It’s Public Radio, If You Can Keep It

Carol Sloane sent an alert to yet another step in the abandonment of jazz by public broadcasting in The United States. Here is the headline of a column on the website of The Boston Globe:

The column is by Mark Leccese, an independent ombudsman who keeps an eye on print and broadcast outlets. He laments one veteran jazz host, Eric Jackson, being downgraded and another longtime presence on New England airwaves, Steve Schwartz, being canceled. Then, he asks,

“Is there no air time left for music on public radio?”

That is a question in dozens of broadcast markets across the country. To read Leccese’s column about the situation in Boston, click here.

WGBH is one of the pioneer public radio stations in the US, a developer of programming emulated by broadcasters in all regions of the country. It is disturbing to see this influential station dilute its commitment to jazz presented by knowledgeable professional broadcasters. But WGBH is not alone in that regard. Indeed, it is behind the trend.

The story where I live differs little from that in other regions. A few years ago, Northwest Public Radio had extensive original jazz programming of its own and an array of jazz shows from National Public Radio and Public Media International. After NWPR changed its primary format to classical music and news, the local jazz shows dropped away. Piano Jazz and Jazz Profiles from NPR disappeared, then NWPR deep-sixed Jim Wilke’s Jazz After Hours from PMI. The anemic replacement is syndicated Friday and Saturday night jazz programming with a host who seems to understand or care little about the music, rarely gives information about sidemen, labels or history and makes fundamental factual errors. Clearly, he is under instructions to keep his part short and breezy. There is none of the personal approach of WGBH’s Jackson and Schwarz or of PMI’s Wilke. Except for the host’s announcements—perfunctory, detached—those hours might be filled by a jukebox.

Why do we need hosts, anyway? Isn’t all the jazz you’d ever want to hear available on iTunes and downloads and websites and MP3s and CDs? If we want to know the history of the music, get the flavor of the times in which it was created, learn about the musicians, can’t we do web searches? Why bother with someone who can provide context and understanding, who tells stories, who can become a friend?

Public broadcasting has gone the way of commercial broadcasting, living by ratings. There is little need to point out that public stations rely on statistics to encourage the contributions of foundations, wealthy individuals and “listeners like you.” With their aggressive fund drives, they don’t let us forget, and in the fierce battle to stay alive in a staggering economy, they can’t. Should valuable cultural programming be forced to play by the rules of the competitive market system? If so, then we should not feel justified in wailing when that programming is dumbed down to a low common denominator. In a capitalist economy, there is such a thing as market failure. If the market fails a minority audience that wants quality programming, does the society have an obligation to find a way to provide it? Do we owe that to future generations, or should we hope that the next annoying fund drive raises enough to allow public radio and television to hang on by their fingernails and keep dumbing down?

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Comments

  1. George Kaplan says

    “If the market fails a minority audience that wants quality programming, does the society have an obligation to find a way to provide it?”

    Obligation? That would be tyranny. Force in support of the arts is contradictory, don’t you think?

    • says

      This is America’s “classical music.” This is our country’s great contribution to world culture. But jazz has suffered here, from both benign and malignant neglect. This is only one more symptom of a disease process that has been years in the process.

  2. Mike Harris says

    Well, at least we we still have all the “So’s” you can handle—just check out the beginning of every 2nd sentence! Money follows “dumb,” and there seems to be more and more of that all the time. Let’s face it, the public loves crap—how do you fix that?

  3. Ken Dryden says

    Doug, I suspect key part of WGBH’s decision is that they’ll save money by not paying Eric and Steve for those discontinued hours of local jazz and they can have a minimum wage person or intern operating the board as they air reruns of locally produced news and the audio from their PBS station. I doubt that Eric has donated so many hours of his time and knowledge for 27+ years, though I could be wrong. As someone who has extensive experience in public radio, underwriting sales, Arbitron ratings and formerly produced a local show for 15 years, I understand both sides. But it is pathetic that the station feels the need to replace the valuable local jazz programming with news reruns. I doubt they’ll see membership or ratings increases from these changes, although there will be salary savings.

    I am curious as to how much underwriting was sold in support of jazz programming, or if WGBH is selling a pure Run of Schedule mix to businesses and professionals.

    I will tell anyone who plans to complain: the station will pay more attention to you if you’ve been a past donor than if you’ve never made a gift. Listeners alone don’t pay the costs of running a public radio station: annual and recurring gifts, underwriting and grants are all pieces of the financial puzzle. WGBH is not about to reverse changes on the basis of promised gifts from people who have never supported the station in the past.

