At 9 pm tomorrow night, WKCR is broadcasting the first part of This Columbia Life, a two-hour radio show created by Emily Kwong and Anneke Gronke, both CC ’12. Emily and Anneke recorded various Columbia students as they talked about or performed arts pieces about their experiences at Columbia. But now the interviewers have become the interviewees. Ira Glass–wannabe Peter Sterne recorded this interview with them in WKCR’s studios.
Peter: What does it mean to go to Columbia University? New York, the Ivy League, the Core Curriculum. There are many things we have in common, but there are even more that we don’t. Columbia is an incredibly diverse place, and everyone here experiences it differently. There are many stereotypes, of course, but these don’t capture the real lives of students. Every Columbian has their own story, even though they rarely get the opportunity to tell it.
From WKCR in New York, it’s Bwog. Today, we’re talking about Columbia stories with Anneke Gronke and Emily Kwong. Anneke and Emily are two seniors in Columbia College who decided that students at Columbia needed a place to tell their stories to other students.
Now Emily and Anneke, can you talk about why it’s important for Columbia students to tell their stories?
Emily: Sure, it’s tremendously important. Anneke and I hatched this project together. We both live in River and were kind of hanging around our kitchen one day and decided, there needed to be a forum in which student experiences could be shared openly and honestly. And something in which there wasn’t a hierarchy. I think we decided from the very beginning that any and all stories would be accepted.
And that’s how it sort of played out. Every little bit of sound we’ve collected, from personal narratives to poetry to performance to laughter, we found a way to put and include in the program, just to give students a chance to listen to each other, which so rarely happens in our fast-paced world here.
Anneke: Right, we suggest that peoples listen to each other, because maybe that doesn’t happen as often as it should.
Emily: We were talking about this, actually, a few days ago, hoe we’re so ready to respond in conversation, mid-conversation, you’re always thinking of what you’re going to say or retort or challenge. But the beauty about radio is that you can’t respond. The only thing you could possibly do…
Peter: …is listen?
Emily: …is turn the person off. But you have to listen. You’re forced to have the experience of theirs wash over you, take it in. Whether you reject it or not, they’re going to keep talking and there’s a certain amount of power being given to the speaker in that forum.
Peter: Now, you guys are both seniors, right?
Peter: So you must have had a lot of experiences at Columbia, and some of these must have convinced you that this was necessary. Can you talk about that? What in your personal life compelled you to create this program?
Anneke: Well, I mean…first of all, this was Emily’s idea. She came to me. It was one late night and she posed this idea to me and I was like, “That’s a great idea!” And she was like, “Really? OK. Cool.” And so we talked about it and then we came back to it and we decided that, yeah this is something that really does need to be done.
And I think a large part of it, like my interest in this, aside from an interest in This American Life generally, is just the fact that we have this culture of stress, we have this culture of competition and we have this culture of trying to be the best and hiding certain parts of ourselves that we don’t think are adequate, that we don’t think belong in this Columbia image that we participate in creating and other people impose upon us. So the idea is to show all of ourselves, not just the parts that we want.
Emily: Yeah, not just the dignified parts.
Anneke: Not just the dignified parts.
Emily: We have stories of complete failure and regret and sadness, and all of those belong here. There’s been a lot of conversation, especially in the past year, of what Columbia actually looks like as a community, whether the community even exists [or] whether we’re all just completely fractured and isolated individuals. And I’m not sure if this program is really trying to get at that in an idealistic sense—it’s not a yearbook, it’s not a catalogue, it’s not a promotion or a sales pitch of Columbia. It’s just a snapshot of different voices we’ve collected over the past three weeks.
Anneke and I have both done oral history work, through studying abroad and interviewing people, and it’s just a very powerful means to get to know others and to create, if not a sense of community, at least a sense of dialogue.
Peter: So you said you’ve both had experience doing oral history. Have you also had experience in radio production? Do you work for WKCR?
Anneke: I do. I’ve been here for a while. I’ve worked in every department. I’ve programmed for every department at this point, except for American maybe. And then last summer I was the head of the IAL department, the world music department here. But I do news. I program jazz sometimes, and things like that, so you can hear me pretty sporadically.
Emily: Anneke’s a tech wiz. Whenever the [sound] board’s acting up, she comes in—she’s shaking her head vigorously!—she comes in and she fiddles around with the buttons, and suddenly everything is crystal and clear.
Anneke: I think the key word there is “fiddles.”
