—his mother was a Christian, his father converted to Christianity), nothing he does is particularly Jewish. Only the drunken, anti-Semitic louts in Barney Kiernan’s pub define him as a Jew.

However, he is one of the few Jews in mainstream literature that isn’t a despised character like Fagan or Shylock. He is the outsider in his own (Irish) society.

Another association with Ulysses: my first wife and I had a baby who died at 18 months; the marriage broke up soon after. It is still very painful to this day, so I identify with Molly and Leopold that way.

(Bloom lost his newborn son Rudy 11 years before Ulysses takes place; he and Molly haven’t slept together since then.)

When did you first become involved with WBAI?

I was a computer program for IBM in Poughkeepsie, NY, a form of hell for a single man from LA who’d never seen snow. In 1965 I finally got a transfer to an IBM office in New York City. Since I knew no one in the city, I volunteered at WBAI as a recording engineer. Bob Fass, my radio mentor, got me a job as an announcer in 1966. Shortly after most of the staff, including AB Spellman, the morning host, walked out over a dispute on how to cover the Vietnam War. I auditioned, got the job and the rest is history. I broke all the rules of morning radio—eating my breakfast on the air and reviewing it at the same time. Occasionally, I was so depressed I couldn’t speak and just played music--one morning I played “Lady Madonna” over and over for two hours. Other mornings I showed up late or not at all.

I was called “the morning mayor of the revolution.” but I was skeptical of the sixties movements, especially the alleged transformative power of drugs and sex but I was against the Vietnam war and supportive of civil rights.

I don’t think human nature has changed much since we climbed out of the primordial slime. Rage and passion are just the same, one’s basic needs for security and love, to raise children, have always been there and will always be.

A four year old named Katie would call in every day and talk about her day. Lisa, a 14 year old student at the Nightingale School would call in with cynical tales out of school. WBAI never sent out a press release. I started out in March, 1966; in September I opened the
Times to find a review of my show by Jack Gould, their TV radio critic, who loved the show and gave me a great review. I did the morning show for 6 years. After the baby died, I couldn’t talk about it so went back to Berkeley to finish my degree. Two years later I returned to WBAI as station manager. As a station manager I made a good radio producer!

People think of me as a typical New York Jew but I was born a typical LA Jew, transformed into a New York Jew after living here for 50 years.

What is WBAI’s connection to literature on the radio?

WBAI became a Pacific station in 1960 after the eccentric philanthropist, Louis Schweitzer, donated the station to Pacifica. In the seventies WBAI did a marathon reading of “War and Peace,” mostly live, with William F Buckley, Morris Carnovsky and a cast of hundreds, using community members as well as professional actors. “The people” reading the people's novel. In the sixties and seventies, original and traditional radio drama, cultural criticism and reviews were an essential part of WBAI’s schedule, along with news and public affairs. The station became highly politicized in the seventies, divided against itself, driven by identity politics, so cultural programming with broad appeal started to fall away.

Radio Bloomsday’s artistic director, Janet Coleman, has done yeoman service in keeping literature and radio drama alive throughout her career at the station.

Who do you hope is listening in to Radio Bloomsday?

People who love
Ulysses or who will learn to love it after listening to Radio Bloomsday, because it’s a wonderful piece of literature read by great actors. Having a book read to you goes back to infancy, it is a primal experience. There is a long history at NPR, Pacifica and on the BBC reading books to listeners, just like mother.

Why do you produce Ulysses for the radio every year?

It is an activity that is something I am very proud to be part of. I enjoy it. I am very pleased that I have made Ulysses readings happen on the radio for 30 years. It has given me a lot of pleasure, a bit of prestige and it fulfills the motto of the Radio Foundation, “Devoted to the Art of Radio.”

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