  4. Barry K. Schmidt says

    Bravo Doug. Your analysis is spot on. I too, have been disheartened by the direction of our local Public Radio outlet here in the Northwest. To see that the same trend is becoming the norm is truly discouraging. “LIve” radio was the medium by which I learned about this music we call jazz (KBCA in Los Angleles, Niles, Fields, et.al.) It is so sad that this outlet for the music is rapidly disappearing because of the rush to be “financially viable”

  5. says

    Public radio, I am told by reliable insiders, is currently under the spell of “consultants.” These consultants tell the stations that the people who contribute the most money during the beg-a-thons are interested in news and talk, not music. So as a result, many NPR stations have cut or dumbed-down their jazz programming. You can tell by the scant amount of “jazz” programming on PBS (an occasional special by Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti, or Jane Monheit) how much importance that America’s public media attach to jazz. It’s the NPR/PBS equivalent of the clubowner’s lament that “jazz fans don’t drink.”

    The demotions of Eric Jackson and Steve Schwartz are the latest nails in the coffin. The classic individualists of jazz radio (e.g., Willis Conover, Symphony Sid, Mort Fega, Ed Beach, Daddy-O Daylie) would be unemployable in the current climate. Broadcasting by template is virtually mandatory on the few remaining NPR jazz stations.

  6. David says

    The NPR station where I live abandoned jazz many years ago, but it’s worth noting that NPR and affiliates still produce some good jazz programming although it’s only available online. I liked it better the old way, but then I would only occasionally see articles by Doug Ramsey. Now I read him daily. Future generations will be constantly connected to the internet via cellular or wifi networks transmitted directly through tiny chips implanted in their brains. Even today younger people don’t much listen to broadcast radio, but then most of them are oblivious to jazz as well.

  7. says

    There is a lot of foment around this in Boston. Although people aren’t certain what to do, the energy seems to be there to take some kind of positive step. JazzBoston(.org) is stepping up to organize a meeting and anyone interested in knowing when it will happen should go to their website or to the Save Jazz Facebook page.

    • says

      Thanks, Steve, for mentioning JazzBoston. We’re adding a page to our website to cover the aftermath of WGBH’s cutbacks, starting with a collection of the terrific letters that are pouring out on the subject. However, the best place to go for updates on everything we’re doing is the JazzBoston Facebook page. JazzBoston sees this as a watershed moment for the Greater Boston jazz community. WGBH’s action, regrettable as it is, provides us with a unique opportunity. In addition to causing a lot of pain, it has generated a lot of energy and attracted a lot of attention. Boston’s jazz community is being watched from near and far to see how we respond. Now we need to focus all our energy on finding positive, 21st century solutions that address not only jazz programing at WGBH but also the broader issues highlighted above concerning the future of jazz radio, as well as the growth of Greater Boston’s jazz scene and the place of jazz in our city’s cultural life. JazzBoston is working on arrangements for an open meeting to begin the process.

  8. Charlton Price says

    Doug’s doleful analysis leaves little hope for the future. Jazz radio is sliding into oblivion. At age 12 or so, for me it was Martin Block and the Make Believe Ballroom, Another band every 15 minutes, for two hours week nights, WNEW-AM New York. Now, as an Older Person, here in the West, I’m nourished online only by KCSM in San Mateo, all jazz 24/7, or KPLU (“NPR news and all that jazz”) in Seattle-Tacoma. Or try TSFjazz.com, Paris — all American pop and jazz, commercials in French, no DJs. That’s about it.

  9. Tom Freudenheim says

    Maybe if so-called “public” radio told us how much support it receives from the folks we’re supposed to “support” who are themselves purveyors of brands that earn big bucks (Car Guys, Garrison Kiellor, etc.), then some of us might feel better about being asked for support. And if they would stop telling us that they don’t have “ads” while having regular ads in the guisee of sponsorship, they might understand how cynical this makes listeners.

  10. Tony Agostinelli says

    The dwindling sound of jazz on public radio is a plague on all of our houses. As is the way with many things, when popularity wanes, when contributions become less, and when the culture takes its turn to something that has been dumbed down for them…since NPR has more and more tried to provide programming which reflects the culture, relects the size and volume of contributions…we have a lessened interest and programming of jazz!

    Pox on their house…at least we have the internet, streaming of programs from all of the world, and and an ability to listen to great music and the evolution of new, creative and exciting artistes. I will mourn the passing of programmed interest in jazz, and take heart when I can get my “fix!”

  11. Tom Freudenheim says

    Happily, I spend summers in the WFCR listening area, western Massachusetts, and Tom Reney’s nightly jazz programs remain among the most thoughtful music programming of any kind that I’ve ever heard.

