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An 18 karat crew powers the planet’s best jazz station.By Andy Clurfeld Andrew Meyer strides into the WBGO studios in downtown Newark one recent morning with his game face on. He’s the public radio station’s assistant news director and it’s yet another heavy news day. There’s Cory Booker, there’s Whole Foods, there’s a nonstop stream of events at neighboring NJPAC and the Prudential Center that brings dignitaries, celebrities and all manner of A-listers to the immediate ’hood. He’s deep into prep for his hour-long show on Thursday evenings, “Newark Today.”
He exchanges greetings and news updates with his colleagues at the radio station, and turns toward his cubicle to begin work on the newscasts that will punctuate the WBGO day. Midday Jazz host Rhonda Hamilton is on the air, filling WBGO’s headquarters on Park Place with jazz both classic and contemporary, and Dorthaan Kirk, Newark’s First Lady of Jazz and WBGO’s resident grand dame and keeper of all-information-vital, is in the house.
Close to a half-million people are listening to the jazz station that’s been called the world’s finest. Those are 464,200 clocked-in individual radio listeners at 88.3 on the FM dial; they do not include the national and international fan base tuning in on the Web.
Kirk gives Meyer a wave of a salute. She spreads her arms wide and says, “WBGO in Newark was meant to be. It was just meant to be.” The pulse of an alto sax, forever in the air, underscores her smile.
In the Beginning…
In 1949, WBGO was born on the fourth floor of Newark’s
Central High School, a property of the city’s Board of Education and the vision of its founder and benefactor, Robert “Bob” G. Ottenhoff.
The purchase price for the new educational radio station was $125,000, Kirk says, and “it had great wattage. A great signal.”
Ottenhoff, a Michigan boy who had come east to attend college at Rutgers, lived in north Newark at the time. He saw WBGO through its transition in April 1979 to a jazz and-news station, a vehicle to serve the city of Newark and surrounding communities.
“Bob did research at Rutgers’ office of Newark studies,” Kirk says, “and he came up with the idea that WBGO would be a public radio station, targeting Newark news, and that the music would be America’s music, jazz. Ken Gibson was mayor at the time, and he supported the idea. So the license was transferred from the Newark Board of Education to Newark Public Radio Inc.”
An institution was born.
“Newark was a swinging jazz city,” says longtime WBGO member Ralph Hobson, a retired pharmacist who lives in Westfield. “WBGO carries that tradition of jazz forward. The people who work here know the music better than anyone and they know the city better, too. WBGO really is the gem of Newark.”
Hobson, one of some 17,000 contributing members of WBGO, is working in the volunteers’ office on this morning, sorting fliers for one of the many upcoming WBGO sponsored events. Brandy Wood, marketing manager at WBGO, is talking about the station’s Champion of Jazz gala at NJPAC, an annual event that, this time out, honored both WBGO’s longtime President and Chief Executive Officer Cephas Bowles and The Monk Institute of Jazz, the esteemed educational organization established in honor of the iconic jazz musician and composer Thelonious Monk. Also recently wrapped was WBGO’s annual Free Kids Jazz Concert Series, with events not only in Newark, but in Maplewood, South Orange and Montclair. Meanwhile, the news team’s dominance in local coverage is apparent on a daily on-air basis – and also along a studio corridor lined with plaques showing the prestigious awards the crew has won.
Fact is, the news first broke on WBGO that then-Newark- Mayor-now-U.S.-Senator Cory Booker was determined to bring a Whole Foods to the city. When the supermarket chain announced plans to move into the old Hahne & Co. department store on Broad Street in 2016, The Wall Street Journal cited the earliest source of the news as WBGO.
WBGO initiated the weekly show “Newark Today” when Booker first took office, says News Director Doug Doyle.
The WBGO news team “realized it was important to give our listeners a chance to speak with their community leaders. With Booker being a lightning rod for attention via social media and the Internet as well, we decided he should be a regular guest and (now) the show attracts listeners from all over,” Doyle says.
