The opening images flashing across the screen look like they’re from a high school video project. The shot of the Chicago skyline, filmed from a car on Lake Shore Drive, is slightly tilted, and rain splatters the camera. Cut to sheep running through a field being chased by a shepherd. Cut to people dancing on a cruise ship in what seems to be the middle of Lake Michigan, followed by a shot of a red flower, an exterior shot of a restaurant, and a clip of people stomping grapes. So begins Romanian Soul, which appears every Saturday evening from 5:30 to 6 on WFBT TV Channel 23, the city’s all-ethnic low-power television station, in operation for just a year.
The show follows its own strange logic. One episode begins with a long, unedited segment of a rally for Governor Jim Edgar, including a ten-minute speech. Edgar’s speech is introduced in Romanian by a woman in a nondescript setting, a plant-lined studio with a beige background. The speech is in English, however, and Romanian Soul does not provide a translation.
After the rally, the show switches back to the Romanian hostess, an attractive, dark-haired woman named Cleopatra Lorentu, who generally hosts the segments from Romania. She introduces a story about a group of people, possibly a family, who are happily milking goats. After this segment, some grainy commercials with cheap graphics come on, all narrated by the same throaty female voice: for an auto dealership, a clothing store, a furniture store, a bank. One ad is for someone who calls himself “Nick Plumber,” a full-cheeked man with a Lech Walesa mustache. He stands under some pipes, working them with a wrench, then turns to the camera and smiles.
Lorentu returns to read the news against the same beige backdrop. Then there’s a music video by Margareta Clipa, a Linda Ronstadt look-alike who’s a major star in Romania. Dressed in a sweater and comfortable pants, Clipa leans against a barn and sings while two prepubescent children chase each other around, frolicking in the fields and among the bales of hay. Then comes a comedy piece set outdoors starring a pair of oafish bumblers in funny hats who appear to be drunk. They hitch several rides, walking aimlessly down the country highway in between.
Segments on other editions of Romanian Soul are equally bucolic: in one a man with his head wrapped in a bandanna plays the violin on a hillside at sunset. Others seem oddly out of place–un-Romanian, dissonant. A fashion segment features women wearing very heavy eye makeup and lipstick. The models stroll around an antebellum veranda to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” pausing every so often to give the viewers a sultry look that lasts several seconds. Then Nick Plumber appears, fixing away, still grinning.
Romanian Soul is put together by Branko Podrumedic, a neat bundle of energy with carefully parted, longish brown hair, expressive eyes like saucers, and a prominent nose and chin. Podrumedic lives in Lakeview, where he owns and manages Little Bucharest, Chicago’s only Romanian restaurant. “Other ethnic groups had their own television shows–Indians, Greeks, Russians–so I said why not Romanians?” Podrumedic, the son of a Romanian sheep farmer, came to Chicago 14 years ago, working first as a building superintendent on the north side. Then he began managing and buying restaurants. A few years ago he bought Little Bucharest.
“My father was a farm man,” he says. “Born in a tiny little village where everybody knows everybody. Yah, I have big nights here Friday and Saturday and I look up, open my eyes and my hands, and God bless America. It did help us to get here and did help us have a chance to do with ourselves something. I think I love the opportunity and the chance. My father had cows and sheeps. This is my 14th restaurant.” Podrumedic wears a crisp suit and tie, as he always does when he works.
Little Bucharest is decorated half in authentic Romanian, half in southern European kitsch, with stained-glass windows depicting Peter the Great and Vlad the Impaler and hand-crafted scarves hanging on the walls. The place keeps Podrumedic busy; tonight his only waiter has called in sick and he’s trying to wait on tables, take reservations, and greet large parties all at once. Still, he tries to keep focused and explain the show. “We call it Romanian Soul because it’s our spirit, it’s from us. Everybody knows what it is, and everybody loves it. So,” he says as the phone rings, “it’s the spirit of Romania, or something like that.”
Podrumedic says hes learned a lot since he started putting the show together, more than eight months ago. “You do meet lots of people,” he says. “TV is color and people. More than any other business, it’s something else. It’s tricky. You have to hustle, you have to run, you have to push. You’ve got to be there on time. You cannot miss the events, you have to be” he pauses, “hot, to move fast.”
The biggest stars in Romania appear on Romanian Soul. Besides Margareta Clipa there are singers Stela and Irima Popescu. “We also have king of Romanian music–I mean king–Ion Dolamescu,” Podrumedic says. “Then I have Arsimel. What Johnny Carson means here, that’s what he means to us.”
Podrumedic doesn’t mind cross-pollinating his businesses; he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get Romanians together. One weekend last September he used Romanian Soul to promote the annual Romanian street fair held at his restaurant. “When I have my festival here, the community is from two religions. Half are Russian Orthodox, and half are Pentecost and Baptist. So when I had my festival, it was the first time in history Romanians got together–I tried to be in Chicago a test of Romania. I had 7,000 people in ten days. We want our parade like everybody else.
“There was a joy when we finished Sunday night. Everybody cried. There is no way to explain. You see, we squeeze grapes and make wine on the street, and that’s free. It’s sweet juice, it’s not vermouth yet. And then we served 79 pigs and 38 lambs by hand. We’re trying to be recognized in Chicago as the Romanians, as in ‘We do something, too.'”
