100 Years Celebration Bridge Street Interview

United Radio Service’s founder, Jacob Hyman Rubenstein, was born in Antopol, Russia in 1903, the oldest of eight children. At the age of eight, he left the Russian Empire with his mother, Freida, two sisters, Belle and Gertrude, and brother, Levi, to join their father, David, in the United States. David had emigrated from Russia a few years earlier to escape Jewish persecution in the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas II. The Rubenstein family was among some 2 million Jews who fled Russian persecution between 1880 and 1920, the majority coming to the U.S. Jacob (or Jake, as he was later called), did not speak much about his early life in Russia, but on at least one occasion spoke about periodic programs, large-scale anti-Semitic riots that often killed many Jews and destroyed their property. A series of pogroms in 1905 targeted and killed Jews throughout the Russian Empire and destroyed millions of dollars in Jewish property. Frieda and her children landed at the Ellis Island immigration station in New York City in February 1911, and then reunited with David in Syracuse, where he had established a new home and was working as a shoe repairer.

By 1921, the Rubenstein family was residing at 512 Irving Ave. in Syracuse. In the home’s attic, Jake dabbled with radio sets and soon learned much about this nascent communications industry. Beginning in about 1920, radio developed into an electronic medium that broadcast news, music, sports, drama, and variety shows, and dominated the airwaves until television supplanted it after World War II. Jake Rubenstein positioned himself to take advantage of the radio market and quickly became an expert.

He began to assemble radio kits purchased by customers at local stores at his home. That progressed in 1923, to Jake selling, assembling, and repairing radios within the National Outlet, a store located at 115 West Jefferson St. in Syracuse that sold surplus military clothing, civilian clothing, shoes, and interestingly, radio parts, including rheostats, condensers, and transformers. When the National Outlet went bankrupt in 1925, Jake Rubenstein took advantage of the rapid upsurge in radios to venture out on his own in March 1925 and establish The Radio Shop at 425 South Clinton St. in Syracuse. An advertisement in the Syracuse Herald newspaper later that year announced, “Radio Service Under Supervision of Jacob Rubenstein.” Jake’s newspaper advertisements also publicized that his shop sold radio sets and parts and employed skilled men to repair radios. Recognized as a local radio expert, the Syracuse Herald enticed Jake to write a weeky newspaper column.

Jake Rubenstein also was an ardent student of electronics and an inventor. Between 1929 and 1963, he received 11 patents — one for a wireless transmission system in 1932, one for a quickbreaking thermal relay in 1942, one for an electromagnetic alarm device in 1944, and one for a starter and a circuit for an electric discharge device in 1963. Jake also invented a record player that could play either side of a record, as well as a parking meter that removed the available parking time when the car pulled away, ensuring that the next vehicle to park did not get free parking time.

Jake married Dorothy Lefkowitz in 1929, often recounting that the money he received from his first patent that year allowed him to ask for Dorothy’s hand. The following July, Jake and Dorothy welcomed their first child, a son they named Milton, to honor Jake’s younger brother who had died from an infection in February 1930. Jake and Dorothy’s family eventually expanded to include another son, Arnold, who was born in May 1939.

Jake moved The Radio Shop from 425 South Clinton St. to 1026 South Salina St., and during the following year, renamed the business United Radio Service. By 1936, United Radio Service would move two more times, first to 526 Harrison St., then to 420 Harrison St. By 1939, United Radio Service had a total of six employees, including Jake and Dorothy’s father, Henry.

Jake Rubenstein constructed a new building for his growing business in the spring of 1941 at 711 South State St., using bricks from the former Temple Adath Yeshurun, which occupied that site, but had relocated to Harrison Street.

During World War II, since Jake was responsible for his wife and two sons, he was given a low draft number, and therefore, was not called for direct military service. However, his patriotic commitment led him to take a job at H. & A. Manufacturing in Buffalo, to conduct research on magnetic navigational equipment. While Jake and his family resided in Buffalo, United Radio Service continued to operate. Once the war ended, Jake and his family moved back to Syracuse to resume his management role in the business.

Jake and Dorothy’s son, Milton, first began to work at the family business at age 16 during the summer months in 1946. After graduating from Nottingham High School in 1948, Milton attended Syracuse University and graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1955. Jake’s younger son, Arnold, began working at United Radio Service in 1953 at age 14. As with many youngsters just entering the working world, one of Arnold’s first jobs was to sweep the floor. Arnold graduated from Nottingham High School in 1957 and then from Syracuse University in 1969 with an electrical engineering degree. Arnold married Libby Rosenbloom in 1961 and they would have two children, Phillip, born in 1966, and Mara, born in 1968.

The 1950s was a decade of considerable business growth for United Radio Service. In 1954, the company purchased the Bendix car radio and parts franchise, and became the parts distributor for the Delco Radio Division of General Motors. As business expanded that year, the company required additional space and leased the building next door. The second building had a basement and a second floor, substantially increasing the available work and storage space.

