In this latest installment of “The Conversation,” senior editor Claire Sabel speaks with the director of WKCR-FM, Ben Young, CC ’92. Young is known at Columbia’s student-run station by the moniker HBA. From this vantage point, the jazz historian has overseen generations of student programmers serve, as he once did and continues to do, the station’s mission to broadcast “The Alternative.” The “other names” that Young bestows on the station’s student DJs (including The Blue and White’s very own Claire, “Corn-Wolff”), are just a small part of what goes into making WKCR a world apart from Columbia, and a renowned New York City institution. Catch the rest of the Autumn issue of the magazine, now up on a new and improved website.
The Blue & White: So, why do you give people nicknames?
Ben Young: Pfff I don’t know if I give people nicknames, I observe the nicknames that, in the best cases, come along with people from their earlier times or that are elicited by their actions. Every once in awhile I might be the primary conduit for somebody to have a nickname. But I don’t know, I guess I dig ‘em. There’s partly—You know we have a jazz saying, ‘Necessity is mutha—’
B&W: Could you spell ‘mutha’ please
BY: M-U-T-H-A. At various points there have been multiple people with the same first name in close quarters at the station [WKCR]. My name for instance was shared by five, count them five, other people at the station in 2006. So it would have been silly for us to have not differentiated ourselves by assigning names to others.
B&W: At what point did you start going by a name other than your own?
BY: I think we all have nicknames all the way back, you know, of some sort. The lasting one that people use for me now, here, goes back about fifteen years, I think, something like that. I was in a work environment once where that was bestowed. Lots of people with strange names in that environment, ‘Pork Chop’ and the like.
B&W: What kind of work environment was that?
BY: I worked for a record company, for a jazz record company, I was the director of research at Verve Records.
B&W: Has either the culture or the purpose of the station changed since the time when you were an undergrad to the time that you direct and marshall us undergrads?
BY: That’s a good question. The answer has to be yes. But, in the long view of history we probably would remark more on the things that haven’t changed more than the things that have changed. And also that there’s probably less change in the last twenty years than there was in the last thirty or forty years. Yeah… things are different a little bit, the purpose or the mission of KCR in the most fundamental way is not really changed.
B&W: What about in terms of audience? There have to be less kids now, at Columbia, listening to the radio, then there were when you were a kid at Columbia listening to the radio.
BY: Yeah, but then again, the drop off was much steeper before I was here then since I was here. Even in my time, it was hard to find a non-KCR involved person who was sitting around at home listening to KCR.
We’ve probably been losing ground on the core of listeners in New York, because more and more people are coming into New York who wouldn’t care—who are not seasoned New Yorkers, not people who grew up with the music. Those people, the cats who would remember the music of the 40s, 50s, and 60s—that was the new music that KCR was onto in its first years—they’re obviously dying out. They’re a dying breed and they’re being replaced probably not as fast as you’d wish, and by people who come from different places. Just like the general geographic turnover of New York, folks move here from other places. So that’s part of the transition, and the usual change of how it is that people listen to us.
B&W: What’s your understanding of the WKCR brand within the Columbia community? Because it’s pretty well-established outside of the Columbia community.
BY: Yeah, it’s multifarious, strange, always frustrating, I think. And to try to qualify all those things, from the end backwards: For a lot of people on campus, while they’re head-down doing their studies, music is a functional thing, and this I think is still the majority of people on campus. [Music] is what you listen to to get you through the day, getting from point to point, exercising, whatever. And that’s kind of a different viewpoint from where we’re coming from. We’re not serving that audience, or at least not deliberately trying to serve them. And so that’s going to so-called alienate, or you know, set aside, a great deal of the campus community, a priori, as we like to say at Columbia.
And the frustrating part would probably be the fact that we are engaged in deep, hopefully, comprehensive, very deep studies and research relative to music artforms, and there are other institutions on campus that are ostensibly committed to the same artforms, and-or to the same research. And that we don’t share as much turf, information, resource, energy, or even populations with those people is always strange.
There are positive conjunctions, sometimes. On paper, it always looks like there should be more and there aren’t. Lit Hum, even. That’s a thing where forty years ago, the Lit Hum review was done on the air, in the evening, because that’s one of the things you could teach without having to show anything. You have professors introducing their clips, and the significance, and people do their study that way. And radio means something different obviously, and KCR means something different, so that’s not going to happen now.
B&W: Turning to the language of the station, and of larger jazz music culture, do you feel like you have different voices for different parts of your job or your life? And is that part of learning to use to your voice in the way that radio asks you to?
BY: It’s a great question. I have never, ever thought about that. I mean, the principle that strikes me right away, is get the point across. Supplemental to that, whatever needs to be done to get the point across, then use that to get the point across.
It’s funny because a lot of our mission is to try to take a music that is hyper academic, or at least the surrounding, the trappings of it, and the discourse about it, is probably over-academicized, over-intellectualized, and try to bring that down to people’s level—down, ha ha—try to bring that into the level of people who maybe aren’t part of that academic world or that discourse; not alienate them, but bring them to an understanding of the fundamentals of it, and even of the higher points of it, without losing them. Conversely, we take what has often been thought of as an entertainment form, and at various times rather demeaningly presented—I’m speaking about the whole panoply of black music—and make a conscious study of this as an art form.