UHF television has long been the province of Mexican soap operas and Spanish-language news broadcasts. But other ethnic groups are beginning to start their own shows, which are often a mix of community boosterism, ethnic pride, and compelling–and sometimes unintentionally hilarious–programming. Channel 23 broadcasts in eight languages. On Sundays alone it has shows in six languages from seven countries. Airtime on other stations is expensive, but the parent company of Channel 23, Weigel Broadcasting, charges programmers only $325 to $975 an hour. Half hours go for as little as $200. They’re unlikely to make much now on shows like Vietnam Vision and Romanian Soul but are willing to take a risk on the potential market.
Channel 23 can afford such low-profit, even no-profit programming because Weigel Broadcasting owns seven other television stations that are doing very well: one in Rockford and two each in Chicago, Milwaukee, and South Bend. Founded in 1965, Weigel launched Chicago’s first UHF station, WCIU TV Channel 26. WCIU now broadcasts not only several hours a day of Spanish-language programming but the highly successful and lucrative Stock Market Observer, with computer-generated stock- and futures-market tickers running constantly across the bottom of the screen.
In 1967, Howard Shapiro, a veteran broadcaster and Northwestern University graduate, bought stock in Weigel; later he became sole owner and president. Shapiro was the first television broadcaster in Chicago to recognize the potential of UHF television, installing an antenna on top of the Sears Tower to achieve the greatest possible broadcasting range for Channel 26. Today Shapiro, an avuncular 67 years old, is still at the helm of the company that owns channels 23 and 26. He’s also a pioneer of low-power broadcasting, commercial television that uses the same band as UHF but has a much smaller transmitting radius. Because it’s still cheap, Shapiro says, it’s the next wave for beginning broadcasters.
“We are essentially in the ethnic and oddball business,” he says. “We don’t program in the general market–and we’ve been doing this for about 27 years. I think at one time we had up to 14 languages on Channel 26, but we had no time left for people who wanted additional time, especially prime time because that’s all Spanish. We began to wonder how we might make that additional time available.” So in January 1993, Channel 23 was born. Some of its current programmers had gone to cable, but to reach the same number of viewers on cable as on low-power TV is much more expensive: the broadcaster has to pay a fee to each and every one of the 88 cable systems in the Chicago area.
As Shapiro remembers the early days of UHF broadcasting, the shows were far more low-budget than anything now appearing. Channel 26 did not grip viewers when it first went on the air, he says–for the first year, the station ran only a test pattern. “Sears bought the test pattern,” he says. “They paid to have it run for a year with their name in the middle of it. So no matter what store you went into, when you turned the channel on, you saw Sears/Roebuck. That was not a bad idea, except it was not exactly scintillating programming.”
The Federal Communications Commission authorized low-power programming in 1982, and today there are more than 1,000 low-power stations in the country–250 of them in Alaska. Low-power stations are exempt from some but not all FCC requirements: they’re not required to be on the air a minimum number of hours per week, and they can air whatever kind of programming they want, with no requirements for local or public-service shows.
More than two million households–6.5 million people–fall within Channel 23’s low-power reach, which extends north to Highland Park, south to Gary, and west to Naperville. Shapiro says that by 1994, Channel 23 may be on the air 24 hours a day. “It seems to have started strong, and I think it’s going to stay that way and even get stronger,” he says.
Shapiro seems ideally suited to the “ethnic and oddball” business. The broadcasters admire his dry humor and prodigious eating and drinking habits. Podrumedic, who calls Shapiro “Mr. President,” says, “We feel like it’s our station, and Mr. President, he was in our place. He is a cool guy, and he was here at the restaurant and we hug, and I loved him. He knows how to do the business, very much so.” Shapiro visits his programmers often outside the studio, among them Podrumedic, who gives him meaty stews and butter-cream pastries. “I like to go visit our sponsors,” Shapiro says, “walk in and say I’m so-and-so.”
Shapiro admits that he’s primarily a businessman, but says he’s interested in the programming on Channel 23 and watches as much of it as he can. “We are in business, so it’s an investment, but I can’t say where the demarcation lies. We have done literally 100 telethons here, in a variety of languages for a variety of purposes, and a lot of them the station has charged nothing for. It’s hard to draw the line between what you’re supposed to do and what is good for business. They’re all sort of the same thing.
“I think it’s pretty good stuff,” he says of the programming. “I don’t understand Chinese at all, but we have two Chinese news programs, one from Red China and one from Taiwan. When they cover the same items, you get an interesting contrast sometimes. I can tell from the inflections.
“A lot of the movies and sitcoms are getting to be interchangeable all over the world. In Russia, for instance, where I was a few weeks ago, the most popular television show is a Spanish sitcom dubbed in Russian. It’s one that we show here–it’s the same damn thing. But it’s dubbed in Russian, and it’s dubbed in German, too. One man does all the men’s voices and one woman does all the women’s voices. There’s something about the action that the Russians like. I can’t tell you what. When I looked at it, I thought it was a joke. It’s so badly done, I can’t imagine it having any interest here.”
Shapiro served for several years as president of the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which has given him several awards. On his office wall is a picture of one especially memorable awards ceremony. “I was making a speech one night,” he says, “and the presenters, the hosts, were Oprah and Ebert. Usually, when I go to those kinds of things, I get ready for them by getting drunk, and I was totally unaware that they were standing behind me.”
