For Gary Axelbank, moderating televised political debates isn’t that different than being a disc jockey.
The host of “BronxTalk” and “The Bronx Buzz” on public access cable television network BronxNet has racked up more than four decades of experience in radio, television, public relations, higher education and community development.
This week’s “BronxTalk” show — about a polemical proposal for an animal shelter in Co-op City — is its 1,160th program, he said. He’s also hosted more than 60 debates among a long list of local politicos, from borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., to Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.
“We’ve covered just about everything that’s gone on in the Bronx over the last 24 years,” Axelbank said.
But it all started with a kind of dream.
“Ever since I was a kid and I started to learn about radio, I’d always had this idea that we could put a radio station in our neighborhood,” said Axelbank, who grew up in Van Cortlandt Village in the same building he lives in now. He wanted to “program it to serve the people of the neighborhood, with whatever was important to them.”
The neighborhood has changed, a lot. But Axelbank’s commitment to grassroots radio hasn’t waned.
“I always understood the fundamental nature of broadcasting, what communication should be,” he said. “As I grew up and got into my professional life, that was always kind of in the back of my mind.”
He’s worked as a radio disc jockey, producer and station program director in various states. He worked for Howard Stern before he was the “Howard Stern that everybody knows and loves, and some people hate.” And he’s taught broadcasting and lectured about mass communications at various colleges. He earned his bachelor’s in English from Lehman in 1975.
He also runs ThisIsTheBronx.info, an online news aggregator that collects and shares Bronx-based stories from a number of outlets, including The Riverdale Press, along with some of its own original content.
Axelbank got involved at BronxNet “literally from the first day,” he said. The network went on air in July 1993, according to BronxNet.org. Axelbank’s first series focused on a national chess champion from the Bronx.
“My background was not really television,” but radio, Axelbank said. “But this was, theoretically, exactly what I had visualized in my mind when I had said, ‘Gee, we could have a little radio station in our neighborhood.’”
It wasn’t so long after that groundbreaking summer BronxNet’s executive director at the time, James Carney, told Axelbank they wanted to create a talk show, with Axelbank hosting.
“I never really had done TV before,” Axelbank said, but didn’t hesitate to say yes. “BronxTalk” debuted in October 1994.
The Van Cortlandt Village native has realized one of his life’s goals — providing programming for his borough’s 1.4 million people. Yet his DJ experience wasn’t for naught.
“I was a DJ during a time when you could choose your own records,” Axelbank said. “It was so-called progressive radio.”
That style of radio morphed over time, Axelbank said, in a way that disc jockeys “lost control over what was played.” Ultimately, he’d seek out other work. Still, he sees what he does now as an extension of that early on-air experience.
“The idea when, on a rainy day, that you play ‘Riders on the Storm,’ by The Doors, and on a sunny day you play ‘Summer in the City’ by the Lovin’ Spoonful, that reflects people’s lives,” Axelbank said. “What I do now is actually, philosophically the exact same thing. I’m the medium through which we see what’s going on in people’s lives. Instead of playing a song on the radio, I provide an interview or some other piece that helps people see the reality and learn more and do better in their lives.”
Axelbank also was the voice of the City University of New York Athletic Conference for 12 years, he said, announcing the play-by-play for basketball championships, tennis matches and paddleball tournaments for BronxNet.
“I really am a homegrown guy,” Axelbank said. “I never did that deliberately. It’s just the decisions I made.”
Yet, the first time he distinctly remembers holding a microphone was in the schoolyard of what is now P.S. 95 Sheila Mencher on Hillman Avenue.
“They always had one kid, some sixth grader, announce the dances,” Axelbank said. “For whatever reason, whatever teacher said, ‘You know, you probably could do that.’
“To this day, I remember standing there at that dance festival, in the P.S. 95 schoolyard, holding the microphone, announcing, and saying to myself, ‘How come I’m not nervous? This feels pretty cool.’”
It wasn’t until later Axelbank realized the significance of that moment.
“That was my first gig,” he said. “That defined the rest of my professional life. I just always have felt comfortable being the medium. It’s turned out this is where I do it, in the Bronx.”
It’s not so easy for Axelbank to put into words what it is he loves most about what he does. Essentially, it’s about giving viewers options.
“I will give people the opportunity to make their own choices with a little more information,” he said.
Although he avoids taking a public stance on most issues, he’s a huge champion of youth and youth programs, and served as a board member of nonprofit Visions/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re the political guy,’” Axelbank said. “I am not the political guy.”
In fact, some of the issues he cares about most — and the reasons he’s passionate about hosting debates — have “nothing to do with politics.”
“It’s pretty well-known in the Bronx and in political circles,” he said, “that if you’re going to run for office, somewhere along the way, you’re going to get a call from me to invite you either to the show or to a debate”
But it’s impossible to deny the influence and the importance of people voting and people understanding, Axelbank said.
It’s a purpose some viewers would probably argue is particularly timely just a couple weeks before voters head to the polls.
Says Axelbank, “Let them make their choices.”