Zeno Radio offers immigrants a connection to home

Baruch Herzfeld Zeno Radio
Baruch Herzfeld, founder of Zeno Radio, in his office. Credit: Bess Adler

Homesick immigrants have a champion in Baruch Herzfeld, the brains behind Zeno Radio.

Herzfeld started out with one little radio show and a phone card business, and somehow ended up with Zeno Radio, a massive operation involving nearly 3,000 phone numbers connecting U.S.-based listeners to radio programs in around 30 countries around the world.

“How did I know how to do that? I don’t know, why do I know how to do some things and not others?” Herzfeld asked. “Why doesn’t my wife let me touch any of the tools in the house? Some people have crazy ideas.”

Herzfeld is certainly one of those people. From the “Brooklyn kibbutz” that was the Bushwick Trailer Park to a “non-kosher bike shop” in South Willamsburg that lent free bikes to Hasids to encourage exploration beyond their Williamsburg enclave, to an app conceived with his rabbi brother to prevent observant Jews from having to throw away all leavened grain-based products before Passover, Herzfeld has had crazy ideas all over the city for years.

Zeno Radio, however, seems to be his most serious and sustainable one yet.

Zeno Radio assigns phone numbers to radio channels from all over the world. The logic is that everyone has unlimited voice minutes now, but data plans are still very expensive and monthly allotments are easily exceeded, which means streaming radio is not a viable long-term method. Assigning U.S. phone numbers to specific broadcasts allows users to call in and stay connected for however long they like — an entire taxi shift, for example — at no significant added cost.

While the service is accessible nationwide, Herzfeld estimates 70 percent of its listeners are in New York, probably because that is where their offices are. But Herzfeld says they’re planning to expand.

“We have a lot of people that are very excited about it,” he said.

Herzfeld said it’s sometimes difficult to be excited when business picks up, because it’s often a sign of strife in their listeners’ home countries. In October, he noticed a huge bump in listeners to their Jamaican radio stations.

“Then I realized: They’re all worried about Hurricane Sandy,” Herzfeld said.

He saw the same spike in listeners to Egyptian radio stations a few weeks ago.

Trends aren’t necessarily always the result of political turmoil, however: Sometimes he’ll notice a spike in listeners for a certain country or station at a specific time, and he’ll learn that a certain news program or sports coverage runs at that time. When that happens, Herzfeld reaches out to the broadcasters to ask if they would like to make a recording of the live show and that can be rerun later for people who couldn’t listen in real time.

While many of the broadcasts come from overseas — Senegal, Mali, Guatemala, Brazil and Peru are just a handful of the dozens of countries Zeno Radio connects with — Herzfeld also provides services, support and occasional sponsorship for programs out of those communities here in the U.S.

Herzfeld said they are looking to hire more people from these and other communities — ideally journalists, he said, people involved or in touch with the political activities back home and capable of delivering that information to their peers here. He wants to bring on more people like Boubacar Ba, the person in charge of the French-language West African content for Zeno Radio. Boubacar also has his own community radio show that he volunteers for once a week.

“But he doesn’t do it for money,” Herzfeld said. “He does it because he loves his culture.”

Standing outside the Masjid Ar-Rahman mosque on 29th Street in Manhattan around midday, Herzfeld cheerfully said “Ramadan Mubarak” to all the people rushing by on their way to prayer while Boubacar went inside.  These are his people, he explains affectionately: These are the people Zeno Radio was made for. 

“I’m so honored to help them keep in touch with their culture,” Herzfeld said.

As a police officer peered at the windshield of an illegally parked taxi, Herzfeld shouted over to him: “Don’t ticket the guys who are going to pray!”

The officer looked over and Herzfeld shouted again: “They’re praying, don’t ticket them!”

The officer paused, glancing over at the mosque. “Be careful,” Herzfeld urged. “They’re all praying here.”

Nodding, the officer walked away.

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Humans should thank ancient Scottish fish fossils for…

By Kate KellandLONDON (Reuters) - Scientists studying fossils have discovered that the intimate act of sexual intercourse used by humans was pioneered by ancient armored…

National

Comet makes rare close pass by Mars as…

By Irene KlotzNEW YORK (Reuters) - A comet from the outer reaches of the solar system on Sunday made a rare, close pass by Mars…

Local

NYPD: Man found hanging in Brooklyn subway station

A man was found hanging inside a Brooklyn subway station on Saturday morning, police said. The man, who still had not been identified on Sunday,…

Local

Only church destroyed in 9/11 set to rebuild

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the only house of worship destroyed during the terrorist attacks on 9/11, held a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday to start the…

Going Out

Watch home cooks try to impress Tom Colicchio…

Is what you’re making for dinner tonight good enough to serve “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio? That’s the standard that some of the city’s best…

Television

‘Homeland’ recap: Season 4, Episode 4 ‘Iron in…

Carrie Mathison, what are you doing?! Don’t seduce virgins! More on that later: Lots of crazy stuff went down on the "Iron in the Fire" ep of "Homeland"!

Movies

Box office: Brad Pitt kills Nazis, also Nicholas…

This weekend, Brad Pitt's second WWII movie, "Fury," rolled into the lead, while the latest Nicholas Sparks movie, "The Best of Me," got little love.

Gossip

Blake Lively's pregnancy cravings are too weird to…

Find out what Blake Lively is rumored to send husband Ryan Reynolds to the store for.

College

College football AP Top 25 rankings: Mississippi State…

College football AP Top 25 rankings: Mississippi State holds off FSU

NHL

NHL Power Rankings: Sharks, Canadiens, Blackhawks out in…

NHL Power Rankings: Sharks, Canadiens, Blackhawks out in front

NFL

DeMarco Murray carries Cowboys to win over Giants

The Giants knew they would need to stop DeMarco Murray if they were going to leave Dallas with a win. It didn't matter.

NFL

Jets trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin: Report

According to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, the Jets have sent a conditional draft pick to the Seahawks for wide receiver Percy Harvin.

Wellbeing

Gabby Bernstein: The 3 questions I always get

For the last decade, I’ve been writing self-help books and preaching the Gospel of Gabby to audiences throughout the world. And no matter what country…

Wellbeing

Health News: 5K for lung cancer, free yoga,…

Get some fresh air to benefit lung cancer research On Friday, the first-ever Brooklyn Free to Breathe Run/Walk will take place Oct. 26 at Cadman Plaza…

Education

Can these two college students come up with…

Two Atlanta college students say they have an idea for a simple test that would quickly diagnosis the Ebola virus - and it all started…

Education

Chances are, the average college student isn't taking…

As a bachelor’s degree becomes more expensive than ever, one new report is criticizing colleges for the content of those pricey educations. The American Council…