If sometimes Shapiro appears pretty impressed by network television, at other times he’s ostentatiously unimpressed. One time CNN stopped by Channel 26’s offices at the Board of Trade to interview him. Shapiro introduced himself to the reporter.
“CNN, huh?” he said. “You’re everywhere, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” the reporter said, “we are.”
“Everywhere,” Shapiro said, “like chicken shit.”
One of Shapiro’s mainstay ethnic programmers, on channels 23 and 26 both, is Vichitra “Vicky” Nayyar, the host, producer, and director of Chitrahar, which highlights Indian culture and tradition every Sunday from 9 AM to noon. In a documentary film from one episode, thousands of rapt devotees genuflect at the Ganges, the night sky flickering with ceremonial fires, the river flowing through the heart of an Indian city. A man with his eyes closed sways gently, intoning a haunting, mournful chant. The camera lingers on him, then pulls back to reveal the crowd. The scene switches to Chicago, to an epic ballet about the birth of the Ganges River taped at Chitrahar Night, an enormous benefit party Nayyar throws every year for the Indian community.
The ballet stars Nayyar’s daughters, 23-year-old Anjali as the creator god Shiva and 17-year-old Alka as the Ganges itself. Anjali is dressed in red gowns and decked out in gold jewelry; her eye makeup is cruel and devilish. Alka is done up in white robes, with soft, almost weepy eye makeup. They dance around each other, Alka flowing and lithe, Anjali more harsh and static. Then a dozen or so other characters dance onto the stage, representing the people of India, who proceed to pollute the Ganges. Shiva becomes angry and threatens to destroy the river, until the river does a dance to mollify the distressed god. As a grand finale, Nayyar invites dozens of women audience members onto the stage for a final dance in praise of the Ganges. They move across the stage and the television screen, clumsy but choreographed, fully synchronized. Nayyar is smiling broadly now: dressed in her sari, with her black hair pulled back, she beams at the crowd. It’s been another successful Chitrahar Night.
Nayyar has been hosting Chitrahar for nearly a decade. “I started the program because every time I watched what was being portrayed about India, it was always like it was the land of snake charmers, and they would only depict the very negative aspects. The media would show poverty, they would show only the streets of Calcutta. They would always show a naked person or something that would hurt us. But we’re an ancient culture. We have so much more than anyone else in the world to offer. I felt the American media never brought out the spiritualism of India. They ridiculed it.”
Nayyar, who is Hindu, believes strongly in religion, and also in education. She received an MA in English literature from Christ Church College in Kanpur. She was also captain of the volleyball, basketball, and field-hockey teams there; at one time she was headed for the Olympics as part of the Indian field-hockey squad. But instead she moved to America with her husband, a structural engineer. They settled in Chicago in 1971.
Six years later, after her two daughters had been born, Nayyar started an Indian-music radio program on WSBC AM (1240). In 1983 she scraped together the money to produce Chitrahar for a weekend showing on Channel 26 (“Chitrahar” means “a garland of pictures from India that we share with the community here,” Nayyar says). From the beginning, Chitrahar was a program run exclusively by Indian housewives. “My husband told me I had to first take care of family and children,” Nayyar says, “and the show could come in whatever time I had outside the family.”
The week before the show began airing, Nayyar underwent a mastectomy; a few years ago the cancer reappeared, this time in her sternum. Nayyar has had surgery for cancer in six consecutive years, but the show has gone on. “When it started, I was the producer, the worker, the ad salesperson–everything,” Nayyar says. “We were all women, it was a totally woman-produced program. We got together and just put in whatever we knew. We helped one another, we trained ourselves–none of us had any experience in broadcasting. I used to be doing plays in India, but these other women had never, ever in their life been in front of a mike, leave alone behind a camera. And it was hilarious.”
When Nayyar’s squad of producer-housewives were first putting together the show, they had to get to the Chitrahar studio in the South Loop on Saturday mornings at 7, “which you can imagine in Chicago,” Nayyar says. “We used to wear our saris, and people would think we were crazy. Once I remember it was minus-80-degrees windchill, and here I am clad in my sari waiting for the car to start, to get to the station.” The studio was cold too. “We used to have these musical instruments, one of which you call the ‘squeeze box,’ and it would freeze. We had the singer sitting right there ready to go on the air with the live show, and no sound would come out. So we would go to a commercial break, hold the equipment up to the light to thaw it, and then bring it down.”
Four years ago, Chitrahar switched to a Friday taping for Channel 26. Nayyar’s studios are spacious, if a little dank and warehouselike. The video equipment, though not antiquated, is a little old, and the place does not have the glittery, clean feel of a regular television studio. Several rooms are used mostly for storage, and others go unused. Still, Nayyar says, her show has moved forward since she started at Channel 26.
“The crew there, at the beginning, didn’t understand a word of what was going on,” Nayyar says. “However much we would prepare the program, you still had total chaos, because I would go on the air and say ‘OK, blah, blah, blah, and now we are off.’ And the engineer is sitting there, waiting for me to say, ‘OK, now we go to commercial break,’ and I suddenly would realize I had said it in my language, and he doesn’t know what I said. So we learned, but the most interesting part is that they learned. Even if I don’t know how to say something in English, they know now what to do.”
