As a Drexel University freshman in December 1977, Mark Grossmann traveled to Israel on a Hillel-sponsored trip. He had just begun working at WKDU, the university’s student-run radio station.
On that trip, Grossmann caught the ear bug of Israeli pop music, buying three Israeli records to take back to Philadelphia, including “Sipurei Pugi,” rock band Kaveret’s debut album.
On Jan. 13, 1978, Grossmann would spin that album on his inaugural episode of “Sounds of Jerusalem,” his WKDU show about Israeli culture that aired weekly through the station for almost 15 years until 1992, when Grossmann left Philadelphia for Boston, where he now lives.
On July 17, Grossmann and his small production team reprised the show for two hours at WKDU’s 50th anniversary event, celebrating the show’s lasting impact, along with the talent of several other WKDU alumni.
Thousands in the Drexel and Philadelphia Jewish community tuned into “Sounds of Jerusalem” in its late ’80s heyday, making it one of WKDU’s most popular programs. The show was syndicated to two U.S. radio stations and, at one point, broadcast in Israel.
But Grossmann’s show had humble beginnings. The only Jewish person at the station, Grossmann was asked by his program director to create a show on Jewish culture.
As a freshman having to climb the ranks to establish his reputation, Grossmann played 30 minutes of Israeli music for his first episode of “Sounds of Jerusalem,” which was embedded in another student’s 6-10 a.m. radio show.
After 10 weeks of that abbreviated format, the station managers gave Grossmann the OK for his own four-hour
Grossmann immediately took advantage. Using grant money from the Hillels of Greater Philadelphia, he bought more music and developed a show.
He frequently had Steve Feldman, now the executive director of Zionists of America Philadelphia, as a correspondent, and created other segments, such as “A Moment of Hebrew,” “Torah Thoughts of the Day” and “The Nutritioner Rebbe,” an unnamed Jewish Drexel student studying nutrition (revealed at the 50th anniversary show to be Dr. Stephan Lansey, a physician practicing in New York).
Grossmann developed a strong relationship with the consulate general of Israel in Philadelphia, another frequent show guest and, with the help of the consulate general in Washington, D.C., “Sounds of Jerusalem” broadcast Israel News Digest on the show.
“The premise of the show was very much focused on giving an Israel view of what was happening in the world, avoiding direct politics as best as possible,” Grossmann said.
Before the internet, there were few outlets for pro-Israel messages to be shared. “Sounds of Jerusalem” was, according to Grossmann, one of the first U.S. Israeli culture radio shows.
But Grossmann and his production team aren’t completely responsible for the show’s large audience.
WKDU gained a large following of Black listeners in the 1970s, largely thanks to “The Black Experience in Music,” a group of Black students who called themselves “communicators,” rather than DJs, as they not only played music but educated Black communities in Drexel and Philadelphia about cultural happenings.
“We were such a crucial part [of WKDU] because we were the only consistent program,” said Sherri Pennington, a communicator from 1977 to 1981.
“The Black Experience” began in 1971 and was responsible for the vast majority of the station’s programming through the ’80s.
Much like Drexel’s Jewish population, Drexel’s Black community was small but disproportionately represented at WKDU, which became a space for underrepresented communities.
Though WKDU’s influence has waned, along with most other radio stations, it still serves to provide a space for those on the fringes looking to discover music and culture beyond a Spotify playlist.
“WKDU is a very multicultural space,” outgoing WKDU Production Director David Juro said.
Juro is Jewish, but unlike Grossmann, he’s one of several Jewish students at the station who make shows about a myriad of topics.
Along with students, Drexel has a robust group of alumni still broadcasting their programs from WKDU. After the 50th anniversary celebration in July, more alumni are considering returning to reprise their shows.
Pennington returned to WKDU as a communicator on Sept. 19. After his 50th anniversary stint, Grossmann is thinking about doing likewise.
“Maybe there are ways to bring it back,” Grossmann said. “I definitely wouldn’t have thought that until I did it and had all these people as engaged as they were.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0741