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
Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

National

OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…

Local

MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.

Movies

Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."

Movies

'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.

Television

'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."

Television

TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

NFL

Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”

MLB

Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.

Travel

Glasgow: Hey, hey, the gangs aren't here

This European city has done a good job getting rid of its more violent residents and revitalizing with artists.

Education

Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…

Education

NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.

Tech

The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.