Nayyar rejects the vulgarized Indian pop culture, which tries to “ape the West.” The Indian film industry, which produces hundreds of wild, tasteless multilanguage action-adventure-musicals a year, is her primary enemy; generally she won’t show popular films on Chitrahar. “We play a very subtle role,” she says. “We just present what we think the kids should know about. In aping the West, you forget your own culture. Kids here get embarrassed about the pop culture they see from India. They are seeking what we are trying to tell them–that that is not the real India, it is one trying to ape the West. The real India is so beautiful. The real India is so spiritual, the culture is so in-depth, so ancient. The minute that touches them, they understand it.
“I always tell the kids it’s very important to know where you’re coming from. What difference does it make where you are going if you don’t know where you are coming from? I think they have a wonderful opportunity, because they can have the best of both cultures and turn out dynamite citizens of the society. So that’s what we are all aiming at, working at. And we’ve been very fortunate.”
Vicky Nayyar may worry about Indian television and movies “aping the West,” but the Korean American Broadcasting Company–which airs two hours of programming a day, from 9 to 11 PM, on Channel 23, and another 12 hours a day on two cable channels–has it down to a science. Mondays through Fridays, from 9:30 to 10, it’s A Wild Chrysanthemum, a soap opera made in Korea that features, among other things, amorous soldiers in plain brown uniforms, frightened chambermaids, and menacing gangsters in pinstripe suits and porkpie hats.
Then there is Quiz Game, also from Korea, airing Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10. It’s hosted by a John-and-Leeza-like pair, a slightly chubby man in sweaters and a lithe, pretty woman in pastel dresses and skirts. The pair also host the popular Comedy Hour, which features interviews with and skits by rubbery-faced Korean comics.
In one segment of Quiz Game contestants were challenged to answer a certain number of questions in 100 seconds while passing around a plastic watermelon. A man holds the watermelon, talking for about ten seconds, then passes it to the next man, who does the same. A third man blurts something out and runs across the stage to hand the watermelon to a woman. The male host stops him and forces him to run back to his microphone, shout another phrase, and hustle over to the woman. The watermelon gets passed a few more times, and the studio audience squeals. Finally the melon explodes in the hands of a woman with a mild pop, emitting streams of white sparkles and confetti. The female host says something, points at the camera, and the show’s computer-generated theme music plays over a flashy graphic grid with a giant animated ball at the center. When the show returns, the hosts stand in front of a still picture of Woody Woodpecker.
KBC is owned by the wealthy Korean American businessman K.C. Bae and operates out of a bank building at Foster and Kedzie. The front offices are tidy, with televisions stacked everywhere–at news reporters’ desks, in a reception area, at an editing bay. Another room boasts two dozen more television screens, as well as state-of-the-art editing and splicing equipment. A third room contains two plain-looking sets, one for a news broadcast and one for a talk show.
KBC News, which airs nightly from 9 to 9:30, is produced and anchored by KBC’s no-nonsense executive news director, Bonghyun Kim, who’s all sensible eyeglasses and hard jaw. The news on KBC–a mix of locally produced segments and satellite feeds–contains nothing frivolous. In his news philosophy Kim sounds more like a journalism-school professor than a modern television producer. “News is only the fact, just what is happening,” he says. “Sometimes it is commentary.”
Kim says it’s hard to report on American news and gives as an example the Long Island railroad massacre. “Sometimes, we don’t understand enough culture,” he says. “Watching last night’s news, the train in Long Island, we really don’t understand that. We present news as fact, what happened, that’s all. But we think, how could he do that? He has a mental problem, I would think. It’s like this: we like hot, spicy food, and Americans do not, they like it mild. Second-generation Koreans are more American–they do not understand the first generation’s culture or customs from their own country.”
Moses G. Myung, an elementary-school teacher on the northwest side and president of the Korean School Association of the Midwest, would like to bridge this cultural gap. Myung has recently convinced KBC management to allow him to host KBC Hour, a weekly Korean-language program highlighting the finer things in Korean culture. Myung has appeared on cable television before, he says, as a “guest speaker,” but this is the first time he’ll host his own show. Balding, short, and bespectacled, he doesn’t look much like a talk-show host; but he speaks confidently, even professorially, using his hands for emphasis.
“They spend most of the time showing Korean TV,” Myung says. “That’s why I suggest to them, instead of spending all the time with the Korean videos, why dont you make us our own program? I meet famous figures and interview them, rather than just copying the programs from Korea. They agreed with my suggestion.”
Today Myung is about to tape his second show, an interview with Kim Seung-hee, one of Korea’s leading poets who’s in Chicago for a reading, in English and Korean, after completing a course at the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program. Kim and Myung enter the KBC offices only about 15 minutes before the 5:30 PM taping time–she had to stop by the elevators to finish a cigarette. They’re trailed by a representative from AT&T, which is sponsoring the reading. The representative looks disgruntled, a little uncomfortable; his parted hair is beginning to lose its shape.
“I wanted to talk a little bit about Seung-hee,” the representative says.
“I know about her,” Myung replies. “I have a master’s degree in Korea, but here I changed my degree from English to education. Then I have a master’s degree from Roosevelt University. Also, I am a literary critic and essayist. I have my own column in a Korean newspaper. I founded a Korean literary club in 1985. That’s why I also have a chance to coordinate and moderate today’s literary events.”
