WKCR broadcasts in the HD (hybrid) format.
What is now known as WKCR-FM originated in the early part of the twentieth century as the Columbia University Radio Club (CURC). An exact date of origin is not known, but documentation of the CURC as an on-going organization exists as early as 1936. The club was not a radio station as we know it, but rather an organization concerned with the technology of radio communications. The group shared a prestigious association with Major Edwin Armstrong (E '13), the man who invented FM broadcast technology. This association accounts for the marginally accurate phrase, "The Original FM," that one will often hear alongside the WKCR call letters.
In 1939, Major Armstrong turned his attentions towards commercial broadcasting. This spurred the CURC to shift from a club concerned with radio technology to a de facto radio station that provided broadcasts to the campus. The FCC granted the station its license on October 10, 1941.
For the next ten to twenty years, WKCR-FM functioned as an intellectual radio station. Programming was largely Columbia classroom events, classical music, and broadcasts from the United Nations, including many interviews with representatives of foreign nations. When Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957 staff members of WKCR recorded its signal during the satellite's first pass over the United States, and became the first North American radio station to rebroadcast this signal. The next morning the FBI took the tape, which has never been returned or paid for.
After the student uprising of 1968, this format changed. The station shifted its emphasis from being an illustration of the university to presenting commercially inviable programming to the New York metropolitan area. Jazz became the core of this broadcast approach, which is neatly summarized in the slogan, "The Alternative." The descriptions of individual departments contain information about WKCR's concept of alternative programming.
The rise of jazz on WKCR also led to the accelerated activity of live performance in the station's studios, and eventually to records released from those recordings. Sessions booked by former student DJ David Reitman led to many of the jazz and blues hosts bringing in musicians such as Gunter Hampel, Karl Berger, Tyrone Washington, Charles Walker (Blues from the Apple), and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
In the late 70s, under the direction of Tim Page, the station presented the radio premieres of several leading minimalist compositions, including Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. It was the first station in the country to pay attention to this important and eventually popular form of avant-garde music. Page also produced a benefit concert for the station at Carnegie Hall, with appearances by Reich, Glass, John Cale, and David Bowie, among many others.
WKCR was home to the ground breaking underground Hip-Hop Show The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito García Show from 1990-1998. The show was the first exposure for some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Wu-Tang Clan Notorious B.I.G just to name a few.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the station underwent a difficult period. Broadcasting from its backup transmitter atop Carman Hall, the station finally secured a new antenna at 4 Times Square in 2003.
In 1983, the station became the first radio (or television) station to transmit from the antenna at the top of the World Trade Center, having previously broadcast from an antenna on the DuMont Building, a 42-story structure at 515 Madison Avenue.