Meanwhile, “WBGO Journal” has been a mainstay of the station for years, Doyle adds, providing in-depth news coverage on key issues, as well as reviews and commentaries.
Heart and Soul
Josh Jackson is WBGO’s first-ever vice president of content. He’s from New Orleans, and his route to WBGO took him through the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Jazz at Lincoln Center. At the station since 2001, Jackson had his eye – and ears – on the center of the jazz broadcast universe in Newark when he worked at WWOZ in New Orleans years ago.
“It all emanates from right here, from 54 Park Place in Newark, even when we broadcast from the Village Vanguard (in New York),” Jackson says. “We’re very much an anchor organization in this community.”
To that end, WBGO “celebrates Newark’s history and the people who have come out of Newark – Sarah Vaughn, Wayne Shorter, for example.”
Jazz legend James Moody, in whose honor WBGO presents an annual weeklong festival of live music, “holds special significance for many of us at WBGO. There’s a lot of history here and there’s a lot of future, too,” Jackson adds.
Amy Niles, WBGO’s acting president and CEO while Cephas Bowles is on medical leave, sees a lot of Newark’s future in the old Greenwich Village she grew up in – and believes WBGO has a unique opportunity to be a collaborator in a very similar creative, progressive community.
“Newark is a very accessible city,” Niles says. “Before coming here (to WBGO) seven years ago, I didn’t know how easy it was to get around here – to NJPAC, the museum, the shops, the restaurants, many of Newark’s neighborhoods. The Ironbound isn’t just Portuguese. It’s multicultural. And it’s hip.
“Look at Forest Hills. It’s such an historic neighborhood. Take the blinders off.” Niles pauses. “We do a CSA share here at WBGO,” she adds, referring to a Community Supported Agriculture program operated by the Newark Conservancy that sells shares in produce grown all over Newark. “There’s Newark honey!”
In Newark, Niles says, “it’s about partnerships. About bringing the riches of the community out into the open. At WBGO, we’re interested in talking about the breadth of this community, not just the sensational. There’s so much to celebrate.”
Dorthaan Kirk has been celebrating Newark as the world capital of jazz for decades. As an extension of her work at the radio station, Kirk hosts a series of jazz brunches at NJPAC. This season, “Dorthaan’s Place” will be held at NICO Kitchen + Bar in the NJPAC complex starting with the first in the 2013-’14 series featuring Cecil Brooks III and Band on Sunday, Dec. 15. The series continues through April. All the while, Kirk will be planning WBGO’s New Year’s Eve Gala and every other special event the station takes part in.
It’s after 2 p.m. and Rhonda Hamilton has just wrapped her midday jazz program. Her voice – along with the station’s other regular on-air hosts, Gary Walker, Michael Bourne, Awilda Rivera, Sheila Anderson, Dan Karcher, Brian Delp, Monifa Brown, Rob Crocker – is synonymous in the jazz world with knowledge and quality.
“Rhonda’s been here since Day One,” Kirk says. Hamilton laughs: “Well, I’m here the longest.”
She’s seen a lot of changes, a lot of physical changes in the city. “Military Park is being re-done, NJPAC is here, the whole configuration of the streets is changing. Whole Foods is coming. We have professional sports.
“An important part of the history of jazz is in Newark and we send that out all over the world on WBGO. We’re part of the jazz eco-system. All the arts outlets in Newark know they can count on WBGO. We’re a partner with jazz, with the community.”
Down a hallway and around another corridor from the broadcast booths, Andrew Meyer is on the phone, talking to a source at City Hall. His recent special broadcasts on fighting hunger, education and the parks garnered both attention and respect. He’s looking ahead, to a broader scope of news, to a Newark that is home to a brand new U.S. Senator.
As he talks, Amy Niles admits: “Every day, I learn more about this community. To the uneducated, Newark is violence. To the informed, it’s riches.”
Editor’s Note: For more information about WBGO, located at 88.3 on the FM dial, visit wbgo.org.