“Did you really go to Roosevelt?” the representative asks. “Because I knew someone . . . ”
Myung gets another idea. “Ms. Kim is an example of what I’m going to do,” he says. “She is a famous Korean poet. An interview with her will let all the Korean Americans know how the Korean literature is, whether in Korean or being translated into English here. So it will make us a bridge. It will coordinate two cultures to make harmony.”
The time comes for the interview. When they enter the studio the representative says, in a very loud voice, “Have you ever been on TV, Seung-hee?”
“Yes,” Kim says, stifling a yawn. “In Korea, several times.” The representative looks sulky and wanders toward the back of the room, while Myung and Kim take their seats in front of a bland, carpeted talk-show background complete with plastic plants. The interview is conducted in Korean, and Myung does much of the talking, enough so that Kim only gets to read one poem. In English the poem, “Life in the Egg II,” ends like this:
if you quietly open the white door
of the All Seasons fridge
I seem to hear the sound of cold eggs whispering,
Mummy, mummy, hug me! like those eggs that will never lie
snuggled against their mother hen’s warm breast
consumers of hope sold at cut price
and I have lost my passport too
when the temperature of hope goes down
despair seems to grow more silent, more aloof, doesn’t it?
After the interview, in the hall outside the studio, the representative is talking to Kim. She looks out the window, intent on her cigarette.
“Well, Seung-hee, good luck,” he says.
“Yes, thank you,” she says. “It’s getting quite dark.” The representative looks confused.
“Good-bye,” he says loudly.
Myung also has a five-minute commentary every Friday afternoon on a Korean radio station, KBI FM 90.1. “There I have every day five minutes for literary talk, introducing Korean literature or American literature to a Korean audience,” he says. “I introduce them to American best-sellers. Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. I wonder why it was such a hit, but that kind of thing interests the Korean audience. Mostly, I talk about not American books but English, Jane Austen or Emily Bronte. Now I am dealing with Charles Dickens. I finished reading two weeks ago Tales of Two Cities. There are a lot of good ones, including Korean literature too. Thomas Hardy’s Tess, you know.”
He’s fortunate, Myung says, because he has an educated audience starved for the cultural attention he’s giving them. “Most Koreans here who run cleaning shops or restaurants, they over there graduated from college. At that time, they read all of the famous works, like Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, everything. But they forgot it to survive here, so when they are hearing my radio broadcast, then they are reminded, ‘Oh, that’s the famous work which I read long ago in Korea.'”
Channel 23’s programmers are ethnically as diverse as Chicago’s population, but they share one thing–money troubles. Some, like KBC, may be better buttressed than others against financial disaster, but there are very few big companies willing to advertise in the ethnic television market. So even at Weigel’s bargain-basement, low-power rates, broadcasters have to scrape to stay on the air.
Song Ge, the general manager of Chicago Chinese TV, an hour-long daily program that features news and drama from mainland China, has learned that everything in American broadcasting is market oriented. “You have to play your market or you’re out,” he says. “We have to go with the trends, and we have to try to use the least amount of money to do this, because right now we don’t make a lot of money, not really.”
Song says that Chicago Chinese TV, which also produces 12 hours of satellite Chinese American programming a day, is unable to turn a profit even though the Chinese government provides it with a stream of free, relatively high-quality programs. “The Chinese government said, Once you make money, you pay us back,” Song says. “But I don’t know. We aren’t able to make money.”
The offices of Chicago Chinese TV are located in the new Chinatown Square Mall, behind Archer Avenue just north of the city’s traditional Chinatown business strip. Not even half the storefronts in the mail are occupied, but the windows are full of building permits, and several restaurants have opened and are doing steady business. By renting space in the mall, Peter Sun and Jim Chi, who own Chicago Chinese TV, were hoping to tap into its optimistic new businesses-potential advertisers.
But Chinatown’s minor boom is not really translating into a windfall for Chicago Chinese TV. “These are very traditional, old-fashioned businessmen,” Song says. “They believe that if their product is good the customer will come, that they don’t need to do anything. They don’t have that quality of self-promotion, in which you use any media possible to promote your business. They just do the best that they can do, work as hard as they can. Yeah, they’re successful, but not for the advertising.”
Other Channel 23 programmers are running into similar problems. “Most companies ignore us because we are not a large enough community to matter,” says Vicky Nayyar. “Which is unfortunate, because the Indian-Pakistani community is a very rich community. I am afraid we still have to work a lot to get to that point where advertisers will see us as a potential and come to us. We still haven’t been able to tap any mainstream, so we have to depend on our own community for financial support to survive, which is not always easy.”
Branko Podrumedic has had similar problems with Romanian Soul; what with paying for satellite news from Romania, he has very little money left to spend on local programming. “Out of commercials, I get nothing to cover the costs,” he says. “My costs are like $1,600 a week. Out of commercials, I get $400 or $500. I have lost pretty much money. Now I’m slowing down on local programming a bit.”