And in that case you use the language of what it means to speak about masterpieces, and to speak about creativity, and the cause and effect related to those things. So I’ve got no problem—I ain’t got no problem with none of that Corn-Wolf! Whatever it takes, and some of it is just getting people to keep it real, right, or keeping it real with whoever your audience is. I think we all shift gears a little bit on radio, and probably shift gears between a soliloquy presentation and an interview—I was in an interview yesterday where I’m sure that I did some things that were rather casual just because part of it is, how are you going to make the most of the interview, vis a vis establishing a meaningful rapport with the interviewee? Change gears as necessary.
B&W: Do you enjoy being asked questions? It seems to me one of the keys to building an artful interview is wanting or feeling you know what’s going on on both sides of the conversation. And constantly willing to be surprised by what’s going to come out both from your mouth and the other person. Do you think it’s important to be interviewed as much as you are interviewing?
BY: No. I mean for me personally that’s not important. I think you’ve made a very good point or you have a great attitude about it—that I’ll become a better interviewer by answering some interview questions. I totally agree with you, I think that if we establish that there are two poles where one is like a lecture that somebody reads verbatim, and the other one is extemporized, there’s a lot more room for surprise of improvisation, or extemporaneous speaking. I do like the thought that there are things that come up while talking, even just a way of situating something or maybe a whole idea, that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. And so I do enjoy it from that perspective.
Part of the job that I’ve joined up with is trying to call attention to stuff that’s not being called attention to. Part of my role is to take anything that I have, any interview opportunity, and use it as a mirror to deflect some light onto something that I think is significant. KCR is significant, so we are that conduit. But if people just listen to this interview or read it or whatever, and then said ‘Oh that’s nice,’ and then flipped back to the news, then the mission is not accomplished.
But people might have heard me say ‘Oh they talk about black music as an art form, how interesting, let me go listen to that and see what these clowns are saying.’ That’s where we should be leading with this. You know, that kind of thing. Or if you said, ‘Okay, enough about you, let’s talk about Cecil Taylor,’ or something like that, I’d say, ‘Absolutely right.’
B&W: Well since we have this segue dangling in front of us, [Young giggles], is there anything you’d like to say about Cecil Taylor, or, more broadly, why KCR should be deflecting attention to black music as an art form. Because even if that’s common knowledge it’s not explicitly stated as often as you might like it to be.
BY: Yeah yeah, I hear what you’re saying. Well the first score, I’m involved in a very deep, very deep micro-level study of Cecil Taylor’s work. I have that same problem that graduate students have where you walk into a coffee shop and say, ‘What’s your dissertation about?’ and you have a paragraph to try to nail it…I have all sorts of little microscope-level things that are in my mind about how they relate to the bigger picture, and I hope that that will manifest as a big treatise one day.
Meanwhile, the only meaningful connection I can make is to say that Cecil Taylor is one of the giants of art who walks the earth right now, and like all of us who walk the earth, won’t do that forever. Thankfully he has been heard even in this year, in this city, and I think is not performing again until California, in about a month. But the meaningful part is for people to engage with that music. And you can drop the needle, so to speak—sorry I use KCR terminology—drop the needle on YouTube! Drop the needle on YouTube anywhere where Mr. Taylor’s music is presented and there’s a lot of choices for getting a meaningful taste of what it is we would talk about. As for the orientation of KCR toward black music…It was here when you got here, it was here when I got here. Some of the people who helped steer the station’s identity in that direction are still here, who were the founders.
B&W: Is there a racial divide that maybe you’re alluding to, in the way that people appreciate this music, and the way that people study this music? That is maybe latent or maybe explicit, I don’t know because I’m not a scholar of it
BY: I would try to honor two of my teachers, direct and indirect I guess, by saying: there are racial divides all across our whole cultural thing, and part of the job that each of us faces every day, every minute of every day, is to get beyond that. I say a couple of my teachers by pointing out that this was a Bill Dixon viewpoint that I grew up under, and I believe completely. He would say “this is a racist society.” So we just start from that viewpoint and then do what we can within it.
While at the same time, there is a faculty member, I think still on campus, who I would be honored to think that she might come across these words some day—I haven’t spoken with her in 20 years, but she knows that I believe in her, and she might still have a vague sense of who I am—I studied with her twenty years ago—Barbara Fields, in the History Department. Who teaches very cogently, along with her colleagues, that race is only there if we put it there. Meaning that it doesn’t exist as a scientific phenomenon, it exists as a social phenomenon, and that that’s where it becomes incumbent on the individual to let race into the picture only as much as we want it to. So maybe more to what you’re getting at, we make race distinctions as necessary in talking about music. And that’s one of the beauties of radio: the music doesn’t have a race.
The cultures that our ears are connected to are coded and recoded, and miscoded to want to hear things that we don’t hear. But the sounds themselves don’t have a race until you tell people that they have a race. And when we use the phrase ‘black music’—well some people have given up on it completely and said ‘No that actually wasn’t the right word, it’s not really the word you want to use, because it leads people down the wrong road…’ It always has led some people down the wrong road, and it may be true that it’s just not the right word because it’s not gonna get there. But I think that hopefully that phrase ‘black music’ would lead us to an understanding that what we mean is not a black person making sounds, but any people making sounds within the tradition that is inarguably traceable to black culture. So the sounds need to be observed and understood with and without race. The sounds are what they are, they belong to the spectrum that we might call black music.
This interview has been edited and condensed.