Peter: And what about you, Emily? Do you have any experience with radio production?
Emily: I programmed with the Arts department the last two years, but never done much live, so I respect people quite a bit when they can do shows, music shows. I mean, they’re queueing up records while narrating, while fielding calls from listeners, it’s very active.
But this project has been really interesting because in Arts, usually I just interviewed one person, whereas this has been multiple people and it’s involved recording our own background noises. So this is captured from Low one afternoon while I was sitting outside reading.
Peter: This background music?
Emily: This background ambient noise.
Anneke: Want me to turn it off?
Emily: It’s like we’re at Low!
Peter: I’m visualizing Low Library right now even though I’m in the studio and it’s 10 pm at night.
Anneke: Now we’re in the studio. (turns off Low noise) Now we’re in Low. (turns on Low noise)Now we’re in the studio. (turns off Low noise) Sorry, guys. (turns on Low noise)
Peter: Do you have other Columbia sounds?
Emily: We have the Butler printers.
Anneke: Now we’re in Butler. (turns on Butler noise) And it’s so sad.
Emily: It’s that kind of stale air conditioning sound of air that’s been circulating against marble walls.
Peter: I suddenly feel very stressed…all right, let’s go back to Low. I want to be happy again. [turns on Low noise] Thats much better.
Emily: I’m taking this class right now called “Ethnography of Sound.” We talk about this thing called acousmatic listening, where you just listen to just the sound. It would be like trying to taste food without figuring out what the food is. Tasting cinnamon without trying to identify it as cinnamon. Most people don’t listen like that. They want to know where sound comes from. And I think radio taps into that desire to know where it comes from, so when you can use it effectively, it really takes you there—place, time, location.
Peter: So it’s definitely not acousmatic listening.
Emily: No, it’s definitely not. It’s, I don’t know, what would the opposite be? Acoustic.
Peter: An-acousmatic…? So you guys said you’ve done oral history abroad. Where have you gone? What’s it been like?
Anneke: I went to Jordan, and then I came back. Then I left again and went to France. It’s funny. Part of the reason I realize the importance of everyone’s perspectives is the fact that I would leave and then come back and have to listen to—well, I want to listen to—everyone’s stories. I want to know what happened when I was gone. I would always ask people that question: “What’d I miss?” Because you know how people always ask you, “How was it?” and you’re like, I don’t know, it was four months of my life! I lived! You can’t just describe everything that happened at the drop of a hat.
Storytelling is a really helpful means of expressing how things were and how things are, and the only way for me to get an idea of what things were when I was gone was to get stories from lots of different people and kind of amalgamate them into a dialogue or a discourse in my head as to what I did miss.
Peter: What can we expect from This Columbia Life?
Emily: Roll the clip! Number 3.
Peter: All right, roll it. Let’s listen.
Emily: And then we’ll provide a better explanation. Here’s a sample story.
Clip: Goodnight Maureen (Maureen Stimola CC ’12 and Rebecca Smith CC ’13)
Rebecca: So our living room faces Riverside and we’re on the second floor, so its perfect height for serenading.
Rebecca: So one night we’re just hanging out in the room and we hear music coming from the street.
Maureen: So we throw open the window…
Rebecca: We throw open the window, we stick out our heads, and we see this guy walking with a clarinet…
Maureen: No, one with an accordion and one with a ukulele.
Rebecca: Oh yeah, that’s it! (snaps) One with an accordion and one with a ukulele and they’re just singing “Goodnight Irene.”
Maureen: Yeah, they’re singing “Goodnight Irene” as they walk.
Rebecca: Yeah, and I stick my head out and they look up…
Maureen: She says, “I’ve got one too!”
Rebecca: I say “Hi” and then I go “Wait!” I take out my ukulele and I stick my head out with my ukulele and I go “Tell me the chords!” (strums ukulele) And he tells me chords but I don’t know them, so I’m kind of like “Okay” (plucks ukulele)
Emily: How does the song go?
Rebecca: Um…can’t remember.
Maureen: (laughs) It’s like a folk song.
Rebecca: But then they ask us, “Where do you live?” So we go, “2E.” And two minutes later, they play their way up…
Maureen: And we hear the accordion coming down the hallway!
Rebecca: We hear the accordion coming down the hallway! So we hear them come up and then they show up in the room and they ask us our names. And because Maureen’s name is “Maureen,” we decided to…
Maureen: It sounds like Irene! They’re like, “Oh, we can totally work with that!” And so they change the song to “Goodnight Maureen” and they serenade me.