The only major advertisers to bite have been the long-distance phone companies, which obviously have an interest in recent immigrants with family on other continents. AT&T has commercials on almost all the shows, and although the faces and the offers (95 cents to India) change, the message doesn’t–happy families call grandma on the weekend, cheerleaders of all colors and ethnicities call their boyfriends: The phone companies may be a boon, but ethnic broadcasters see their future not in local shows but in satellite programming. “We care about local people, but it’s different programming than what we send out on the satellite,” says Song Ge. “For the locals, Chinese TV has to be not-for-profit, because we don’t make any money.”
Chicago Chinese TV, the mainland
Chinese hour on Channel 23 from 6 to 7 PM daily, is news plus a 35-minute serial drama program. Song says it’s important to bring Chinese programs to Chinese Americans here, but if he could he’d do something completely different.
When Song worked in television in China, performing on a weekly series that introduced Chinese viewers to the classics of Western music, his particular specialty was opera singing. When he came to the United States, he received a master’s in music from Northwestern University. Unlike some other broadcasters on Channel 23, he is willing to provide pop programming, but he still thinks about opera. He would like to sing again, or at least produce an opera show to educate people about his passion.
“If you’re singing different languages, singing different composers’ music, it’s totally different,” he says. “Italian depends more upon the quality of the voice. With German, of course you have to have a beautiful voice, but the lyrics are much more important, because they were written by the famous poets. Italian opera is like talking: ‘I love you,’ ‘The sun is bright,’ ‘You are like a flower.’ It’s not lyric, it’s not poem. But if you’re singing something from Germany, the language is different, the way you use your voice is different. Everything is different.”
Andrezj Wal, coanchor of the news on Walter Kotaba’s Polvision, is hustling around the studio, papers in hand, mustache combed, suit slightly rumpled. It’s almost time to tape the nightly five-minute news broadcast, which he produces and hosts. He is in charge of the local segment, with satellite news coming from Poland later in the night. The other anchor, Malgorzata Blaczczuk, is still putting on her makeup in an adjacent room. Wal plunks down briefly at the news desk, arranging papers. The set boasts a photo backdrop of the Chicago skyline. Adjacent to it, in the same studio, sits a talk-show set, complete with plants, cozy chairs, and wood paneling.
“Hurry up, please,” Wal shouts to Blaczczuk.
“I am coming,” she says. “I must do this. I was late.”
Two gruff engineers in bad sweaters are poking around with some cables. Another is adjusting a camera lens. Wal pushes through the studio and almost barrels into them. “Please stand away from the lights,” one of them says, chomping on a doughnut.
Blaczczuk, wearing a black vest, white turtleneck, and big horn-rimmed glasses, has to go upstairs to the control room and do a voice-over in English, which is definitely her second language. On other occasions this creates a problem, because Polvision’s chief engineer, Mark Kaplan, does not speak Polish. “Usually I just have to guess where their sentences will end.” he says. “I know how to say ‘I don’t know’ in Polish, so that helps.”
Blaczczuk reads over her copy in the control room, which overlooks the set. Beyond the control room glass we can see Wal 20 feet below, jawing with one of the engineers. “Mark,” Blaczczuk asks, “do you pronounce it beez-ness, or biz-ness?”
“Biz-ness,” Kaplan says to her. “Like in biz-ness-man.”
Blaczczuk pronounces the word wrong on the first take, and by the time the second take is over she has about a minute until the taping starts. She runs downstairs and heads for her anchor chair. One of the engineers sticks a microphone on her, and it’s time for the news. Reading first, Wal doesn’t look up from his notes for nearly 15 seconds–the anchors for Polvision news don’t have teleprompters. In the booth, Kaplan is turning knobs and throwing switches, cueing up tonight’s lead story. When the video plays, it’s of a round, middle-aged man interviewing a society matron about a Polish debutante affair, the Bal Amarantowy. Then we see a grand procession of young women in long, puffy, floor-length dresses; some of them also wear red velvet crowns. All the young men are wearing tuxedos; some of them wear crowns too.
Blaczczuk, who introduces the next story, looks up at the camera slightly more often than Wal. It’s a pretty standard news piece about the opening of the new Polish Cultural Center in Bucktown, complete with shots of construction and the ribbon-cutting ceremony. While that story plays, Kaplan readies the commercials, which include one for the duck-tailed Michael Bolton-like Polish crooner Michal Bajor, soon coming to Chicago. Kaplan punches up the commercials, and Wal and Blaczczuk come on the screen again and say good night. It doesn’t appear to have been a particularly arduous process, but Kaplan wipes his brow.
“I’m glad that’s over,” he says. “I dont know how this comes together.”
Polvision, the first show Shapiro signed on to Channel 23, occupies the much-sought-after 7-to-9-PM time slot. A few months ago, Kotaba’s Polvision hired Andrew Sikora, a Polish-born documentary filmmaker, to head its programming operations. Sikora is in his early 30s, has shoulder-length hair, and wears tinted glasses, shirts buttoned all the way up, and tweed jackets. He’s been brought in as an expert and plans to change the way Polvision does business. Sikora says the programming is slightly different since he came aboard; however, he hasn’t been able to transform the chaotic way the station does biz-ness.
“We consider ourselves like a station,” he says. The walls of his office are paper-thin; ringing phones and the noise from editing bays in other offices threaten to drown him out. His secretary knocks at his office door.
“Do you have coffee?” she asks.
“Yes, I have coffee, but I am busy,” he says.
