Haig Ohanian

DETROIT — The Detroit metropolitan area, the home of some 40,000 Armenians, has perhaps the singular honor in the Eastern United States of having two Armenian programs broadcast on the radio airwaves.

The two programs, H.A.R.C. (Heritage of Armenian Culture Radio) and the Armenian Radio Program of Detroit, have long supplied cultural content to the local Armenian community and beyond. Furthermore, these two serve complementary roles.

While the Armenian Radio Hour of Detroit is similar to programs in other communities which offer popular music and community news, HARC provides more classical content and is aimed not only at the Armenian community, but the music and culture lovers of the wider region.

It is a testament to the strong Detroit Armenian community that two radio programs have been founded there and still exist to the present.

Nerses “Nick” Serkaian

Detroit’s Armenian Radio Program

Known and beloved for years as the Armenian Radio Hour, this program is the oldest Armenian radio show in the country and perhaps one of the oldest ethnic programs, period.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The Armenian Radio Hour of Detroit first aired on May 22, 1943 on WJLB-AM (1400), founded and hosted by tar-player Haig Ohanian, who had at the time recently relocated to Detroit from the New York area.

Ohanian, born in Ekaterinodar (renamed Krasnodar), Russia, was a musician and sometime actor in ethnic productions, as well as occasionally playing bit parts in Hollywood. Having arrived in the United States in 1924, he was responsible for the once well-known “High Art Recordings” label of 78 rpm records. Although his Caucasus style of Armenian music was at the time not in much demand for live events in Michigan, he found his niche on the radio where his productions were showcased. The “High Art” recordings, according to many, were actually performed by an orchestra of non-Armenian classical session musicians, for whom Ohanian prepared sheet music. Ohanian himself performed the tar in these recordings, and when vocals were necessary, generally American-Armenian young women from the Detroit area were featured. One of these singers was dramatic soprano Araxie Serkaian Terterian, whose brother, Nerses “Nick” Serkaian would take over the program in 1967.

Nick Serkaian’s broadcasts of the Armenian Radio Hour, which he hosted for a staggering 37 years, are fondly remembered by community members to this day. The shrill clarinet strain of the well-known march Zeitountsiner (i.e. Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Procession of the Sardar) was the signal to the younger generation that “grandma was listening to the Armenian Radio Hour.”

The HARC studio

To many community members, Serkaian was the Armenian Radio Hour. Unlike Haig Ohanian, who had broadcast in Armenian, Serkaian broadcast in English to cater to the next generation, and took pride in being one of the few American-born hosts of an ethnic radio program throughout the country.

Born in Detroit in 1932 to immigrant parents from Turkey, Serkaian was staunchly non-partisan within the Armenian community. Serkaian made the program a community bulletin board, announcing local news like weddings, funerals, and church affairs. He took pride in having been able to announce births of children, later on, their graduations and marriages, and finally the births of their own children. He also promoted local Armenian-owned businesses. In between, he played popular Armenian folk music. By the late 1990s, the program had bounced around the dial to where it is now, WNZK-AM (690) “the Station of the Nations,” which features mostly a variety of ethnic programming.

In 2004, Vaughn Masropian, the dumbeg player and vocalist of the local “Johnites” band, took over the program. When Serkaian was on his deathbed, Masropian relates, “he wanted me at the hospital. He grabbed me with his hand — he had worked in construction — and almost squeezed it off. He said, ‘Under no means does anyone else have the rights to the time slot.’” Masropian went to the WNZK studio, whose staff kindly taught him the ropes of how to record the show, as previously recorded shows by Serkaian were played for a few weeks.

For the past 17 years, Masropian has been the affable host of what is now called the Armenian Radio Program. He has moved the time slot from 10 a.m. on Sundays, to 6 p.m. Under the slogan of “A Community in Unity,” he has forged relationships with the clergy of all four area Armenian churches, St. John’s (Diocese), St. Sarkis (Prelacy), St. Vartan’s Armenian Catholic Church, and the Armenian Congregational Church, whose clergy appear as regular guests on the show. Entering the digital age, the show is also now available online.

HARC (Heritage of Armenian Culture Radio)

The HARC Armenian radio program has an entirely different mission and role. The brainchild of community leader, cultural and literary critic, ADL/Tekeyan activist, and the Mirror-Spectator’s senior editorial columnist, Edmond Y. Azadian, HARC was launched in 1973. Azadian, as founder and executive director, saw the need for a different kind of program to serve not only the Armenian community but to introduce the wider public to Armenian culture.

