If you get up early enough on Sundays, you’ll be in time to hear Washington Jewish Radio — a two-hour mashup of Jewish music since the dawn of recorded sound. But take a walk down to the basement of host Larry Shor’s Potomac home, and you’ll see that the show that he’s been broadcasting for more than three decades is much more than a weekly gig.
It is there each week that Shor and his son Ben broadcast Jewish music, heard at 8 a.m. on WTRI-AM 1520, from Yiddish theater star Aaron Lebedeff to Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu, amid a backdrop of hundreds of records and cassette tapes that go back to the 1920s — a musical historian’s palace of sorts.
Larry Shor, 59, began amassing that record library when he was a teenager. He insists that even in the digital age, nothing retains sound as well as a 78 rpm record.
“The Library of Congress has done research that the sound from digital degrades faster than any other medium,” he said. The only bad thing that happens to a record is it gets scratched up and then it won’t play, especially LPs. But 78s, because the grooves are wider, they’ll actually track better,” he said.
Shor said it was his father’s love of Jewish music that inspired him to take to the airwaves as a 23-year old just out of college. Every year on Father’s Day, Shor reads a tribute to Nathan Shor.
“My dad was a tremendous lover of Jewish music,” Shor said. “He didn’t sing professionally or play an instrument or anything like that. But from the time when he was a kid, if he had a couple of pennies he’d go buy a record, and he loved the music and it was always surrounding my house. He had one of these big stereo consoles that was like a piece of furniture that they used to have in those days, and he was always playing records, and I grew up listening to it.”
Shor entered the radio industry in 1980, when his grandfather put him in touch with a friend, Jake Einstein, who had founded the area’s first alternative rock station, WHFS-FM. The Sunday morning lineup featured one hour of Jewish music along with a Polish hour, a French hour and an Italian hour. But that May, Einstein had just fired one of his hosts, and needed a replacement.
“He [Einstein] called me up at 4 in the afternoon on a Friday and said, ‘You want to be on the radio on Sunday?’ Yeah, I do. I remember afterwards that I ran to the pay phone across the street and I used it to call my parents to see how they liked it.”
Like many in the radio industry, Shor has bounced from station to station. His longest stint was from 1983 to 2001 at WINX-AM 1600 in Rockville. He even survived the ire of another Sunday morning host, the pastor of the Montrose Baptist Church, who demanded that the Jewish program not precede his.
The pastor “demanded that my show be moved,” Shor said. “Now he had been on that station for over 30 years and paid them big money [for the air time], because he used to do a live feed of the service over the air. And [then-owner Bill Parris] told him in no uncertain terms that they were not moving anything, that was where my program stayed and if he didn’t like it he could leave. And they let him go after 30 years to protect me. You don’t forget something like that.”
Shor has also been on the receiving end of losing his air time, once finding out about it as he was listening to the radio in his car.
“I had finished the show, and I went off the air at 10 in the morning, and I had finished the show in Arlington, and I was driving up the GW Parkway minding my own business,” he said. “‘Next Sunday at 9 is going to be …’ or whatever it was. And I said, ‘Wait a minute. I come on at 9.’”
Shor said his career reached a crossroad in 2004, when his father died. With the industry changing and airtime becoming more expensive, he decided it was time to “throw in the towel.” But a call from Parris five years later gave him and the show new life. His old boss told him he could create an arrangement where Shor would not have to worry about financial difficulties.
Today Washington Jewish Radio can be heard on four stations throughout Maryland. Shor tries to tailor the musical selections for each week’s show around popular trends and holidays. The Shavuot-themed June 5 show featured songs including Debbie Friedman’s “613 Commandments” and Ray Middleton’s “Shavous.”
“I’ll prepare my part of the program and then Ben will prepare his,” he said. “But we won’t tell each other what we prepared. It makes it very spontaneous.”
The younger Shor, 25, said he began watching his father at work at the age of 4, when he would walk downstairs to see the family radio wizard make magic.
Ben said that the show is unique in the sense that it encompasses all generations of Jewish music, unlike some Jewish radio programs that play only Israeli music or only modern material.
“We’re the only show where the first show you’re going to listen to something by Black Hat, and then the next song is going to be by Debbie Friedman.”
Ben, whose full-time job is with an international software company, used his self-taught tech skills to create the website for the show and digitizes each broadcast afterward. He said that while his father is still mastering some finer aspects of 21st century technology, he has adjusted fairly well.
“He always jokes that he’s the analog king, but I would say he knows more about technology in his age bracket,” Ben said.
But even after more than two decades into the Internet Age, the elder Shor is still amazed at the power of the medium to reach the masses.
“I used to think it was a big deal if someone could get the show in Baltimore,” he said. “Now I get emails from around the world and it still freaks me out. You never know who’s listening.”
When Shor is not in front of the mic, he can be found working in the monuments division of Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care in Rockville, where he helps prepare messages to be engraved on headstones.
“It’s exciting to be able to do something new,” he said of the job. “It’s exciting to be recognized. It’s exciting to take the things that you busted your behind for all these years and put them into something that can grow and be something.”
Shor, who has been in the kosher food business for 18 years, and now also works for the wholesaler Globex Kosher Foods Inc., for whom he visits Jewish institutions such as the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington to market products. Shor once had his own kosher business, but like the radio industry, times changed.
“The day of the little guy is gone. Little guys can’t get to be big guys anymore,” he said. “I have about seven or eight accounts and it’s fun, but the kosher world is expanding in the broad sense. They’re not buying stuff from Moe’s butcher anymore. They’re buying it from Costco and Trader Joe’s and wherever.”