“I am very sorry,” she says.
“Technically, we are programming, but we do more,” he continues. “I have been getting calls, letters telling me that various cultural things are going on. We are just trying to normalize and structure so we work like other television stations. I’m not trying to lose the ethnic difference, which is the beauty and the strength of our station. What we’ll be doing here is . . .”
There is another knock.
“What is it?” Sikora asks.
“Are you with someone?” asks a voice from the other side of the door.
“Yes,” Sikora says.
“Are you busy?”
“Yes, I am busy.” The person goes away. “You see,” Sikora says, “this is one of the things with ethnic people is that we are very easily interrupted.”
Polvision was created in 1987 by Walter Kotaba–“the symbol of the modern Polish American businessman,” Sikora says. For several years Kotaba’s program was on cable, but Polvision has been with Channel 23 since the first broadcast day. Polvision occupies an entire office building at Belmont and Kimball, and the place is done up very modern, all glass and red steel. Sikora is in the process of creating another broadcast studio, and the programming on Polvision has changed since he’s arrived, focusing more on Chicago and less on Poland.
“What I’ve noticed is that people tend, especially now, after Eastern Europe opened, to watch more local stuff,” he says. “They’re still interested in the news from Poland, we have a lot of high-quality programming from Poland, but at the same time we are giving them daily information about the neighborhoods. We are giving them updates from Poland by satellite every day, aside from the local stories. Plus we have several producers who are working with us. We are encouraging independent documentary producers.”
Sikora says he tries to keep up with the best movies and art coming out of Poland. “We have many artists from Poland who moved to Chicago and are having their own shows,” he says. “Poland has a tradition in television. It’s a tradition of high-quality, theatrical-style television. Even under the communist rule, Poland had high-quality television. All the neighboring countries were watching, because the communist government was giving a lot of money to the artists. We are showing live theater from Poland–Poland is known for that.”
Every Friday, Polvision goes live to a local club to give viewers a preview of weekend music. “We have many Polish American cafes where Polish musicians perform. There’s a lot of performers–each cafe is a different group. We go there and sometimes tape the show. It’s like a report but it’s a show by itself, sponsored by our television. . . ”
There is a knock at the door.
“I am busy!” Sikora says.
“Are you busy?” says a voice.
“Yes I am,” Sikora says. Then he says, pointing at the door, “This guy came from Poland. You’re dealing with people who work in a different environment and a different style of work. This is one of the best things about the job, the experience of working with people from the old country.”
After attending school in Poland, Sikora came here to produce his own documentaries. His first work, he says, was in ethnic television. “I was around when Polvision first came on, so I’ve seen how it’s grown. Today we have a different global world. Today’s Poland is not just the country of our forefathers. Today Poland is the country of great possibilities.”
Sikora is very excited about the economic future of Poland. At one point he calls it “the Thailand of Eastern Europe.” Being Polish is hot, even trendy, Sikora says. “These days, everybody wants to be Polish again. The Polish jokes are going away, and they see that there’s a Polish pope, and they say, ‘Oh my God, I want to be Polish too now.’ That’s a fact, it’s common now. A lot of Americans, you would never think that they would have come back, but they are. They have English names, and they are discovering their roots right now. It’s a big comeback, and it’s a nice experience.”
Sikora says Polvision has an opportunity to shape an identity for Polish Americans. “I want to keep this identity alive, want to keep the bridge,” he says. “I believe that we should bridge people through enlightenment. To enlighten is to show differences, and the different is beautiful, and the only way to bridge people is to show them the difference. We are trying to be such a bridge between the Old World and the New World . . . ”
There is a knock at the door.
“What!” Sikora says.
“Are you busy?”
One Friday afternoon in late December, Michael Wasserman was working at home on some illustrations for his English-language translation Mozart of Pushkin’s play and Mozart and Salieri when he got a call from Norman Shapiro, Howard Shapiro’s son and Channel 23’s director of business. Wasserman, who emigrated from Russia 20 years ago, is a painter, free-lance writer, actor, and graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago; Shapiro was asking if he wanted to be a television producer too. When Wasserman agreed, Shapiro told him he had fewer than 48 hours to put together a two-hour show.
Wasserman was pressed into service because Anna Yankelevskaya had defected from Channel 23’s ranks. For a year, Yankelevskaya–who runs a nonprofit language agency in West Rogers Park–had been the producer and host of America of My Own, the station’s Russian-language program, airing Sunday afternoons from 3 to 5. At the end of last year Yankelevskaya surprised Channel 23 by jumping ship, to public-access cable Channel 62, where America of My Own now airs Saturday evenings from 9:30 to 11:30. Yankelevskaya says she left Channel 23 because of “bad vision”–meaning not enough viewership. She says that on Channel 62 she will have about three million viewers. (The Chicago-area Russian-speaking population is about 200,000.)
Wasserman got his program together, calling it Russian Channel 23. He filled the first part of the show with what he calls a “personal, political, and editorial story” about the fallacies of political reform in Russia. Then he aired footage of a New Year’s concert from Russia with stand-up comics, bands, and writers. He also introduced a feature called “Gurevich’s List,” hosted by Michael Gurevich, a theater and film critic from Russia. “Gurevich’s List” highlights free or very inexpensive cultural events in Chicago, as well as occasional Russian events.
