Documentary Celebrates Four Decades of WBGO, Jersey’s Only 24-Hour Jazz Station

The WBGO Story...Bright Moments From Newark to the World riffs on the station's quiet beginnings and global presence.


Jamil Nasser (bass), Howard Johnson (trumpet) & Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone) perform at a 1981 WBGO event. Courtesy of Bill May

Bob Ottenhoff, the founder of WBGO, remembers when the Newark-based jazz station first went on the air in 1979. There was no real promotion, but calls from listeners began to trickle in. “It was almost as if jazz music was going out over the airwaves to capture people,” says Ottenhoff.

A new documentary, set to premiere January 30 at this year’s New Jersey Film Festival, captures the story of those early days at New Jersey’s only 24-hour jazz station—a station that is now revered by jazz fans worldwide.

“It’s more than just music to jazz listeners,” says producer Chris Daniel. The WBGO Story…Bright Moments From Newark to the World explores the history of the station—which broadcasts at 88.3 FM. “I really just wanted to tell a good story about how people love the music and how they worked together to promote it,” says Daniel, who grew up in Jamesburg, in Middlesex County.

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The film features interviews with central figures in the founding of WBGO, including Ottenhoff and Dorthaan Kirk, widow of the late jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who used her expertise and connections in the music industry to help build the nonprofit station. With community support and a signal that can be heard throughout the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area, WBGO established itself as a force on the jazz scene. More recently, Internet streaming has given it global reach.

“It’s a really great story of overcoming the odds,” says Ottenhoff. “It still is tough…but there’s a spirit there.”

Daniel hopes for a wider public release of the documentary by the end of 2021.

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