The Station

Published on December 4, 2017

“At WKCR we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

- Damon Clark, GS ’19, Offbeat host

When I walk into the studio of WKCR, it feels like I am entering an immortal space. The air is heavy and stagnant, and the rooms are dusty. The artificial lights and the incessant purr of the ventilation make me feel like we’re in a submarine, entirely contained from the environment outside. Elizabeth Maghakian, the station manager and a junior in Columbia College, tells me that she experiences time differently here. I feel it too. It seems to just slip by.

I might forget that this entire space is on the second floor of Lerner Hall, or even forget that it is on Columbia’s campus. Meanwhile, first-years in Carman Hall sleep, party, and throw up next door. Late-night janitors roam the administrative offices above.

Through my friends, I was aware of the radio station’s cool, edgy vibe. I knew about the jazz greats—Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, and many more—who had been there, the nutty post-war avant-garde composer (John Cage) who played around with KCR’s records, and the renegade 1968 protest coverage. Many of my friends have programmed at the station. Prior to reporting this story I had even recorded in Moo Aquarium—a room at the station so-called because of its large, three-sided windows that mimic a fish tank—once before, in my sophomore year, playing clarinet for a chamber piece written by a Columbia composer.

Still, KCR sat just on the periphery of my imagination. All I really knew was that it existed, with a heavy, storied history; it was celebrated; and neither I nor most of my Columbia peers seemed to listen to it.

I wait outside of Master Control, where broadcasting takes place, not wanting to disturb Offbeat, KCR’s hip-hop show. Polaroids of KCR members—in an urhipster fashion—are pinned in a chaotic swirl on the wall opposite me. I peruse the nicknames that I have already read several times. Angela “Wheedwhacker” Xia, Gabe “The Croctopus” Soileau, Jessie “dribblin’ kummquat” Rubin, Matt “Easter ‘Fat Cat’ crumble” Rivera. When they party, they refer to themselves as the KCRierty.

Paulie Walnuts, a soft-spoken adult host with cornrows and sincere eyes, comes out of the session for a breath of air. He welcomes me; I say what I’m doing at the station. With a warm smile, he gestures for me to come inside. Together, we walk into Master Control.

Master Control is littered with monuments. A 1987 Sun Ra poster, the “Gillespie” chair, a photo of Charles Mingus on bass. The walls beneath these legends are painted pale white and are of cement, and the overhead lamps throw their heat against them. A warning about karma and broken records, which is taped onto a window between Master Control and Moo Aquarium, intimidates newbie hosts.

The control board flashes its bright yellows, greens, and reds. “LOVE” is etched on the panel, and rubber buttons pop off easily. Above the FM marker, “HEY!” has been penciled in either a long or short time ago. At KCR, yesterday and 47 years ago feels like the same thing.

There are usually only a handful of people at KCR at a given time. One or two hosts hang out in Moo Aquarium, maybe playing Dungeons and Dragons if it is a Wednesday night. In the really early hours, you are typically alone.

Inside Master Control are DJ Damian Straaange (Damon Clark, a junior in General Studies), two of his colleagues—Paulie and Adrian, an adult host—and an intern, who only introduces herself as Kaitlin. Straaange cues up the music—the album Soul on Ice by Ras Kass—and nods along. He takes off his headphones—labeled “WKCR” in a confusion of blacks, whites, and reds—and turns up the music for us to hear in the room. A stream of compact rhymes jump from the blocky, black, and buzzing speakers that dangle behind me. The snare drum rhythm punctuates Ras Kass’ strong flow.

KCR describes itself as a student-run station. Indeed, about 80 percent of the people working there are students, many of whom will do their homework while the cued music plays. Usually they cue each set in about half-an-hour blocks. Station identifications are needed every hour for FCC standards. For this, hosts say the station name, the time, and—sometimes—their names.

