Elisabeth Stam, station manager at Columbia University’s WKCR, shared some stories about the station’s history, what it means for them to be fully student-run and how they have carved out a unique place for themselves within New York City. She will be sharing more of her experiences and stories about the station as part of our Aircheck series at College Day during CMJ Music Marathon.
How did you first get involved at the station?
As a native New Yorker, I grew up listening to WKCR. Every year around the winter holidays, my family would have WKCR’s Bach Festival on the radio seemingly all the time. When my parents told me that a team of college students from Columbia put together 7-10 days of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music 24/7 on the radio, I was impressed and I immediately knew that one day I would like to join their ranks. When I finally arrived at Columbia, I was getting coffee with a new friend who happened to be programmer at WKCR. He encouraged me to join the station and the rest is history!
WKCR has quite a history, what is one of your favorite stories from the stations past that you think best defines the station?
WKCR has been broadcasting in New York City since 1941, and we will be celebrating 75 years on air in 2016. One of my favorite stories from WKCR’s past occurred on October 4th 1957, when WKCR students managed to record transmissions from Sputnik’s radio pulses (some sort of beep sound) while Sputnik was orbiting the planet. WKCR broadcasted the recording on the radio before any of the networks in New York City had a chance to. The next morning, the FBI arrived at the station and confiscated WKCR’s Sputnik recordings, much to the students’ surprise and indignation.
Our tapes were never seen or heard again, I suppose it was a matter of national Cold War security. This story epitomizes the WKCR spirit where young people immediately grasp the importance of developing events and pull together whatever necessary to bring our listeners what they deserve to hear, the best and nothing less. WKCR has always operated in a sphere beyond traditional college radio and that is what this anecdote demonstrates.
The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think college radio is not Classical and Jazz, how has the station carved out a place for itself with this unique format?
WKCR is dedicated to playing genres of music that are infrequently heard, if not at all, on commercial radio and even on college radio. Our nine different programming departments (Classical, Jazz, New Music, Sports, News, Arts, In All Languages, American, and Latin) provide a wide-range of content that reflects the diversity of WKCR’s listening population. WKCR has carved out a place with our unique format because no one else anywhere on the FM dial devotes so much time and energy to playing large amounts of Jazz and Classical, for instance. Additionally, WKCR focuses on the “alternative” voices in music, highlighting not the most well known or famous performers, musicians, and composers but those we think deserve recognition and airtime. We also pride ourselves on playing compositions in their entirely instead of excerpts.
WKCR is well recognized for its special tribute broadcasts. These traditions include: our Bach Festival, at the end of December when we play only J.S. Bach’s music uninterruptedly for a week or more, memorial broadcasts to honor a beloved musician who has passed away (WKCR broadcasted Ornette Coleman’s music continuously for a week as soon as we heard of his death in June 2015), and our annual Birthday Broadcasts for Jazz giants when we play their music and nothing else for 24 hours on their birthday.
When recruiting new students to the station how do you introduce them to Classical and Jazz if it isn’t something they are well versed in yet?
Being interested in Classical, Jazz, or any of our departments is not a pre-requisite to joining WKCR, although many students approach us who are specifically drawn to those genres. WKCR has a unique student run interning process that all programmers must complete in order to become licensed and host an on-air show.
Our semester long interning process has new students sitting in on a live radio show in the studio each week to “learn the ropes” from an experienced programmer. We try to pair each intern with a programmer from a musical genre and department that the student is interested in. New students thus engage with our music on a very personal level. They interact in real time with a WKCR radio program (including our phone-in listener line) and they become familiar with the kind of music we feature and how we curate and present that music. Above all, they see WKCR’s dedication to its listeners. The learning never stops, and the interning process introduces new students to a world of music that they may not readily know about or have been exposed to.
What does being entirely student-run look like at WKCR?
We are indeed entirely student-run at WKCR. Five students serve on our Executive Board and ten students are responsible, as Department Heads, for running our nine different programming departments. The Executive Board oversees station wide matters and the Department Heads focus on their individual departments and day-to-day scheduling. Everyone at WKCR cares immensely for the station and they love and work very hard towards sustaining and maintaining the station’s message and mission. WKCR is on-air around the clock, through FM radio in New York and streaming online worldwide, just like New York City, it never sleeps, and the students rarely do either! Our invaluable team of student programmers makes WKCR come alive.
How do you handle the inevitable transition of staff from year to year?
The inevitable transition of staff from year to year is challenging for us, as for any student-run organization. We transition our Executive Board at the end of the calendar year, rather than at the close of the academic year. Most of our programmers join us during their first or second year of college and stay on once they are licensed, so there are always interested and committed students rising through the ranks. We also welcome the participation of WKCR programmers who stay in the New York City area after college graduation and who want to keep programming, and so some of our “WKCR alumni” still come around to lend a hand, for which we are always grateful.