It’s a hot Tuesday morning, and B.H. Hudson is on the air. “It’s 83 degrees, and as James Brown said, the temperature is going up, up.” The music director of WNCU 90.7 FM was the first voice on the air when the station began in 1995. Her show, Morning Jazz, airs every weekday from 8 a.m. to noon. You can recognize Hudson by the quick, smooth cadence of her voice. She always tells the listeners which musicians are local. Sometimes you can hear a smile forming in the corners of her mouth as she describes a particularly juicy musical collaboration, or offers a jazz-related pun.
As she sits in the small studio underneath crumbing ceiling tiles, station colleagues and students from N.C. Central University pop in to say hi. Hudson plays a mix of classic jazz albums–including many hard-to-find recordings–along with a Top 40 list of new releases. Her knowledge of jazz history and discographies rivals that of anyone in the area.
Hudson says she got hooked on jazz not as a musician or a broadcaster, but as a listener. “I grew up in Durham, and I grew up on the Chitlin Circuit, so I had a background of R&B, funk, soul and blues.” She’s always loved music and would go see whatever acts came to town. But it wasn’t until she heard Charlie Parker one evening on a public radio station in Seattle that she started listening to jazz. “My life changed completely after hearing Charlie Parker,” she says reverently. “I went out and bought every record I could. And have been hooked on jazz ever since.”
She took up the alto sax in the ’60s, and while she no longer plays in public, she says the experience increased her appreciation for the music she loves. “Now I play records. It’s kind of my passion.” As music director, she spends much of the day walking around with headphones around her neck, plugging in to different CD players and listening to new releases. Hudson says her tastes have “not changed, just expanded” over the years, incorporating the world cultures that produce jazz.
“Jazz is definitely alive and well. That’s the good news. There are a lot of great musicians out there going for it still. At WNCU, it’s part of our mission to make sure people get to hear it.”
The bad news is, jazz radio–like all forms of locally programmed, community-oriented radio–is in decline. “There’s not a single commercial jazz station in the United States,” says Hudson. “Not one.”
Hudson snaps along with the rhythm while she gets ready to put the NPR news briefs on at the top of the hour. As an NPR station, WNCU is able to take advantage of syndicated programs such as Jazz Profiles and Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as public affairs offerings The Tavis Smiley Show, and Free Speech Radio from Pacifica News Network. The station also run its own local public affairs programs and just launched a Spanish-language public affairs show on Sundays. But the heart of WNCU is the music. Jazz dominates, but there are specialty shows for reggae, World, R&B, soul, gospel, hip-hop and old school.
WUNC, by contrast, offers much more national programming. “They’re an all-news, all-talk format, and we try to offer the alternative. We have music and on the weekend we have music from around the world, not just jazz. And our information programs offer an alternative voice.”
And programming isn’t the only difference, says Hudson. “They have twice the wattage that we do. They’re at 100,000; we’re at 50,000.” And with transmitters all over the state, WUNC can reach more people. “Most public radio stations struggle to stay on the air, and we’re no exception to that,” Hudson emphasizes.”
A tight budget means most people at WNCU are unpaid volunteers. Hudson, who is also the station’s assistant program director, is a part time employee with no benefits. She spends 20 of her 35 hours per week on the air. “A lot of the people at the station, we can’t afford to pay at all,” she says a little sadly. “They volunteer their time every week to come in and make sure that the music they love gets heard.” Hudson says everyone at the station is dedicated to the music.
“There are probably a lot of arts organizations that could tell the same story,” she continues. “It’s a struggle to keep the music going. But when it becomes part of your heart and soul, it’s really an honor to play music.”
The work pays off. Last year, WNCU was nominated by the industry group Jazz Week as the best jazz radio station in the country, alongside Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Jose. It’s only fitting. More than 50 legendary jazz legends hail from North Carolina, including Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, Max Roach, Nina Simone–the list goes on.
“It’s America’s music,” Hudson says. “It’s indigenous to this country like no other art form.”
An uptempo song is playing in the background, and Hudson snaps along. “That was the Steve Haynes Quintet playing ‘Everybody Loves Ruby,’” she announces over the air. The album is brand new, and the band is–no surprise–local.
“Maybe it’s all that moonshine, I don’t know,” she laughs impishly. “There’s a lot of great music that’s come out of North Carolina and we should all be real proud of that.”