“WKCR-FM 89.9 on the radio dial and WKCR.o-r-g.” DJ Straaange spells it out slowly and enunciates each letter, “on the World Wide Web. You are listening to the sounds of B.M.X. and the name of this joint here is called Microphone Microphone.” He pauses and leans back in his chair. “4:02 a.m. in the morning and you are listening to the one and only Deacon Straaange on the ones and twos. … We are going to bring you some more dope hip-hop for the night at 4:02 a.m. in the morning.”

This is a station with a loyal and passionate audience. On its internet streaming function alone it had 9,755,602 total accesses from July 1 2016, to May 31, 2017. The Village Voice named KCR to New York’s Best Local Radio stations in 2016.

But in spite of being a student-run enterprise, most current Columbia students don’t know of or listen to the station. Moreover its adult hosts—some of whom have no affiliation with Columbia—are the public faces of the station.

What arises is a tension in KCR’s student hosts’ ability to balance a sense of ownership over the station and the desire to maintain the station’s legacy.

“We were going to play a clarinet concerto by Artie Shaw, but someone sat on it about twenty minutes ago.”

- CURC first official broadcast, Feb. 24, 1941

“KARMA WILL BREAK YOU LIKE YOU BROKE THIS (FRANK SINATRA) RECORD(S)!”

- Warning plastered above shattered LPs in Master Control, December 2017

At 6:58 p.m. on May 14, 1956, King’s Crown Radio, formerly Columbia University Radio Club, pinged the FM airwaves for the first time. Grayson Kirk, then-president of Columbia University, declared that WKCR-FM would “inculcate” in its students “a feeling of responsibility and duty to the community.”

That fall’s program followed through. A quiz show pitted students against faculty members (The Whole Man), various academic departments proclaimed their achievements (University), and “Columbia University’s own leading composers and artists” featured their oeuvres (Music at Columbia).

KCR became the Student Voice of Columbia, a moniker emblazoned in schedule pamphlets and preached over station identification.

Round-the-clock coverage famously staccatoed into dorm rooms throughout the ’68 protests. Students received praise and scorn for their dynamic and incisive coverage. The station was cool, controversial, and current. It vibrated with youthful energy.

“Eighty-nine point what?”

- Lex Denysenko, a Columbia College first-year, Oct. 17, 1995

But just three decades later, The Federalist—known then as The Federalist Paper—named KCR “an anonymous entity on campus.” As an informal test to see if their claim was still true in 2017, I asked nine random students in front of Butler Library if they listened to WKCR. I received six nos, two not-so-muchs, and one I-don’t-go-here.

 

I would be fooling you if I pretended to be any different. Although I study music history at Columbia, I have—prior to reporting for this piece—only tuned in to the station twice: once for a jazz set and once for an opera interview.

KCR’s main audience members are not current Columbians like myself. In fact, many listeners do not even know that Columbia owns this station. “We don’t tout ourselves as being Columbia’s radio station on the air,” Jeffrey “Jeffo” Wainstein, program director, tells me.

Nor do they design their programming to feature the Columbia community. Sports and, to a lesser extent, News and Arts are the only three departments—out of of nine total—that focus on the Columbia community. But these constitute a negligible portion of the weekly schedule, at most nine hours total each week.

“I find it really interesting that not many people on campus know about WKCR. It is completely student-run, student-led, it is independent from the campus club culture,” Claire Berner, BC ’17 and WKCR’s station manager in 2016, says. “It’s a whole business, it’s a very popular radio station. We have a huge audience. But if you ask people on campus they’re just unaware that this exists.”

Maghakian—the current station manager—tells me that a lot of supporters are surprised to learn when they donate via mail that “Columbia University” is a part of the address. KCR’s listeners come from NYC (like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote a letter in 1990 thanking the station for soothing his horrible car ride), the Metropolitan area (like Lorie Gallo, a cool septuagenarian from Long Island who calls into the Latin music shows), and, because of HD broadcasts and online streaming, around the world (according to Phil Schaap, CC ’73, the streaming outage from Jan. 1 to July 1, 2016, noticeably cut the station’s audience base.)