  12. says

    In Portland, a unique partnership now three years old between Oregon Public Broadcasting and Mt Hood Community College has preserved KMHD-FM, and we’re fortunate to have one of only a handful of full-time jazz stations in the nation. It’s a model that is working very well, with OPB taking over operation of the station and the college maintaining ownership. This allows OPB to serve Portland with two distinct formats (news/information and jazz) without increasing overhead. Since this started in August 2009, the KMHD audience has increased and the station is financially stable.

    Public radio isn’t under the spell of consultants as someone suggested above (well, at least not here). But in an environment in which the vast majority of funding is coming from listeners and underwriters, maintaining and growing an audience is critically important. Stations with mixed formats aren’t doing so well and, to the chagrin of music fans, news/information is crowding out music. It’s exacerbated in some markets where you have multiple stations owned by multiple owners who compete with one another.

    In my view, arrangements like OPB & KMHD enhances the public service mission of public broadcasting and helps in diversifying the number of formats within markets. From my 3 years of experience in operating a jazz station, I can tell you that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for KMHD to survive as a jazz station outside of this arrangement with OPB. It’s far more difficult to raise money for jazz, than for news/information (or classical music for that matter), and the cost of operation as an independent entity is high.

    If you’d like to check out the station, you can find it at kmhd.org.

    Steve Bass
    President & CEO
    Oregon Public Broadcasting

  13. Jim Brown says

    In a way, the jazz radio that we grew up with, that not only exposed us to the music but TAUGHT us about it has been dead for a long time. Long gone are the days when a hip jock told us what he was going to play, who was on it, who wrote the chart, and who played that hip solo. I knew what I liked because the jocks i grew up listening to told me who was playing what, and I bought those records (a lot of them with the bread my folks sent me to live on at college). Without that education, how DOES the American public learn about jazz?

    Since about 1980, it has become fashionable — make that required — that the jock play three or four tracks in a row without interruption, and, if we’re lucky, not only will someone tell us what they played, we might even remember the music they were telling us about. Solos? Rhythm section? Arrangers? Parlocha does it, most others I hear don’t, even those playing pretty hip stuff. Heck — I’ve heard a long established KCSM jock play Sinatra with Basie, say it was Sinatra but not acknowledge the presence of the Basie band! I’ve heard Prez with Basie and the jock didn’t acknowledge Prez. And this is the norm, not the exception. Clifford Brown Jr. is on the air at KCSM, but the only time they allow him to share even the briefest memories of the musicians who made the great records he plays is during a pledge break!

    With virtually anything we want available on the internet if you know where to look, most of it at no cost to the consumer, the only real reason for a LOCAL jazz station is to support the local jazz scene. But local jazz scenes are dying too. Not long ago, the jazz listings in the New Yorker filled a page or two. Now, Jazz and Standards together barely fills a third of a page, and the New Yorker, ever parochial, doesn’t consider New Jersey jazz clubs worthy of mention. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, it’s rare to find jazz in what used to be the the major jazz clubs more than one or two nights a week, and down here in Santa Cruz, we must be content with major touring bands a dozen nights a year. At least the venues are quite decent — for now, but how long can that last with things as thin as they are?

    If we care about this, we’ve got to DO something to change it. As we said in the civil rights movement, “if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” Part of changing it is financial support. But another important part is pushing hard to change what’s broken. Four tunes in a row before you even hear the artists identified, and with next to nothing else about the music, is seriously broken, and virtually all jazz broadcasters have required that their jocks work that way.

    • Anonymous Jazz DJ says

      “…the jazz radio that we grew up with, that not only exposed us to the music but TAUGHT us about it has been dead for a long time. Long gone are the days when a hip jock told us what he was going to play, who was on it, who wrote the chart, and who played that hip solo. ”

      I’m a public radio jazz host, and I got into the business because I wanted to be one of those hip jocks. I read, interviewed and studied, and 30-plus years later I’m still studying the history and the stories of the music we love. Unfortunately, I can’t share everything on the air, management only wants some short concise bits of “interesting information” about once per hour. I can do concise, but out of sheer frustration, I’m doing in a blog what I really OUGHT to be doing on-air.

      I appreciate this discussion, but really need to keep my job, so I’ll be anonymous for now.

  14. says

    FWIW, I think this is about formats with small audiences, jazz and classical music sure, but I like hardcore, punk, alternative, new wave and Rock en Espanol. Even top 10 markets, the audiences for jazz and classical music are small.

    I’ve long been forced to the Internet in order to satisfy my musical interests. (MTV etc. have long since given up on this music, and music more generally.)

    One indicator of the narrow audiences is that there aren’t strong jazz or classical music “satellite-cable” channels. (I think BET has a jazz channel actually.)

