Radio Days

In a new book, Brooke Wentz ’82 unearths rare interviews with
musical luminaries she met while deejaying at Barnard

By Michael B. Dougherty

Brooke Wentz ’82
Brooke Wentz ’82

“I found my place in the world hosting a radio show at one a.m. in New York City in the 1980s,” writes Brooke Wentz ’82 in the introduction to her recently published book, Transfigured New York: Interviews with Experimental Artists and Musicians, 1980-1990, adding, “I had just started school at Barnard when I showed up at Columbia’s WKCR-FM.”

Brooke Wentz

Wentz, who went on to an impressive and varied career in the music business, including heading up ESPN’s music department, managing A&R at Arista Records, and winning a Billboard Music Award for Best World Music Album, spent her days studying art history at Barnard but her evenings hosting Transfigured Night — the symbiosis between the two only apparent to her much later. Billed as “explorations into the world of new music,” the show, which continues to air today, played host to an eclectic mix, from classical to fringe, jazz to experimental, pop to avant-garde.

Still a teenager, Wentz presciently seized on the show’s popularity among the downtown set to sit down with emerging artists in a studio in Columbia’s dank Ferris Booth Hall (now Alfred J. Lerner Hall) for discursive conversations on art, music, and the ’80s New York zeitgeist. Forty-plus years later, those nascent figures are now cultural heavyweights — John Cage, Laurie Anderson ’69, Philip Glass, and Ravi Shankar, to name but a few. Unearthed in Transfigured New York for the first time since they originally aired, the interviews represent a fascinating time capsule and a touchstone of Wentz’s life and career.

Wentz grew up in San Francisco and initially enrolled at Boston College, joining the school’s radio station in an attempt to connect, but quickly realized that she felt like a “fish outta water” at the staid New England campus. Though she’d only been to New York once with her mother, she decided to transfer to Barnard. “I’ll never forget driving down from Boston in this little BMW 2002 I had at the time,” she recalls. “I drove with all my belongings down to 110th Street to a residence hall, and we were on the second floor. The first night there was so loud and noisy!”

She may have been a New York newbie, but Wentz had already investigated the campus radio scene before she even stepped foot in Morningside Heights. “I tried to talk to some other kids to say, ‘Hey look, I’m transferring to Barnard, what’s your radio station like?” she remembers. That station, of course, is Columbia’s legendary WKCR-FM, which began broadcasting in 1941 and has played host to everyone from jazz royalty, like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus, to the pioneering hip-hop Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show.

At her first WKCR meeting, Wentz was hoping to “fake it till you make it,” but as she tells it, her hamfisted reference to jazz fusion resulted in blank stares and banishment to an adjoining room, where she met Columbia student Mark Abbott.

“He had been doing [Transfigured Night] for a while … and was like, ‘We play Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass, and Tuxedomoon.’ And I was like, ‘Tuxedomoon? That’s a band from my hometown!’” Abbott gave Wentz the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. slot on Thursday mornings, which she occupied for the next six years. Thus began her sonic wanderings into the uncharted corners of nocturnal New York. Shocked that no one else at the station had jumped on the beat, she focused her programming on artists who were performing at some of the most fecund venues, including The Kitchen, Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Mudd Club, and Danceteria. “If an artist wanted to come up to the station and promote their stuff, we were like, “Sure, why not? Whatever, it helps kill an hour.”

Jessica Hagedorn performing in Tenement Lover (No Palm Trees in New York City), directed by Thulani Davis ’70, at The Kitchen. Photo © 1981 Paula Court.

Nineteen-year-old Wentz may have just been trying to avoid dead air, but soon she was conversing with the likes of master minimalist composer Philip Glass, her very first interviewee. Given their occupation, artists like Glass kept odd hours, which often required Wentz to pre-tape the conversations to air later on her show. Born out of practical necessity, those reel-to-reel tapes — along with a few cassettes recorded on her Sony Walkman — became invaluable documents of an era. Yet after her college years, they sat decaying in Wentz’s basement for decades.

Christian Marclay, Dead Stories flyer, 1986. Courtesy of Brooke Wentz.

At home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wentz rediscovered the tapes, some of which had badly deteriorated. She reached out to San Francisco’s Digital Revolution, which specializes in media preservation, to transfer and transcribe the interviews, later adding context and additional artist details. The result is Transfigured New York (Columbia University Press, 2023), 400 pages of Wentz’s interviews, along with artist images, ephemera, and a preface by former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo.

Hearing her interviews again sparked a mix of emotions for Wentz. “In some of them, there’s a little flirtation going on, which is interesting, and in some cases, I’m nervous as all hell. In other cases, I can’t believe how confident I sound for a 24- or 25-year-old.” Then there was the interview Wentz didn’t even remember conducting. “One interview [experimental composer] Peter Gordon gave me, and it’s [him] and [cellist and composer] Arthur Russell,” says Wentz. “It’s really quite interesting because I never even recalled interviewing Arthur Russell. There’s sort of a mystique around Arthur Russell, a resurgence about him too. So I was probably most surprised about that interview, and I was thrilled to include it.”

But for Wentz, one subject stands out among all the others. “My favorite interviews are probably with John Cage. I mean, [he was] such a lovely person,” she declares. Wentz fondly recalls talking to Cage about his relationships with [painters] Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the time Cage showed her Johns’ “Numbers” series at his apartment. “I mean, that’s cool,” she says. “I was just floored.” 

Brooke Wentz
Artist, musician, and filmmaker Laurie Anderson ’69 with avant-garde composer John Cage. Photo courtesy of Marion Ettlinger.

After graduation, Wentz briefly considered furthering her art history studies at Yale but ultimately decided she wanted to pursue her passion for music, working jobs at WNYC and New Music Distribution Service. “I did anything I could after I graduated to pay the bills but [also] to be in music,” she recalls. “Although I did work part-time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I wasn’t totally throwing my art history career away,” she adds, laughing.

Wentz ultimately ended up on the business side of the industry, becoming a noted expert on music rights and licensing, penning two books (Hey, That’s My Music! and Music Rights Unveiled) on the subject. She also previously served on the board of Other Minds (“a leading organization for new and experimental music”) in San Francisco and currently serves on the board of Indexical (“a site for radical and experimental work”) in Santa Cruz. “Both of those places are dealing with avant-garde music, just like my book talks about. So it sort of comes full circle,” she notes.

Looking back, Wentz says she had no preconception that her radio show days at Barnard would lead to a career in music, but she can now identify the thread between her visual art studies and what she was doing with Transfigured Night. “I didn’t take any music classes at Barnard — it was strictly art history,” she says. “But then John Cage and all these experimental artists also worked with visual artists. Philip Glass is close to the visual arts. Laurie Anderson was close to visual art. Christian Marclay, who’s on the [book’s] cover, now is part of the visual arts. So these things all cross over. And in New York it’s so great, ’cause they’re crossing over all the time.”   

Transfigured New York is available now. To listen to a selection of interviews from the book, visit 




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