News-talk doesn’t replace jazz programming

Of the many postings about Boston radio station WGBH’s misguided downgrading of its signature jazz coverage — managing director Phil Redo has announced the removal of long-

Eric Jackson, jazz voice of Boston

beloved prime time show host Eric Jackson to weekends only, the end of producer Steve Schwartz’s Friday night show, and the cut back Bob Parlocha’s overnight program from seven nights a week to two — the best I’ve read is by Edward Bride in Berkshire Fine Arts.

It includes interviews with public radio sources in Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Cleveland and Lansing, Michigan, who note that the substitution of news-and-talk radio and extended NPR broadcasts has, in other markets, resulted in station losses rather than gains. If the value of well-known, highly popular local voices spinning great music to impressionable (and international — WBGH streams online) audiences is not apparent to decision-makers at WGBH, perhaps the experience of stations like WBEZ Chicago which by dropping jazz sent its hard-earned listenership to the college stations WNUR, WDCB, and WHPK can be instructive.

Steve Schwartz, another voice of Boston jazz

In Boston, the loss of iconic programming threatens the city’s bid for recognition as a hub of contemporary jazz action. It’s home, after all, to Berklee College of Music, the most thriving jazz education institution in the U.S., and New England Conservatory, one of the most open-minded, as well as jazz ed programs at Brandeis, Wellseley, Harvard, MIT, Mount Holyoke, Clark, Amherst, U. Mass, Emerson, etc.  It has a tenacious, historic local jazz club scene and native son George Wein invented the jazz festival (Newport RI is just a couple hours away).

The grass roots support group Jazz Boston and entrepreneurial Mass Jazz website/magazine are relatively recent additions to Boston’s jazz ecosystem, adding focus to a community that can be opaque or amorphous. The Tanglewood Jazz Festival, produced by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been cancelled for 2012, despite the BSO receiving funds in 2011 from the National Endowment for the Arts to bring NEA Jazz Masters to TJF. The 2012 Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival, 13 years old and now also supported in part by the NEA, is scheduled for Sept. 29, 2012. It’s a fun, community-spirited affair (I attended last year), if not on the level of the municipally-signficant New Orleans Jazz and Heritage, Detroit, or Chicago Jazz Festivals.

So given that Boston is churning out jazz people with each graduating class, and has the educated, urban population that likes this music, it would seem to be a boon to a PBS/NPR station a la WGBH to have highly identifiable. personable and well-connected on-air voices  entertaining and edifying loyal listeners with America’s indigenous art form. Call-in talk shows are ok, I guess, but if it ain’t the Tappet Brothers Click and Clack telling me what’s wrong with somebody else’s car, I’m hard-pressed to identify anything especially Boston when I’m dialing ’round the dial.

Of course, I’m not a Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins or Patriots or Revolution fan, and I understand Boston is a helluva sports town. Maybe if ‘GBH threw in with that community it would see its ratings rise. Oh, already covered by the commercial stations? Hmmmm. Then how about sticking with something locally distinguished and distinctive? I’m thinking . . .  jazz?

[There are several attempts being made to get WGBH to reconsider this decision: the Facebook group Save Eric in the Evening has more than 2100 members, and is the place to make your thoughts known, get in on protests, sign petitions, etc.]

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  1. John Fenton says

    The print media are even worse. As one prominent local Jazz musician put it recently, “I can understand the lack of mainstream media attention because we don’t kill anyone and do not offer cats stuck up trees”. The dumbing down of media is insulting to the listeners or readers. An audience is actually created by offerring good programming in the first place ; sometimes taking people a little outside of their comfort zones. Using focus groups or allowing ‘commercially savvy’ business people to decide programming, leads to one outcome. Crass populist broadcasting and the flight of engaged thoughtful listeners.

    • says

      Print media being bad, that’s why we’re all moving to our blogs, where the writers can exert their own control, be part of the conversation, not await assignment, etc. Of course we can’t await the paycheck either. That’s the trade-off.

      • says

        In the interest of disclosure, and accurate reporting, it should be pointed out that my commentary was based not on interviews, but on posts to JPL (Jazz Programmers List), an email forum for people interested in jazz radio.

  2. Paul Lindemeyer says

    It’s important that we know what we’re dealing with in public broadcastijng. In years past, it has had to start flattering the business community (and its tastes and prejudices) to get Major Funding, or else cut way back on programming like news and newstalk, which in the broadcasters’ view, really does serve the public.

    In such conditions, arts programming that survives either has a huge audience, such as Prairie Home, or else confers prestige, such as classical dj shows. Sadly – due to the prejudices of the ever more important business community – jazz does not confer prestige.

    Even the well-educated and sophisticated audience today has its tastes shaped by consumption – a clue to why the jazz audience is getting older and more narrow demographically. No matter that an established jazz show might pull better ratings than whatever comes on in the timeslot – perception is reality, and the perception is that jazz is not upscale, not prestigious, maybe no more than a stepchild to what are called The Arts.

    • says

      Thanks for your note, Paul — this column, and all the rest of what I do, is predicated on the idea that reality should be THE corrective for perception. That goes for politics as well as the arts. Jazz is the art of reality, right? Prairie Home Companion, like classical music programming, has a nostalgia appeal (PHC may subvert it, but it’s not obvious). I want to see American culture regain its forward momentum. I don’t think it’s lost, though many would bury it. But those who would bury it are generally NOT in our grassroots arts organizations, or even our so-called “high culture” institutions. So we just have to keep pressing, not give up. This is to borrow the successful tool from the right wing playbook: Don’t give up. Keep the pressure on. Of course it’s easier when those doing the pressing are well-funded. But I believe we’re at a point now of some urgency and that may rally like-minded progressives to push for change-to-the-good. Getting WGBH to reinstate jazz is not easy, not likely, maybe not possible. But rallying the troops around this kind of issue alerts everyone to what’s at stake, what we’re in danger of losing, and can give us practice to sharpen our efforts so that we don’t just shrug and lose. At least we can recognize efforts to devolve what they are.

      • Paul Lindemeyer says

        “Don’t give up. Keep the pressure on. Of course it’s easier when those doing the pressing are well-funded.”

        It’s also easier when one can appeal to base emotions – fear, tribe, the elite, the other. Art doesn’t enjoy that privilege – so it suffers in times like these.

        • says

          Art does stir up some pretty basic emotions. In this case, the attack on radio artists has stirred up loyalty and a strong defensive reaction. Success is not guaranteed, never is. But the way Boston jazz fans have come together on the issue is rather impressive. I hope WGBH will be impressed, but if it’s not maybe some other station will recognize the opportunity.