Wasserman, like Vicky Nayyar, is taking the high-minded approach. “The intellectuals do have the run of this,” he says. “In Russian we actually call them the spiritual people, but in English this has the wrong connotation. My feeling is that we’re close to public radio or public television. We have a mission to appeal not just to the upscale portion, but to people of all walks of life who try to make sense of something. People who don’t fall asleep but who want to be awakened.” Recent shows have featured a half-hour interview with John Bushnell, a professor of Russian history at Northwestern, videos by painter and experimental filmmaker Andrei Rabodzeenko, and commentary by Russian-born Boris Aronstein, who publishes a journal, Reflection, that Wasserman says is “dedicated to the phenomenon of bilingualism.” Also slated on Russian Channel 23 are portions of Russian movies and videotaped plays and, soon, satellite news from Russia.
Yankelevskaya has very different goals. Wasserman assumes his viewers are intelligent and wants to give them intelligent programs. Yankelevskaya assumes her viewers need instruction, need someone to guide them through the treacherous economic swamp that is America. A large, imposing woman with a graying mane of hair and a stentorian voice, Yankelevskaya gladly offers her services. She arrived in America four and a half years ago from Russia, and three months later, thanks to a grant from Kennedy-King College, founded the Express Learning Center at Touhy and California, where she offers free English classes to newly arrived immigrants and helps them find jobs and inexpensive legal help.
A couple of years later, Yankelevskaya started a radio program called America of My Own on WSBC AM (1240). Then Channel 23 came along, and a video version was born. “The idea of the program is to show people something about the United States of America, which is the idea of the radio program, too,” she says. “Because the people of different cultures, they don’t know anything about the country they live in, they’re not educated in its literature, its history. They don’t even know the city they live in.”
To correct that gap in the education of Russian immigrants, Yankelevskaya and her small production crew (which includes her 70-year-old mother, Serafima) make five- to seven-minute films about Chicago. “We are showing all the history,” she says. “We are making special screens. We’re spending all the money for these films. We’re showing museums, we’re showing architecture, museums, streets. It costs a lot of money for a small organization, but we are doing it.”
Recently Yankelevskaya has begun airing a series of interviews about “people who overcame their immigrant mentality, who didn’t let it hold them down, who kept all their forces and overcame and became some kind of personality in this country.” The best example of this kind of person, Yankelevskaya says, is herself. She sets a good example, she says, “because they are coming to new country and people are telling them, ‘You will only be able to work as taxi driver or pizza delivery.’ We show the people that in four to eight years they can have the exam in medical school and open their own dental business. I don’t have to drive pizza. I have to shop around, and try my best, and to find my own place in this life.”
Another new segment, “American Dream,” is a video montage of people in fur coats shopping on Michigan Avenue and people in Mercedes-Benzes driving through what looks like Lake Forest. “It’s to encourage people that if they work hard, and don’t go to welfare, won’t sit down, they can achieve all that they see. Because in Russia we don’t have all these things. Also, we are playing a little with them, saying, look at this $1,000 dress. If you go to work and find a place in this life, you’ll be able to buy two.”
Wealth is not really Yankelevskaya’s goal. “This TV doesn’t bring me one dumb dollar,” she says. “I have my goal, which I didn’t have in Russia. I hated Russia, I hated the government, and I didn’t want to work too much for them. I didn’t like their ideas, and I didn’t want to live there. And here, I love this country, and I have idea to serve this country. For all the mistakes and inconveniences, I feel that this is a very good country, and I bless it. Everything I do is ‘America of My Own,’ because it’s my real feeling.”
To Yankelevskaya, producing America of My Own is almost a civic duty. “When I come to a Russian store, people will come to me and say, ‘Anna, will there be a program on Sunday?’ And I say yes. And they say, ‘At 12 o’clock my father is shaving, and puts on a good shirt, and from 12 o’clock he is waiting for the start of the program.’ These people are waiting the whole week for these two hours. Do you understand? They don’t have any other possibility.
“Responsibility, you see. I don’t always like these people very much, but I have responsibility for these people. I hear the word that they’re waiting at 12 o’clock and the show starts at 3, like some holiday, you know? Everybody says from 3 to 5, we stop all our things to do, and watch the program. We stop all our homework and jobs, and start again at 5. From 3 to 5, they are watching the program. Such sentences make me feel very responsible.”
Wasserman is equally enthusiastic about Russian Channel 23, to the point of insisting that there’s a viewership war between the two programs. “There are two Russian shows in this town,” he says. “Ours is like the Tribune, and the other is like the Sun-Times. I can tell there is a shift, that new people are tuning in at this time who didn’t used to watch the show. Both show’s are very necessary, but they serve very different audiences. I’ve even started receiving calls from Americans who don’t understand Russian. It’s a different aesthetic, a different look.”
Russian Channel 23 is in its second month, and like all of the station’s programmers, Wasserman is feeling his way through the immigrant video experience, trying to produce a show that will at once have intellectual integrity, serve an ethnic audience, and turn a profit. “We are not that concerned about technical perfection at this point,” he says. “We are more interested in the freshness. We are under some influence from Monty Python–we don’t mind if something falls or if somebody stutters. Not everybody necessarily likes us, but everybody finds it a gripping experience.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.