Immigrants Adjust to America via TV

Times Staff Writer

There are those who watch television’s “Dynasty” to see how the other half lives--and suffers.

There are those who view the series to see how many young hunks Joan Collins, 51, can maneuver in and out of her lavishly appointed boudoir.

There are those who tune in for the weekly fashion show. And those who enjoy the program for sheer camp value.

Then there are those who watch “Dynasty” to learn how to speak English and understand American culture.


This last group consists largely of Soviet immigrants living in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They subscribe to a radio network that offers simultaneous Russian translations of “Dynasty” and other TV shows.

“Dynasty,” it seems, is the single most popular program broadcast on radio station KMNB. To subscribers who pay $29.50 a month for a decoder that allows their radios to receive the station’s signal, the broadcasts include simultaneous translations of local and national news shows, documentaries, magazine programs and a few entertainment shows each evening. (Daytime programming consists of English lessons, music and station-produced broadcasts on world news and how to cope with life in the United States.)

The radio network was created in 1980 by 58-year-old Efim Tovbin, a Romanian-born, Russian-reared accountant who had trouble picking up English and adjusting to American life when he arrived in Los Angeles nine years ago.

“I suffered a lot with the language. It’s very hard when you can’t express yourself. People who can’t express themselves look stupid,” he said the other day in his Fairfax district accounting office at Creative Financial Network Inc. “Even now my vocabulary is very simple. It’s like a child’s. I know what is in my mind and I cannot express it. I cannot talk more complicated like I feel. I was 48 years old when I came here. It was very hard to pick up the language. I saw a lot of people who watched the television and who couldn’t understand one word.”

It doesn’t bother Tovbin in the slightest that for most of his subscribers, the soap opera chronicling the lives of the rich but troubled Colby and Carrington families is far more popular than English lessons or shows on Soviet history. As he sees it, at least his people may understand what’s happening on “Dynasty” and be intrigued enough to want to know more about American culture or, ideally, want to learn the language themselves.

“ ‘Dynasty’ they like very much. If we don’t give ‘Dynasty,’ we get in trouble,” he added. “They like the (local) news on Channel 7 very much. They like ‘Hotel.’ They don’t like the cowboys. They don’t like movies with pistols that kill everybody. They like more drama. They like programs like ‘Hollywood Wives.’ ”

Similar services for the Spanish-speaking community have recently been offered in the Los Angeles area. Spanish-broadcasting radio station KALI (1430 AM) regularly simulcasts Spanish translations of KNBC-TV’s 11 p.m. news. And late last year, KTLA-TV (Channel 5) began simulcasting Spanish translations of its 10 p.m. news shows, Monday through Friday, and also translations of its syndicated “Love Boat” reruns.

(To tune in KALI’s simultaneous translations, only a standard radio is required. But to receive KTLA’s simultaneous translations--which are broadcast as part of the usual signal--a television equipped to receive and play stereo sound is needed. Or a specially equipped radio is required, which KTLA news director Jeff Wald says will be available later this year through Sears, Roebuck and Radio Shack.)

No Expertise

Ironically, it took a man who knew virtually nothing about radios to bring radio translations to the Soviet immigrants of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

From age 13 to 48, Tovbin lived in the Soviet Union, where citizens are not permitted to privately own radios (they’re the property of the government). At age 16, he joined the army. Fourteen months later he became a pilot during World War II. At the end of 10 years of army service, Tovbin attained the rank of major.

Then he went to school, receiving the Soviet equivalent of a doctorate in accounting and finance. By the time he and his wife and children left Moscow for Los Angeles in 1976, Tovbin “had a very big job in the Ministry of Irrigation. I was--I don’t know how to say in English--under one of the bosses of the ministry.”

“I decided to leave because I didn’t like the Communist government,” he said, matter of factly, no trace of bitterness in his warm voice. “The Russian people are very nice, but I like freedom.”

Tovbin, who worked the equivalent of three full-time accounting jobs at once when he first came to the United States (“I was very fast”), now lives with his wife, Leri, and their 22-year-old daughter, Maya, in a spacious home of their own in Granada Hills. (Another daughter, 34-year-old Tania Goldfield, is married.)

A Busy Man

But now that he’s more comfortable, Tovbin has hardly decided to sit back now and take it easy. In addition to running the radio network, he remains a voracious worker, handling about 60 accounting clients and 300 tax clients each year, about 50% of whom are immigrants.

The radio network, which was begun in 1980 “with eight people who worked seven or eight months without salary,” went on the air in Los Angeles in February, 1982. Tovbin, too, worked without salary and personally supported the station financially until it became profitable, he said.

“We found people from the community, people with love, people who give everything to establish this,” he said. “We didn’t know a lot of things; we used to have a lot of problems.”