New York’s jazz station goes beyond the airwaves

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/12/2018, 2:26 p.m.
Walking through the halls of public radio jazz station WBGO 88.3 FM, it’s not hard to figure out why the ...
WBGO 88.3 FM Cyril Josh Barker photo

Walking through the halls of public radio jazz station WBGO 88.3 FM, it’s not hard to figure out why the nearly 40-year-old station is a epicenter of the American music genre aiming to keep dedicated jazz aficionados pleased along with getting the ears of new listeners.

Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Billie Holiday and Bud Powell fill the airwaves with sounds of yesterday, but current jazz figures such as Jazzmeia Horn, Christian Sands, David K. Matthew and Shamika Copeland are also staples.

Being the only jazz radio station in the jazz capital of the world might seem like a hard task, but WBGO 88.3 FM doesn’t seem to have a problem also being one of the nation’s leaders in jazz for the past 39 years.

Along with music and news, the public radio station based in Newark, N.J. has strong community partnerships, educational programing and one of the nation’s most listened to jazz playlist, with a listenership of more than 400,000 and online listeners around the world.

“Something is happening here all the time,” said WBGO President and CEO Amy Niles. “Anytime of the day or night, there is something live and interactive happening. It’s an exciting physical place to be.”

Along with the music, WBGO offers a wide range of programming to bring jazz to the community. From daytime concerts in Newark at the Gateway II building to Monday Night with WBGO at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and Kids Jazz, which introduces the music to young people in Essex County.

Founded in 1979, the WBGO frequency, 88.3 FM, was originally owned by the Newark Board of Education. Before the jazz format, the school board used the station to broadcast classes for people seeking to earn their GEDs.

Today the station is the New York City’s lone jazz station that also does news and operates as a nonprofit organization. WKCR-FM at Columbia University has daily jazz programming but also features other genres.

One of the crown jewels WBGOs programing is “Jazz Night in America,” which airs nationally and is hosted by bassist Christian McBride. The weekly program, airing Wednesday nights, is a partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center. The program highlights jazz music today with an experience that includes audio and online video.
“Jazz Night in America” is the most listened to jazz show and most diverse offering of any program distributed by NPR.
“We don’t just play music, it’s always an experience,” Niles said. “The hosts we have are pretty much the most knowledgeable people you can imagine about the music. We want to keep this music thriving. We do everything that we can. We don’t just dabble in it, we are very invested in this music.”

Although most radio stations log music into a digital system, WBGO stays true to tradition. One of the features of the station is the music library that features rows and rows of CDs and vinyl records of jazz music.

Music director and host of “Morning Jazz,” Gary Walker, has been at the station for 35 years and said the music is selected that goes far beyond the notes.

“We play music that has a connectivism with the audience,” he said. “There’s a soulfulness that’s sometimes missing in the creative process. Sometimes the soul of a tune is the space between the notes. Jazz can be frightening to the average person because they think they’re not smart enough. The key here is you have to make it palatable in an emotional level as opposed to a purely academic level.”

WBGO is in the middle of its 39th anniversary. The station is also preparing for its upcoming pledge drive.