Also in 1954, United Radio Service established its Communications Division, at first repairing Motorola equipment, but eventually growing to more than 40 employees who serviced communications equipment throughout Central New York. That same year, Milton Rubenstein established a separate business for pagers, incorporated as General Communications, Inc., first named Syracuse Radio Call Service, and later, Beepcall, while he simultaneously remained committed to his responsibilities at United Radio Service.

By the end of the 1950s, United Radio Service was the authorized repair center for all consumer products produced by General Electric, including household radios and television sets, some made at Electronics Park in Liverpool, New York.

In 1961, the City of Syracuse purchased United Radio Service’s property at 711 South State St., to make room for the Everson Museum of Art. Jake bought property on Erie Boulevard East and built a new 8,000-square-foot edifice, larger than the State Street property. The new United Radio Service opened at 2949 Erie Boulevard E. in November 1963.

Due to health concerns, Jake retired in 1963 and transferred ownership of the business to his sons, Milton and Arnold, each receiving 50 percent of the company. Milton became company president, directly managing the Communications division, and Arnold became VP, overseeing the Consumer division. At this time, United Radio Service comprised three divisions: Communications, Automotive, and Consumer.

Within the consumer division, the company maintained three departments for repairing television sets, radios, and tape recorders. It was during this decade that consumer products made with transistor circuitry became more prevalent than products made with tube circuitry. Transistors needed fewer repairs, and United Radio Service needed to adapt again in order to maintain the volume of its consumer-product repair service. Arnold and his staff worked with sales representatives at the consumer products stores to have the representatives send their customers to United Radio Service for repairs, especially the difficult repairs. The company quickly earned the reputation as “the service center that could repair the tough ones.”

On Nov. 4, 1968, Jacob H. Rubenstein, founder of United Radio Service, passed away at his home in Syracuse at age 65. Along with being the company’s founder and owner, Jake also was a ham radio operator with the call letters W2NCK. He was an active member of Temple Adath Yeshurun, and the B’nai B’rith & Zionist organizations. He was the first Eagle Scout in Boy Scout Troop 40, as well as its former scoutmaster. Jake was buried in Adath Yeshurun Cemetery.

United Radio Service maintained and strengthened its automotive and communications repair services in the 1970s, as well as expanded its consumer division repair service. The expanded consumer repair service included repairing home audio and stereo equipment and guitar amplifiers. For several years, United Radio Service had repaired expensive reel-to-reel video-tape recorders (VTR). With the introduction of the more affordable video-cassette recorder (VCR), United Radio Service’s versatile technicians began to repair these machines as well. United Radio Service also developed a long-distance repair service, fixing equipment that was shipped to Syracuse from other geographic locations, and thus, greatly enlarging the company’s consumer division.

United Radio Service expanded another 4,000 square feet at its Erie Boulevard East location to create a 12,000-square-foot facility in 1979.

As the 1980s began, the company’s consumer division was conducting warranty service for 51 manufacturers and was one of the largest and most successful repair service centers in the U.S. The consumer division also began to service the Atari video-game system that was first introduced in 1982. Arnold’s son, Phillip, began working in the division that year at age 16, and developed his skills in repairing Atari game systems.

With assistance from a group of financial investors, Milton Rubenstein became the founding director of a new company, Syracuse Telephone Company, in order to request a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to organize and manage a cell phone company. The FCC awarded the license, and the company’s new cell-phone switch was installed at United Radio Service. United Radio Service expanded its physical presence on Erie Boulevard East by another 3,000 square feet to accommodate the new cell-phone service

Sadly, on March 25, 1986, at age 55, Milton Rubenstein suddenly died from a brain aneurysm after attending a party with his wife, Elaine, along with his brother, Arnold and his wife, Libby. The family was devastated, and Arnold recognized that Milton’s death left “a big void at United Radio.”

Upon Milton’s death, his son Jeffrey became an equal partner in the company with a 50 percent share. Arnold became company president and Jeffrey became VP. Milton’s wife, Elaine, took on the management of Beepcall, the pager-service company. Personal and corporate life slowly and steadily moved forward while keeping Milton’s memory alive.

In 1987, Arnold developed the United Radio Customer Care Course, a two-week training program for employees to learn about and improve their customer-care skills. Customer care had always been an integral part of United Radio Service’s business plan, dating back to Jake’s first days, and it was still critical to the company’s management team to establish and maintain excellent customer relations.

At the end of the 1980s, United Radio Service’s automotive division was growing (and on the move) again. The company received a contract from GM Delco to repair its Control Data Module — an automotive computer device that controlled sound characteristics in cars. United Radio Service needed more space to conduct the repair service and satisfy GM Delco’s contract requirements. The company purchased a 4.5-acre property on Enterprise Parkway in DeWitt to construct a facility that would house the automotive division. Syracuse–based Hueber-Breuer Construction Co., Inc. constructed the 27,000-square-foot structure, which was completed in the spring of 1990, just in time to meet General Motors’ (GM) contract deadline.

After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1988 and working as the senior recording engineer at the Eastman School in Rochester, Arnold’s son, Phillip, returned to United Radio Service to assume responsibility for the newly created Home Office Division to repair computers and printers. The computer and printer repair entity were not as successful as the other divisions and closed in 1998.