Former HARC host Charlene Apigian with husband Ardo. They performed together in an Armenian band in the 1960s

The purpose, according to Azadian, was to promote Armenian culture and give it a more scholarly format as well. Funded by the Manoogian Foundation, the program does not have any advertising and doesn’t consider itself to be in competition with other radio programs that serve more popular tastes. Azadian credits four well-known individuals in the cultural realm that helped give the program a boost at its inception: Berge Jamgotchian, organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Detroit native Ara Berberian, operatic bass who later joined New York’s Metropolitan Opera; New York-based pianist, composer, and musicologist Shahan Arzruni; and Detroit-born, Juilliard-trained Armenian popular folk and dance clarinetist and ethnomusicologist Hachig Kazarian.

Originally airing on Wayne State University’s WDET radio station and hosted by influential local radio personality and WDET anchor Judy Adams (of Armenian descent), the program was also syndicated and aired across the US and Canada. In the days when everything was done on reel-to-reels, the recording of the show would be circulated to stations as far as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Initially, a committee composed of Azadian and community leaders and musicians such as Alice Haidostian and Margaret Benian (both noted pianists) had developed the plans for the program. Benian had suggested Charlene Apigian to be involved in the planning committee as well. Since part of the goal was to provide academic level information on composers, artists, and other cultural figures, Apigian suggested the creation of an archive or mini-library of information on these individuals. In 1976, Apigian was given the role of program host and co-producer.

As the program developed, operations were moved from the WDET studio to a specially-constructed radio room in the St. John’s Armenian Church complex in Southfield. Recording engineer, Ron Manasian, was put in charge of constructing the radio room along with his cousin Joe Arslanian, a carpenter. An impressive mini-studio was built, complete with reel-to-reel players, turntables, microphones, shelving units for the completed shows, storage for LPs and cassettes, drawers, etc. In a nearby room were the file cabinets with all of the newspaper clippings, photographs, and pamphlets that Apigian had collected. For about 15 years, Apigian ably served as host with Manasian as engineer.

“Initially our idea was to broadcast not only music, but also to develop the music archives so that any individual could come and use our archives. That’s why we have accumulated the voices of many historic artists,” Azadian states, and goes onto name Akim Tamiroff, William Saroyan, Alan Hovhaness, sculptor Roupen Nakian, the Kavafian sisters (classical violinists), Ludwig Basil (an Armenian composer from Germany), and scholars like David Marshall Lang, Christopher Walker, and theatre figure Gerald Papasian. Azadian also gives credit to Soviet Armenia’s “Committee for Cultural Relations with Armenians Abroad” which provided HARC regularly with music and texts (translated by Azadian) from 1973 until the fall of the USSR.

For the last 30 years, Suzy Cazanjian has been the host of HARC. As a student at Wayne State University in Detroit, Cazandjian majored in public relations but was heavily involved in taking the Armenian studies courses offered at the time by Professor Dickran Toumajan, as well as music. Cazandjian, a classical pianist, was passionate about introducing the music of Armenian composers such as Khachaturian, Babajanian, and Barkhoudarian in piano competitions that she entered. Toumajan introduced her to Azadian at a time when Apigian needed to retire from the radio program, and she was given the role. Cazandjian sees her job as host as a natural extension of her championing of Armenian music through her own appearances as a pianist.

The current focus of the program is on classical, opera, folk and liturgical music. Features on Armenian composers, musicians, writers, and poets are included as well as documentaries on Armenian history and culture. Everything is broadcast in English. Cazandjian says that she gets a lot of feedback from non-Armenian listeners and it thrills her that they are hearing this music that they wouldn’t be able to hear otherwise.

Typically, Cazandjian does 3 contrasting segments. At one time, according to Azadian, the 3 segments would be classical, folk music, and an interview. Cazandjian says that she sometimes might do a documentary program which could take up the whole show or half the show. She does the research and prepares the programs, as well as hosts the show. Azadian has stepped back into more of an advisory capacity at this point. For the past 22 years, the show has, like the Armenian Radio Hour, moved to WNZK, where it now airs on Sundays at 9 p.m.

Apigian reminisced about some of the famous Armenians that have appeared on the program in her time: Eddie Mekka (from the TV show “Laverne and Shirley”), Mike Connors (star of “Mannix”), and movie actor David Hedison.

“We featured anything written by or performed by an Armenian,” Apigian recalls. They would record noted baritone opera singer Ara Berberian (a Detroit native) reciting poetry. In some cases, Apigian was able to get noted poets such as Diana Der Hovanessian and David Kherdian to record themselves reciting their own poetry at their homes, and send the tapes back to Detroit.

“The caliber of artists we’ve had on the program, everything about it is very unique and special,” says Cazandjian.

For a schedule of the programs, visit http://www.birach.com/wnzkpgm.html


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: