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He got the jazz

A tribute to WCLK's 'Hot Ice' host Ken Batie

Ken Batie hasn't been on the radio since June 17, 2005. For years, he played contemporary jazz, fusion and soul music on WCLK-FM (91.9). But after station management inexplicably canceled his show, "Hot Ice in the Afternoon," they named him WCLK's promotions director.

Six months later, people still speak of "Hot Ice" in reverent tones. Rhonda Baraka, a well-regarded musician and backup vocalist for Isaac Hayes, calls him "my fairy god brother," a man who often played and supported her solo work. For Jan. 12, Richard Dunn and Khari Simmons organized "Hot Ice Live: A Tribute to Ken Batie," featuring Donnie, Julie Dexter, JIVA, Anthony David, Rhonda Baraka and others. The event is just one sign of how highly he is regarded by the Atlanta soul and jazz scenes.

Jamal Ahmad, a protégé of Batie, hosts "The Soul of Jazz" during the same time slot once occupied by "Hot Ice." He compares Batie to legendary radio jocks such as John Peel, the famed British maverick who helped break artists such as Jimi Hendrix, the Smiths and Joy Division; and Frankie Crocker, the "Chief Rocker" who championed everything from disco and soul to early hip-hop during his on-air heyday in New York.

"Ken was playing a lot of edgy stuff," says Ahmad.

Today, Batie is currently on leave from his job. He suffers from a malady of health problems, including liver failure, an irregular heartbeat and leg ulcers. "I've been there for 20 years," he says of WCLK. "They've been very supportive."

He also decided to take a break from music in general. When asked who his current favorites are, he surprises himself when he can't put together a list — an unusual occurrence for someone so entrenched in the music industry. It's his way of dealing with the lack of a broadcasting platform for the first time in two decades. "It was something I had to get used to," he says.

A native of Lafayette, Ga., 45-year-old Batie began his radio career while attending college at Jacksonville State University. "I always loved the music," he says, adding that his mother is a pianist. "I got my first job at 19 [at WLFA in Lafayette], and I just never quit." In 1985, he joined WCLK, hosting the weekday afternoon show "Ubiquity." Two years later, Batie and Nate Quick began co-hosting "Hot Ice in the Afternoon" together; in 1990, Batie became the sole host of the show.

Batie says that before he joined its staff, WCLK was a traditional jazz station, meaning that it stuck to a classic, pre-free jazz format. With "Hot Ice," he began to play contemporary jazz artists (George Howard, Lee Ritenour, Marcus Miller) and new British soul/jazz performers (Omar, Incognito, Brand New Heavies). "It was a whole other direction that the music could go," he says. "It wasn't being done [by any other stations], and there was a need for it to happen." He also showcased local musicians such as India.Arie, Ken Ford, Rhonda Thomas and Dwayne Martin.

By emphasizing stylistic diversity, he demonstrated how jazz has inspired artists throughout the musical spectrum. "He helped a lot of young people get hip to jazz music," says Ahmad, who tries to play the same variety of music as Batie once did. At its peak in the late '90s, "Hot Ice in the Afternoon" commanded hundreds of thousands of listeners, an unusual feat for a noncommercial radio station such as WCLK.

Many still don't understand why "Hot Ice in the Afternoon" was canceled. Shortly after it happened, WCLK general manager Wendy Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the station wasn't meeting fundraising goals, and wanted to streamline its programming in order to attract more listeners. (WCLK management was not contacted for this article.)

Batie declined to speak on the record, noting that he is still employed by WCLK. "That's what was quoted in the paper," he says of the AJC story. "But it's not necessarily true." In the meantime, Batie plans to debut his own Internet radio show, Hoticeonline.com, sometime next year.

Ahmad, however, alludes to clashes Batie had with the station's management. "Ken was met with heavy opposition at WCLK. It was a struggle for him to play this music," he says. "You've got all these old-school jocks who are like, 'That ain't jazz music. What are you playing?' He actually got into crazy arguments and being face to face with program directors, screaming. It was the stuff movies are made of.

"I know folks like John Peel and Frankie Crocker went through the same thing. Ken fought the struggle, but at the end of the day, he came out on top because people showed love," continues Ahmad. "I wish he had received more love from the institution."