It's the middle of the night, and most of us are asleep, finishing papers, or watching just one more episode on Netflix. But a handful of people at Columbia are wide awake and broadcasting their thoughts to the world through WBAR or WKCR, Columbia's two on-campus radio stations.
Elisabeth Stam, WKCR's current station manager and board member, has been listening to WKCR for as long as she can remember. "I was born and raised in New York City, and my parents always listened to WKCR," Stam, a Barnard College junior, explains. "My father's a Columbia alumnus, and we would always listen to WKCR, but it wasn't until I was much older that I realized it was Columbia's radio station."
WKCR is deeply rooted in Columbia's history and the New York City music scene as a whole: it has been broadcasting live since Feb. 24, 1941. The station carries with it a sense of Columbia tradition and legacy, which is seen not only in generational sharing of music but also in the way its members speak and feel about each other.
"We've kind of integrated ourselves into the New York music community," says Zak Seligman Karen, a Columbia College sophomore and WKCR publicity director and board member. "Every single musician in the New York area knows about WKCR and respects the content that we play."
WKCR's shows are programmed under nine different departments: jazz, classical, American, In All Languages, Latin, new music, sports, arts, and news. Within each of these categories, Stam explains, shows can run for up to four hours and only incorporate very specific content, as WKCR is not a free-form station. To be a programmer, interested students have to go through an interning and training process during which they learn the ropes of the station. They then must prove their proficiency in using the equipment and understanding the station in general before becoming licensed to be on FM radio.
Regardless of the genre(s) featured in different WKCR programs, there is always a strong focus on the history and evolution of music and the importance of both. While interning in the New Music department, Seligman Karen explored underrepresented and overlooked subgenres of music while simultaneously learning about them from WKCR veterans.
"There's this oral tradition within all of the departments—you sit in on a show and learn about these musicians that the programmers have learned to love in different ways," he says. "A very important part of WKCR is this tradition of learning and sharing."
Rules about what shows can and cannot include and the necessary training don't deter the programmers—in fact, it's quite the opposite.
"Everyone is very into whatever they are programming. They dedicate themselves not just to knowing the content but knowing everything about the content—the history, the little bits of trivia and facts," Seligman Karen says. "And everyone here is really interested in learning about the music that everyone else is dedicated to. Someone will have a different focus [during a show] than what they like, but they go into it and really push themselves to learn more."
Students interested in becoming programmers aren't always so excited about WKCR's somewhat regimented programming requirements and schedule, however. Rachel Ka-Yen Ng, a Columbia College sophomore, originally thought about working for WKCR but ultimately decided against it.
"I thought about doing WKCR last year. It's definitely a really great organization on campus, and I think it's an amazing opportunity for students to be able to play for a legitimate radio station that's listened to by the tri-state area, but it's just so specific," she says. "I think you would learn a lot, but I think it's very serious, and I wouldn't be able to just stick with one genre for, like, four hours."
Ka-Yen Ng instead chose to be a DJ at WBAR, Barnard College's student radio station. Whereas WKCR is dedicated to broadcasting music in a structured and categorized manner, WBAR gives its DJs a bit more liberty in terms of what they can do with their airtime.
"We're a free-form station, so your show can be anything you want. Everyone gets two hours a week. There's really a wide variety, and there definitely isn't one type of WBAR DJ," says Madeline Steinberg, a Barnard senior who is WBAR's general manager and a former Spectator sports associate. "People play what they like. It just doesn't make sense to try and divide people into categories."
"We keep it really simple so that people can actually do whatever they want," Steinberg continues. "There's no intimidating technology or rules about saying certain things at certain times. There's no experience required, you don't have to get a license, you don't have to do anything."
For a station that prides itself on being so loosely regulated and free, WBAR's current space, located in the basement of Reid Hall in the Barnard Quad, does not really reflect that. Steinberg and the rest of WBAR are concerned with problems with accessibility, visibility, and general upkeep and are frustrated at the lack of administrative attention on the issue.
"Being stuck in a basement doesn't really give us the opportunity to show the community how open we are and fun we are. It's also kind of an unwelcoming environment," she explains, in reference to the frustrating sign-in process for Columbia students who are WBAR DJs.
They've struggled with these issues, along with cockroaches, rats, and smoke drifting in through the vents, for 10 years, despite the fact that this space was meant to be temporary.
Beth Tolmach, a Barnard senior and WBAR's events promotion head, notes that WBAR's status as a newer station, founded in 1993, means that it sometimes struggles to be noticed. She says that getting a new space hasn't been made an administrative priority in recent years.
"We have to work a little bit harder to prove ourselves and to prove to administrators that we need adequate funding and space," Tolmach says. "One of our main lines of argument is that WKCR has a great, professional studio that is its own studio rather than being in a dorm. It's not that we necessarily want to be on FM frequency, but we do want to be more respected and taken seriously."
While WKCR may not be trying to find a new space anytime in the near future, the station also struggles with on-campus recognition in terms of student listenership. According to Brian O'Connell, a Columbia College senior who is involved in both WKCR and WBAR, it doesn't always feel like the radio shows at either station are being fully appreciated by the Columbia community.
"WKCR also has trouble getting the recognition it should have by the University," he explains. "For WBAR, it's hard because there doesn't seem to be any established city listener base. When I'm doing a show, it's mostly people that I know who are listening to it or people who I tell about it. There doesn't seem to be all that much broad WBAR listenership. Whereas with WKCR, you do get random callers, random people who are listening on the radio.
"I think a lot of WKCR people listen to WKCR, and a lot of their friends do," O'Connell continues. "I think, with WBAR, it's probably the same. Either the DJs themselves or their friends listen. I don't think all that many people listen to WKCR. Not that many people listen to jazz and classical music in general these days. It's more popular, it seems, with older listeners than with people on campus."
Despite having vastly different systems and ideas for sharing music, both WBAR and WKCR are committed to a common goal—providing a space where lesser-known music can be listened to and appreciated—and both seem to be having trouble finding a strong listener base within the Columbia community. However, this doesn't stop either of them from doing what they love: listening to, sharing, and learning about music.
"So much is now on iPhones and iPods and Spotify and YouTube. There's a very intimate feel to connecting with radio, to listening to someone talk about and curate music," explains Stam. "There's something to hear from others and what they learn. The satisfaction of listening to radio, of listening to what people have to say before you listen to music, is so much more rewarding as a listener and as a programmer on the radio itself."