making it

Clay Pigeon Is Happy to Be Awake and on the Air at 6 A.M.

Illustration: by Samantha Hahn

At 10:45 in the morning, cult DJ Clay Pigeon, also known as Kacy Ross, has just gotten home from work and is about to get into bed. He’ll sleep till 7 p.m. in his Chelsea studio apartment, then start prepping for the next day’s morning show, which he records live from 6 to 9 at WFMU’s Jersey City studio. Ross treats that esoteric sleep schedule like it’s no big deal. “I’ve always been a night owl!” he crows, his signature gentle croak still radiant even after hours on the air.

I started listening to his morning show, “Wake and Bake,” in 2016, when my usual radio routine started to seem too relentlessly apocalyptic as a way to start the morning. The other morning shows usually feature something more like aural espresso — scream-laughter over shouted gossip. “Wake and Bake,” WFMU’s flagship show, is something gentler by orders of magnitude. It’s like Mister Rogers for people who like Courtney Barnett. Have you ever imagined the sonic experience of a bite of warm chocolate-chip cookie baked just for you by someone who loves you completely but expects nothing from you in return? That’s the raspy, inviting sound of Clay Pigeon as he transitions from a Twisterella song to a brief interview with Afropop diva Anjélique Kidjo.

Sometimes I feel like a weakling for quitting NPR, but listening to “Wake and Bake” assuages my guilt. It’s not like Ross never delivers any real news. He gently whispers it as quickly as possible, sprinkles whoever’s suffering out there in the world with the “pixie dust” that he dispenses to his “glisteners,” then crows “TakatatTA!” and moves on to a Kiwi Jr. song or the weather report. He even manages to keep the weather report optimistic, mixing news of catastrophic storms with the soothing routine of the tides, just in case any listeners plan to take their dinghies for a spin on the Long Island Sound.

Ross’s off-air personality is different from Clay Pigeon’s but just barely. He still has that relentless positivity, but he’s a bit more scattered, as you’d expect, outside of a format that enforces new segments at three-minute intervals. We start out by chatting about the show’s eclectic musical mix — I tell him I find his taste to be perfect — and he makes sure that I know that 30 people work on the show with him. Still, when pressed, he tells me that his favorite artist at that exact moment is Morrissey, then does a pitch-perfect rendition of “William, It Was Really Nothing,” complete with that shimmying dance Morrissey does — the one that seems like he’s trying to wiggle out of a too-tight shirt.

As connoisseurs of weirdness know, WFMU is a 25-year-old, all-volunteer station based in Jersey City. Although its signal is only barely available in cars and radios in most parts of the five boroughs, listeners can stream it on demand or via the station’s app. Some WFMU shows feature aggressive noise music, others bossa nova. If you tune in at a random time, you never know what you’re going to get. And even though the DJ gigs are unpaid, there’s fierce competition to get on the schedule. Freeform radio’s fans and practitioners take the art form very seriously.

In 2017, it became clear that the station needed something more like a traditional morning show. The slot had previously been filled by a Jewish show called “JM in the AM With Nachum Segal.” It had been the station’s highest earner but departed so it could go to an ad-supported format. Station manager Ken Freedman decided to hold a competition for the show’s next morning DJ, which Ross, along with 15 other DJs, entered. He was then 60 years old. Freedman had some concerns: Ross’s previous work on a WFMU show was “The Dusty Show With Clay Pigeon,” recording vérité man-on-the-street interviews, often with unhoused people going through hard times. Somehow, Ross kept this show upbeat, but it was still far from “Wake and Bake”–level anodyne. Ross remembers Freedman telling him that the morning show needed to be very different from “The Dusty Show” — “an oasis” where people can get away from the darker realities of life. Still, Ross was convinced that he was the man for the job. He arranged with his understanding boss at his marketing job to let him take time off to audition, even though if he won the contest he’d quit. Eventually, the pool was divvied down to three, then two, then Ross took the crown.

The fight was for honor and glory, of course, but also for cash: The morning-DJ role, because of how the all-volunteer station is structured, is the only paid position and the only one with health insurance. Ross’s salary from WFMU isn’t lavish. He relies on his wife, Kirsten Ulve’s successful illustration career to supplement his income. He met Kirsten through the show and they bonded over their mutual midwestern roots. “Without my wife, I might not be able to work at WFMU. I used to feel really bad about that until I realized there’s just tons of other guys with the same story in New York. Their wives are the one who’s making them bread.” Ross is the kind of guy who can say “bread” and seem sincere about it.

The show’s relentless yet uncloying positivity took shape immediately. In March 2020, WFMU streaming listenership went up by a third. People were hungry for exactly the break from bleak reality that the show had been designed to provide. This was also when Ross returned to his long-ago roots as a gigging musician, penning a song cycle about COVID-19 that made lighthearted fun of theories of contagion.

Ross loves to sing over his favorite tracks, adding claps and melodies and harmonies like any enthusiastic listener might. He has a sturdy, pleasant voice that adds something extra to the songs he plays. (You can hear him perform with “Wake and Bake” fans Yo La Tengo here.) He loves sound effects, and if you don’t love sound effects, you’ll hate the show … until, suddenly, you also love sound effects. “What I like to do is drive people almost to the point of madness with repetition. Then they cross over a threshold, and they’re like, ‘Please, Clay, play the sound of the hyena. I need the hyena.’” The quirky model is working: In WFMU’s most recent fundraising drive, “Wake” raised 10 percent of the $1.5 million generated — more than any other program, according to Freedman.

Ross’s melodic instincts come from those musician years, but he has never recorded an album of his own. After so much time spent making “Wake and Bake,” he’s coming to terms with the idea that he might be doing something just as special with music — something that doesn’t give quite the same adrenaline rush as being in a touring band but still has a lot of value: “If you’re always waiting for your precious someday, when you’re going to do something perfect, you never do it. So this show teaches me to do my best and let it go.”

Clay Pigeon Is Happy to Be Awake and on the Air at 6 A.M.