KCR’s campuswide invisibility is a paradoxical result of their famous coverage of the 1968 protests. Through these broadcasts, KCR assumed a new stationwide principle: to feature against-the-grain, non-academic voices—showcasing the voice of the student protesters. No longer was the station the Student Voice of Columbia, the unofficial extension of University life and culture.

After the chaos cooled, KCR had to determine what their protest coverage meant for their music programming. How could the station incorporate its protest ethos into its musical selections? In the fall of 1970, KCR decided on “The Alternative,” a mission statement that their hosts still pursue. In this resolution, KCR eschewed commercial music and championed—as Elisabeth Stam, who graduated from Barnard College in 2016, put it last year—the “voices in music that are normally ignored.” “Everyone else plays Hendrix and the Grateful Dead,” they concluded, so they would not.  

You can trace the station’s trajectory away from being an operation designed for student consumption back to this moment. While this mandate has carried on today in the form of an unspoken rule of avoiding The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and commercially successful modern performers like Drake and Kanye, it has never appealed to Columbia’s undergraduate student body.

Student hosts are proud of The Alternative tradition. When I ask each how their show fulfills that mission, they were all able to give me clear, passionate answers. They do not feel any demand to direct it at the Columbia community, or that The Alternative needs to be applied toward the Columbia community. But a mission statement which grew out of a student protest has, in a poignant way, estranged the modern station from current students.

“Perhaps Columbia has discovered that much of Schaap’s ‘knowledge’ is impromptu.”

- Chris Albertson, jazz writer, May 28, 2001

“As the eight Grammys in my attic attest…”

- Phil Schaap, CC ’73, Nov. 20, 2017

To confront the modern history of KCR is to confront Phil Schaap.

Schaap has been fawned over with a zealous, almost nauseating adoration in his capacity as a prominent figure in the jazz world for over half a century. The New Yorker, the New York Times, Columbia Magazine, the New York Observer, the Columbia University Record, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and jazz aficionados around the world have all written about this idiosyncratic savant’s broadcasts. Schaap has been the subject of so many portraits that it is no longer responsible to solely focus on the man himself.

I could tell you about his mic breaks—he likes to execute literal shout-outs. When I sit in, he leans back in his flimsy chair and bellows, “COLEMAN HAWKINS” and “FAT CAT” with a round, ringing tone. I could tell you about his oration skills—I listen as he seizes an anecdote from his father’s French translations and follows an invisible thread of reasoning, until he ultimately connects it with a point on the “Language of Music.” I could tell you about the depth of his knowledge—Schaap is proud of his date-keeping and obviously prepares well: On the desk sits a thick red book labeled Jazz Musicians A-Kr. There is another equally large book that is a light gray, faded color, probably the remainder of the alphabet.

But none of this would really tell you anything about Phil Schaap the Institution, KCR’s Hero God. Schaap, who has dominated KCR’s public image almost since his arrival, is the man largely responsible for KCR’s current campuswide invisibility.

In spring 1970, Schaap, along with Sharif Abdus-Salaam, both sophomores in Columbia College at the time, pitched jazz programs to fill KCR’s schedule.

Up to that point, the station had a 24-hour license but was not using every minute. Because of Schaap’s sway—he had a micro-celebrity status in the jazz world even then, having hobnobbed with The Greats since he was a kid living in Hollis, Queens—his pitches were picked up and the station made a dramatic swing toward jazz with the two sophomores at the helm.

But Schaap and Abdus-Salaam never left, and neither did their programs.  

Jazz programs like Out to Lunch, Traditions in Swing, Jazz ’til Dawn, Jazz Alternatives, and Schaap’s celebrated Bird Flight have been on-air without a pause. In total, jazz programs constitute about 40 percent of the station’s weekly programming.

Of course Columbia has a thriving jazz scene, but to say that it is a popularly consumed music on campus would be to write a blatant falsehood. Even in the 1970s when Schaap got on board, jazz was not popular music.. In that same decade, new and ethnic music programs were introduced to KCR and by spring 1980 the schedule looked about the same as it does today.

