Shaking Up Jewish Music with Online Radio by Julie Wiener
This article was written by Julie Wiener, and originally published by The Jewish Week.
Marking its first birthday this month, Jewish Rock Radio has a lot to celebrate. The 24-7 online radio station — which plays big names like Matisyahu, Israeli groups like Hadag Nachash, classics like Debbie Friedman and numerous emerging artists — is the youngest of the 50 groups highlighted in this year’s Slingshot Resource Guide for Innovation.
The station “has broken new ground in Jewish mass communication,” the guide, released last month, noted, adding that JRR “has made it possible for anyone with an iPhone, iPad, Android device or even just an Internet connection to … hear high-quality streaming music and Jewish community messages.”
Over 10,000 free JRR mobile apps have been downloaded so far, and listeners collectively clock over 500,000 listening minutes per month. Many Jewish federations and other institutions, including New York’s East End Temple and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam embed the station onto their websites, and while JRR does not directly sell music, it is becoming an important venue for connecting Jewish artists to listeners. JRR is also developing a study guide to help schools teach about Judaism through music and technology.
The Jewish Week spoke with JRR founder Rick Recht, 41, a St. Louis-based Jewish rock-folk musician (his nine albums include “Simply Shabbat” and “Look at Me”) who performs around the country.
Q: Why did you start Jewish Rock Radio?
A: I was involved with an initiative called Tear Down the Walls, which brings together teens from different backgrounds and culminates in a multidenominational, interfaith concert … We were doing some of these concerts in mega-churches, and I got to meet really bright pastors and to see the ways they were meeting the needs of families by using online radio … There’s a powerful trend in online radio: two years ago there were 30-40 million Americans listening to online radio each month, and now there are about 100 million Americans listening each month. That, put together with a study MTV did on teens, showing the strong impact music has on their lives, made me realize the Jews need a mass communications channel.
I can’t help but notice that in the same year Jewish Rock Radio has emerged, JDub — another innovative startup that focused on outreach to young Jews through music (through a record label, among other ventures) — was forced to close. Is JDub’s failure an ominous sign?
We play a lot of the JDub artists, and I’m a big fan of [JDub founder] Aaron Bisman and what JDub did. I was really sad to see it close its doors. Its business model was no longer supporting it, and that’s why it closed. It was not about their mission or their direction, it was not a statement about the power of music and media or about how it attracts and inspires Jewish youth … If anything, what JDub closing shows is that the value of music as a commodity that can be monetized is slipping. That doesn’t mean the power of music is slipping; people just don’t want to buy it. Fortunately, our business model is not based on music sales at all, but on two things: philanthropy and advertising.
You were raised in a Conservadox home in St. Louis, then went to college in Los Angeles, where you played in a [secular] rock band for many years. What made you shift to Jewish music 12 years ago?
When my mother got cancer, I moved back to St. Louis and worked several years as a rock-folk artist, touring a lot of colleges and, in between trips, teaching guitar. One of my students was a Jewish day camp director, who was taking guitar because there were no Jewish song leaders in St. Louis. She would joke with me about me becoming a Jewish song leader, and I was totally uninterested. I had never worked with kids before, didn’t know Jewish music and had never even been to Jewish camp. But since I always took a month off in the summer from touring, I took a job at her camp, and it was like an epiphany for me … I started writing music for the kids at the camp — I was writing Jewish music all of a sudden and the people who knew me were like, what’s happening with you?! I started touring Jewish summer camps … The punch line of the story is my guitar student is now my wife Elisa [they now have two sons, age 7 and 9] … Something I realized from the beginning is that Jewish music is a different medium: I’m an educator, and my vehicle is music. It’s an unbelievably powerful tool for education, but it doesn’t feel like education; it feels like a rock concert.
I notice that Jewish Rock Radio plays on Shabbat, even though traditional Jews cannot use technology or play instruments then.
It’s taped ahead of Shabbat. We play the best of contemporary Jewish rock Shabbat music all through Shabbat and get a lot of great feedback. A lot of [liberal Jews] want something in the background that creates the spirit of Shabbat.