Rebecca: And I kind of play along with the ukulele player, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. But it was this great moment where these two random guys and me are serenading Maureen in our room.
Music – Instrumental “Goodnight Irene.” Now “Goodnight Maureen.”
Peter: All right, that sounds amazing. Can you tell a little more about that interview? Who was this, besides being Maureen? What were they doing?
Emily: Those are two very dear friends of ours: Maureen Stimola, who’s a senior in Columbia College, and Rebecca Smith, who’s also a senior in Columbia College—er, a junior, pardon me—a junior in Columbia College. And they are two girls who are the most wonderful friends to each other, practically sisters, lovers, I mean they just…I’ve never met two people who are so good to each other and such perfect roommates. And this is the story of their relationship. Love.
Anneke: Sis-love. As opposed to bro-love. Sis-love.
Peter: A sis-mance?
Emily: Exactly, and finding that one person who can you call at any hour of any time when you need help. That’s the type of relationship they have. Very fitting for this sort of section we’re dedicating to relationships, different types of relationships at Columbia. The show is basically broken into four parts: freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. And each part sort of has a theme that anchors.
Anneke: Well, the funny thing is that we’ve just collected these stories and they’ve kind of naturally fallen into these categories. We collected a lot of stories before we tried to compose a show.
Peter: How many stories have you collected, roughly?
Anneke: Oh…25? 30?…over 10, below 50.
Emily: But they’re not all stories. Let’s play Evelyn’s spoken word.
Clip: Complexity (Evelyn Kim BC ’14)
and energy of the Columbia community
that beckon my participation
resemble the color variety of a painter’s palette
the geographical demographics of our student body
are pins widely dispersed on a world map
cause when I step on the bricks and concrete near College Walk
the melodies of incomprehensible syllables from global tongues ring in my ears
the Columbia campus contains
a black and white contrast
cause the steady studious silence in Butler
opposes a DJ’s booming beats of an on-campus party
and we strive to thrive
on both sides of the contrast
and fill our college years with everything
our names are engraved
on the masthead of the Spec
the rosters of sports teams
the election flyers for councils
the reach for achievement
that subtly sprouts in our campus culture
compels us to believe
that our significance simply
lies in positions made and praises gained
yet they fail to fully capture
our identities and our humanity
a humanity that isn’t
“us and them”
“you versus me”
each day we
walk with our ambitions
and victories written on our chests
at times we
strive to place only what glimmers at the forefront of our public image
forgetting that boldness beams in admitting our weakness
let’s digest both the salt and the sugar of our histories
cause clean perfection will fail to paint a picture of success
cause what’s piercing plus what’s sweet means substance
Peter: All right, and who was that?
Emily: That was Evelyn Kim. She’s a sophomore at Barnard College. A fantastic poet, as you can tell.
Peter: That was her spoken word piece?
Emily: And delivered by her, as well.
Anneke: So we do have some kinds of stories that stand on their own. I mean, we’ll have in the show some introductions and commentaries from us, but I think that a lot of it will just be us standing back and letting the soundscape speak for itself.
Peter: When will this show go on the air?
Emily: Well, we originally originally were…it was supposed to be an hour-long program. And then we realized that reducing it down would take away from the integrity of the stories themselves, the contributions. So we’re going to make it a two-hour program. The first hour will air this Sunday May 6th, from 9 o’clock to 10 o’clock.
Emily: PM, on WKCR 89.9 FM. So people can dial the old-fashioned way or they can go onto our website and stream it live.
Emily: There you go. Or you can get it through iTunes. I think you can search radio stations. And then the second hour will air the following Sunday, same time, same place.
Anneke: That will be the resolution, the junior/senior.
Emily: Yes, that will be the junior/senior resolution.
Anneke: But we’re also going to put all of the full interviews onto a soundcloud. This Columbia Life. That’s the name of the soundcloud. So they’ll all be accessible, maintaining that idea of equality of everyone’s stories and everyone’s stories will be out there for everyone to hear.
Peter: OK. Thanks to WKCR and Emily Kwong and Anneke Gronke, from This Columbia Life. You can find them at wkcr.org. Our website is bwog.com. Oversight for this interview provided by our wonderful editor, Ella Quittner, who is not in the studio right now because she is enjoying her favorite food—halal! I’m Peter Sterne. We won’t be back next week, but Emily and Anneke will have more stories of This Columbia Life.