Even though Schaap graduated from Columbia years ago, his presence and the changes he has ushered in have effectively nudged out a stronger student host presence. This is in spite of the fact that Schaap’s official title is just “adult host.” He is not a member of the board (which is comprised only of current students) and he recently relinquished his self-appointed role as station archivist to Matt Rivera, a Columbia College senior.

While students comprise about 80 percent of active programmers, according to Maghakian, they only curate about one or two shows—typically three hours each—a week. Schaap, on the other hand, gives multiple shows each week and often cuts into time allocated for other students’ programs..

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KCR’s most ardent followings thus develop around its adult hosts, not its students. These guys, like de Lima, Lawrence Nii Nartey, and of course Schaap and Abdus-Salaam joined KCR and started shows up to 20, 30, or even 40 years ago and are still patrolling the airwaves. They—especially Schaap and Abdus-Salaam—have established the station’s institutional operations, which current students must negotiate within. This comes in sharp contrast to WBAR, where all hosts follow a free-form tradition, meaning that they create, curate, and pitch a show as they want.

Because of the rigidity of the station’s programmatic structure, recruitment can be difficult. Jazz warriors—as Schaap called Andy Caploe, the station manager in 1982—tend to congregate at KCR and create an exclusive circle built around their vaunted knowledge of the genre’s history.

However, the station’s current manager is trying to change this.

“I frankly don’t care if an intern knows every single work that Miles Davis ever collaborated on or if they’ve never heard jazz in their entire life. For me, what matters is: Do you care about music? Are you going to care about KCR? Great, welcome aboard.” Maghakian breaks and thinks through her next lines.

“Do you only listen to what Spotify shows you for the Top 40 this week? Sure. As long as you are willing to learn. The people who come in thinking they know everything tend to be less willing to learn and tend to just fall into that whole elitist culture.”

KCR targets students during New Student Orientation Program by handing out free records, an appropriate recruitment technique. Once welcomed, students undergo a training process. They sit in on several shows, and take Tech I and II, What We Say What We Do, a written test, and an operations test. Then they are full-time hosts.

As hosts, students are responsible for about one or two shows a week. They have to curate a program according to its mission. A program’s mission is malleable. A student host is told by their department head what their show should generally be about. Out to Lunch should feature jazz; Cereal Music classical; Tuesday’s Just as Bad pre-WWII blues. But after the host is told that basic information, it is up to them to decide what they will play. When Lena Nelson, a Barnard College sophomore, programs Afternoon New Music or Transfigured Night, she selects music written for her instrument (she plays guitar) written by John Zorn, a modern composer. Such is the undergraduate’s position as a host at KCR.

Legacies exist only in the program missions, passed down from student to student, not the student hosts who manage them. This is natural, of course, because of the four-year turnaround. What is unnatural is the way this has diminished the student host’s role at the station.

While talking with the KCR board on Oct. 6, I catch a glimpse of a host through the glass of Moo Aquarium. I later learn that his name is Aaron and that he is a junior computer science major. He is scrolling through his phone, bored after cueing the record. From where I’m sitting, he looks sad and entirely alone in the boxed-in room without the chance to speak to anyone about anything. KCR’s unspoken mantra “Just Play the Music” renders the student hosts’ roles mechanical and impersonal.

It wasn’t always like this. This student performance stands in stark contrast to 1964, when Irving Spitzberg, then president of KCR, wrote, “WKCR will continue to devote about half of its time on the air to programs which involve talk instead of the mere playing of records.”  

Wainstein instructs hosts—in the bluntly named course What We Say What We Do—to use DJ names. Many omit self-identification entirely. Student hosts, as opposed to their adult counterparts like de Lima and Schaap (who, of course, both say their full names), do not generate fans because of this anonymity.

This namelessness protects them: Blocked call-ins, from people like Peter Seymour—described to me as a blind, crazed, racist, and sexist man who lives in Northern New Jerseyhaunt the station..

Sarah Thompson, a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior with strong blue eyes and lazy brown hair, has programmed Transfigured Night, which runs from 1 to 5 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 2 to 6 a.m. on Saturdays and features new music, for four years and has never once said her first or last name on-air.