In June 1992, Milton’s family contributed a $400,000 naming gift for the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST). Located in the former New York State Armory at 500 South Franklin St., the museum formally opened on Oct. 27, 1992. The gift recognized Milton’s life-long dedication to science, invention, and engineering. Jeffrey Rubenstein, who was president of the museum’s board of trustees in 1992, said of his father, “He never got excited about any type of opportunities for fame or glory; we’re not doing it for that reason. But one of the things he was interested in was helping people, especially young people, to understand and appreciate science in their lives.” Jeffrey also said that his father taught him how to build electrical circuits and make fuses out of aluminum foil in the family’s basement, fondly recalling how father and son worked together on school science projects and wired the family’s house in Cazenovia. Today, the MOST is a hands-on science and technology museum for people of all ages, celebrating its 30th anniversary in its current location.

Also, in 1992, Mara Rubenstein returned to Syracuse from Las Vegas, where she had been working in the human resources department at the Mirage Hotel and Casino. She began to work full time, alongside her father, Arnold, brother, Phillip, and cousin, Jeffrey, as United Radio Service’s director of the human resources department. Mara graduated from Boston University 1990 with a BA in Psychology with a minor in Business Administration and MBA from Babson College in 1997. She has grown the Human Resources department from one person in 1992 to a department of seven today.

 

Southwestern Bell Corp. purchased Syracuse Telephone Co. in April 1994. The sale was part of Southwestern Bell’s plan to expand its fast-growing wireless-telephone business. The acquisition made Southwestern Bell the largest cellular operator in upstate New York at the time by acquiring wireless communications companies in Syracuse, Utica, Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo. That same year, Elaine Rubenstein sold Beepcall, the paging company Milton had founded in 1954.

GM discontinued its entire business relationship in 1999, 50 years after United Radio began servicing automotive radios. GM was by far United Radio Service’s largest automotive-repair client and the lost contract astonished and distressed company management. After losing the GM repair business, some United Radio Service employees were left without any work. For the first time in the company’s 76-year history, it laid off 21 employees in the automotive division. However, the pain of losing all the GM repair contracts did not last too long. By 2003, thanks to new repair contracts formed with Panasonic, United Radio Service rebuilt, and even exceeded, the volume of automotive repair services that were lost from the GM contracts.

As the 20th century ended, significant personnel changes occurred at United Radio Service. Company president, Arnold Rubenstein, retired in 2000, and Jeffrey Rubenstein became company president. Arnold’s son, Phillip, became VP, and daughter, Mara, became corporate secretary. Elaine Rubenstein also retired that year. Arnold’s wife, Libby, previously retired at the end of 1999. Jeffrey Rubenstein expressed an interest in selling his business share of United Radio Service in 2000, and Phillip and Mara were equally interested in purchasing it. The buyout by Phillip and Mara occurred during the last days of 2000. Arnold’s children then asked their father to temporarily come out of retirement and return as company president for the next three years. He gladly agreed as he could not completely leave the company, he had served for almost 50 years.

United Radio Service adapted to technological changes in the 21st century. In 2002, the company created Satellite Radios Direct to sell XM satellite radios across the U.S. The company bought $1 million worth of satellite radios to sell — promoting both United Radio Service and the new technology at national trade shows. The plan came to fruition after several years of trying to convince car owners that satellite radio was the future in radio entertainment.

Motorola asked United Radio Service to sell and install the new 911 emergency system to be used by Onondaga County in 2003. United Radio Service sold and installed the complete package to Onondaga County — not only the emergency system equipment, but also furniture, carpeting, and lighting.

United Radio Service experienced another momentous year in 2005. The company purchased the building that neighbored the automotive division headquarters at 5703 Enterprise Parkway to create a larger facility for the corporate offices and the communications division. After adding sizeable garage space to accommodate large service vehicles, the building was well-suited for the company’s needs. Also, that year, Phillip and Mara purchased their father’s 50 percent company ownership to become the third generation of Rubenstein family members to own United Radio Service. The siblings consolidated all United Radio Service divisions on Enterprise Parkway in DeWitt to create a United Radio Service campus totaling 200,000 square feet.

During May 2005, Arnold Rubenstein retired for the second time as president of United Radio Service. In 2013, he wrote a book about the history of the company, titled, Jake’s Place. In the back of the book, Arnold recorded a long list of worthwhile concepts. Here are just three: 1) We do not earn our pay by repairing things. We earn our pay by satisfying the customer. 2) Whatever we do in business, it should bring dignity to our industry, our company, and to ourselves. 3) People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Arnold is active in the Longhouse Council of the Boy Scouts of America, as well the Finger Lakes Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society of Central New York. Arnold and Phillip also raced power boats as a team for about 25 years in the historic Division of the American Power Boat Association. Although officially retired, he still visits United Radio Service each day.

United Radio will celebrate its 100th year in business in 2023. It is still going strong in the first quarter of the 21st century, and now provides services for almost all forms of automotive and consumer electronics, and two-way radio communications. The company now offers repair services to customers in Georgia and Utah. United Radio is easily positioned to succeed for the next 100 years.

Thomas Hunter is curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.