Returning to Radio
WKCR makes waves a little closer to home.
By Victor Omojola
Oddly enough, the beauty of Western Massachusetts rarely recalls itself to me. But when it comes, it comes suddenly. I think: Wow! These trees, that mountain range, this reservoir—it’s all quite nice. During my childhood, these images usually came to me in the passenger seat of my dad’s car, on long drives to cello lessons and soccer games in remote corners of our already remote region. The lush New England vistas felt all the more charming as the ripieno car radio played—Beethoven, or B.B. King, or the bellowing of Peter Sagal, accompanying the passing scenes like a sublime Zimmer score.
Far from the skyscraping mountain ranges of Western Mass., Columbia’s very own radio station, WKCR, serenades man-made towers half as high. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, “The Original FM” broadcasts an eclectic array of programming for its listeners across three journalistic and six musical departments. Such cultural and political giants as John Cage, James R. Hoffa, and Martin Luther King, Jr, were historically featured on the station. Many a hurried Columbia student has strolled past WKCR’s studio—located just behind Lerner Hall, on 114th and Broadway—countless times, completely unaware of the history and artistry simmering inside.
Despite maintaining a listenership that extends further into the Tri-state area than most Columbians will ever explore, WKCR hopes also to become more of a campus presence. Mac Waters, CC ’22, WKCR’s program director, spoke about this goal with enthusiasm. “We want to try to transform WKCR into a campus space more directly,” they said. “Anything from holding on-campus events, holding concerts, or even just providing an avenue for students and University affiliates to use WKCR as a platform in itself.”
Of course, achieving such ambitions has been hampered by pandemic restrictions, which have made even the radio’s standard operations far more difficult. Since March of last year, much of WKCR’s programming has been pre-recorded. When I asked WKCR’s business manager, Drew Sirenko, CC’23, about returning to a pre-pandemic routine, he joked that in those days, all that mattered to the students running WKCR was survival. Twenty-four-hour live programming requires at least one person to be working the booth at all times—even for the night shift. “Someone was here from one a.m. to four a.m. every single night, on a school night,” he explained. “That was the hardest thing before the pandemic.” Lockdown restrictions may have slowed WKCR’s march towards greater campus visibility, but it also revealed the benefit, and perhaps necessity, of pre-recorded content.
Even with the impressive profile WKCR’s devoted membership has built, the station has struggled to forge a strong bond with the campus it calls home—in particular, the bureaucracy that runs it. “They don’t care for us,” said Sirenko, of the Columbia administration. Sitting inches from a bright red couch where John Coltrane was once interviewed, he explained that animosity from the administration began over WKCR’s coverage of the 1968 campus demonstrations. Columbia students and Black Harlem activists came together to protest (among other issues) the University’s plans to build a gym in Morningside Park, going as far as to seize several campus buildings. WKCR broadcast from each building that was being occupied. According to Sirenko, since then, Columbia has not offered the station “much money at all” to help cover roughly $100,000 of yearly maintenance and supply costs.
The station’s coverage of contentious campus moments likely spooked the administration, in part, because of its reach: As Sirenko and I spoke, Jimmy Smith’s jazz-funk on WKCR’s airwaves stretched far beyond Morningside Heights and deep into the Tri-state area. Sirenko feels pressure to please members of their “New York City and Beyond” audience, many of whom have been listening to WKCR since it earned its title as “The Alternative” in the mid-twentieth century. The pressure pays off, though. He fondly recalled that once, after playing Sun Ra for a couple of hours, multiple listeners called in to express their gratitude. “It spiced up their life in a way that wouldn’t happen if you just pick your songs yourself on Spotify.”
In the age of streaming, this distinction is the heart of radio. Rather than putting an album on for yourself—or allowing the algorithm Force to steer you towards playlists of TikTok hits—choosing to listen to the radio allows someone else to curate your musical experience for you. Listening, therefore, requires an intense level of trust. As Sirenko explained, “by choosing to listen to the radio, we get a bunch of epiphanies from this mysterious host or knowable host that can add to our lives and send us down completely new paths.” On the radio, a program might introduce you to an unfamiliar genre, piece of history, or pop culture tidbit. And a song you’ve loved since childhood feels all the more meaningful for the surprise, as though the person on the other end knew you were waiting for it and played it just for you.
The last time I pulled out of my driveway, now old enough to sit behind the wheel, I decided not to reach for the Bluetooth and, instead, to let the radio ring. In concert with the sound of my vehicle’s tires crunching the gravel of the ground beneath, multiple rumbling tongues mused on the state of the Red Sox roster. Before long, I had completely relinquished myself to the mercy of Sirenko’s mysterious and knowable host.