It’s hard to imagine how student hosts can feel a sense of ownership over their program’s legacy and current status if they barely talk or even say their names.

A typical mic break is disheartening. Students complete station identification, state the piece’s title and musicians—with “um”s, “uh”s, “like”s, and mispronunciations—and sometimes read album liner notes. Hosts are encouraged to talk about the music, but in the last two-and-a-half months of tuning in, I don’t hear much of this.

“Rivera, huh, I didn’t think that your kind likes this music”

Anonymous caller who spoke in New Yorkais

“That’s Fat Cat’s record! That’s Fat Cat’s record!”

- Screaming, pointing, gesticulating Schaap (blessing a nickname)

There are always exceptions, of course.

The On-Air light blinks on and then begins the longest, most knowledgeable mic break that I’ve witnessed by a student host. It comes as no surprise that it is given by the protégé, friend, and surrogate son of Phil Schaap, Matt “Fat Cat” Rivera, a Raymond Chandler scholar with lightly tossed brown hair, a gentle face, and brown-rimmed spectacles.

Sunny, cheery, singing, swinging clarinets, cornets, and trombones stomp out a dance. Today’s feature is Jimmy Harrison, a trombonist from the Swing Era who died in 1931. Harrison coincidentally shares a hometown with Fat Cat. Matt has been planning this jazz profile since the summer. For this show, Rivera walks through Harrison’s solography. He plays three solos for the first set. During the mic break he explains how he thinks that the second solo—in spite of the academic literature claiming otherwise—was not performed by Harrison. In the context of the first and third solos, the trombonist on the second record sounds different. His delivery is clearly better than the other student hosts I’ve witnessed, he speaks with an assured ease that can only be obtained through extensive research.

I ask Matt if he wants to be the next Schaap. He says no. “I’m not Schaap.”

He tells me that he will not remain at KCR. He will graduate and move on to make films. KCR will lose a quality student host, like many broadcasters who preceded him, but this is the natural and necessary result of the ephemeral undergraduate system.

To underscore the extent to which the station’s cultural legacy weighs on every modern host, it is important to understand the myths and legends that hang heavy in the air. KCR is deeply engaged and enraptured by its own history, enveloped by its own mythos. Most conversations between these walls contain at least one reference to a KCR myth or legend.

For example, just about every jazz great who lived after 1970 has sat in the red “Gillespie” chair in Master Control, apparently. Charles Mingus? Yep. Stan Getz? Bingo. Ornette Coleman? Naturally. Opera and orchestral stars, like Itzhak Perlman, have been at KCR, too, as have thinkers, writers, and filmmakers like Margaret Mead, Allen Ginsberg, and Dennis Hopper. There’s another legend that Louis Armstrong once, allegedly, listened to his KCR birthday broadcast with a kitchen radio brought into his backyard party.

But what is certain at KCR are the systemic effects of its current programming state. Predesigned, predestined, passed-down shows have shaped this station’s narrative over the past 47 years—Schaap’s tenure at KCR. This power dynamic between the history of the station and the students who are currently running it is the cornerstone and conflict of KCR’s self-described status as a student-run station.

The five-person student board, though, has tried to determine its modern place within the station’s history in small ways.

“We at KCR could tell you all five members of Charlie Parker’s classic quintet, but we could not tell you our mascot of this school.”

- Matt Rivera, Oct. 6, 2017

This past summer KCR’s board decided to finally redo the putrid paint job in Moo Aquarium (where the walls had been a beat-up, dirty white). Flurries of emails and several indecisive meetings ultimately resulted in a color choice: Blue Flower. When I first see it, I remark that it looks like Columbia’s blue. I am immediately corrected.

The board explains that they picked this particular blue for two reasons: One: They liked it. Two: It wasn’t Pantone 292. The board members did not want to be like Columbia. They have no desire to strengthen their affiliation with the school. KCR’s self-determined estrangement from the community is encapsulated in acrylic paint.  

~

My roommate and his friend stumble home loudly at 3:12 a.m. I blast Jazz ‘til Dawn at them and fall back asleep.

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