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Documentary About WBGO's Early Days Premieres at the N.J. Film Festival This Week

This Saturday, Jan. 30, the New Jersey Film Festival will be the first of three film festivals to screen a documentary about the formation of the state's first public radio station, WBGO.

Born from an urban think tank following the Newark Rebellion of 1967, WBGO — also known as Newark Public Radio — got its start when a group of city leaders and community activists came together looking to make positive change in the city.

The film focuses on those early years, including interviews with station founder Bob Ottenhoff; NEA Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk, who worked at WBGO from the beginning right through 2018; and Christian McBride, host of Jazz Night in America, among others.

Produced in part with the support of a New Jersey Historical Commission grant, director Chris Daniel says of the film: "Jazz is more than music. It was an amazing experience to work with [the] people who were with WBGO in the beginning. The same inspiration they had back then is still here."

"We would not have dared to dream that one day WBGO would become the storied, iconic station known worldwide that it is today for its jazz programming. We were too busy trying to build a station and staff from scratch and stay on the air," recalls Ottenhoff, founding general manager and recent interim president & CEO. "What makes the journey so satisfying is knowing that thousands of people contributed – in all kinds of ways – to making the station a success. Chris’s documentary does a wonderful job capturing the spirit that motivated those early years and the talented team of dedicated people who led the way."

Kirk, who also served as a consultant on the documentary, notes that "the film came together quickly. Chris was able to interview a lot of people from the early days, including Richard Roper and Newark historian Junius Williams." In recalling her early days at WBGO, she says: "I didn't see how I was going to be beneficial at the beginning, but as WBGO grew, my responsibilities grew." Kirks also speaks about those days during her NEA induction and laughed that she thought Bob and Steve Robinson "were out of their minds" when they started this undertaking at such a young age.

You can see the film starting Saturday. It has been selected for the following Film Festivals (all presented virtually):