    Given all the issues of radio and markets and audiences, it would behoove you to figure out how to get the music and commentary you want in a way that transcends individual markets, since most lack the heft and funding to support these kinds of “niches.”

  15. Ed Alley says

    WUSF Public Media – Tampa, St. Petersburg,Sarasota seems to have landed the best decision. In this market they now have TWO Public radio stations: WUSF– “News, Information, and Jazz All Nihgt” and WSMR “Classical Music 24 hours a day”. For a market this size to have both is a great tribute to WUSF Public Media, and the listening audiences. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Sarasota, named the Best Smaller town Arts Destination in the Country, provides a great percentage of income for all their medial operations. And yes, I am a happy donor to both stations.
    That’s Sarasota, Florida, which also has the #1 Beach in the USA.
    Thanks.

  16. David says

    Public radio only reaches a tiny slice of the radio audience and radio is only a small part of the way people discover music these days. While I listen to radio mainly through an old-fashioned car antenna, those who listen via the internet have lots of choices. In addition to those mentioned in the above comments, some jazz stations available online include WBGO, KCFR, WKCR, KNTU, and several others. There are also many streaming sites that allow listeners to program their own radio stations or listen to channels programmed by like minds. The best known is Pandora and an excellent one for jazz is Accujazz. The most effective way of preserving jazz for future generations may be just finding ways to expose people to the music while their ears are still open. Generally this means listeners under age 11. Beyond that age musical tastes are determined more by social cliques, fashion trends, and the promotional efforts of big muzak.

  17. Pat Goodhope says

    While I mourn the loss of traditional over the air jazz content, as many have commented previously, we need to embrace the new access the internet affords us and focus on making it successful.

    I can not imagine that we are that far away from having standard internet access in our cars in place of radios. With that I believe we will see the death of satellite radio as well.

    Content online is the future and the present, and I for one embrace it.

    I think of it in the same way as I do when appreciating and valuing the clarity of listening to my 78’s. That experience can not be replaced when you own the proper equipment to make it work as I do. But of course technology has brought us into a different age and through how many different generations of media since the 78’s era. Most of us have accumulated LP’s and 45’s and CD’s, etc. I love my 78’s and dropping my needle on them. But it doesn’t stop my acceptance of the movement forward and I don’t want to spend energy on lamenting bygones.

    I won’t give up on radio and love doing my show every week. I will stay with it until I am dragged away, kicking and screaming. Yet, along with being on the air it also is available on the internet where it can be accessed all over the world.

    That has to be counted as a good thing.

    Pat Goodhope
    “Avenue C” Wednesdays 9 PM – 11 PM Eastern
    University of Delaware Public Radio
    91.3FM and WVUD.org

    • Rick M says

      Pat Goodhope has stumbled upon the truth. Public radio and television have reached the limits of their mission as evidenced by the types of LCD programming they air at fund drive time. Does anyone, besides me, wonder why we get ’50s and ’60s pop music specials only then? It’s like bait and switch on the masses. Why will they not air what they spend the best of their usual fare when asking for donations? Expecting a majority to support those arts only appreciated by a few is soft tyranny.

      On Sundays I find myself listening to jazz programs at a DC public station, but cannot find it within myself to help fund their (get a load of this jazz fans) leftist news and talk programming the rest of the week.

      The point is that ‘public’ broadcasting, in its current form, is trying to please too many factions. The future for the arts is on the internet and satellite radio which find their audiences where they are by virtue of higher technology. By virture of a government support constituency, NPR will continue well past its useful life because careers and entrenched, elite, political influence are invested in its existence. I appreciate the NPR website more than the stations; no political propaganda there.

      • Jonathan says

        Well said, Rick. PBS is trying to keep their grip on the baby boomers while not investing in innovative programming that would MAKE you want to tune in. Their management really didn’t invest in the future and now it’s a game of trying to stay afloat though these down times. A failure of vision and execution.

  18. says

    Let me bring your attention to one more “voice in the wilderness”. I am a jazz programmer on NPR’s WDIY FM , 88.1, in Allentown, Pa. We are also on the web at WDIY. ORG/LISTEN. The station is manned by volunteer programmers and offers two hours of jazz six nights a week. Our listeners seem to appreciate an actual voice sharing the music with them. Check us out!

  19. says

    For years, all of us have been feeling the great loss of freedom on the jazz airwaves. I have been a jazz broadcaster here in Los Angeles for over a decade and have mentally and physically felt the effects of this ever growing trend of Public Radio vs Jazz. It used to be a place to grow your creativity and knowledge on the music, which of course is an exploration into learning the deeper side of yourself though sound.

    Radio is a business and Jazz is an form of art. it has always been the most difficult of marriages but those who love the music can’t stop playing or listening to it because it is a part of their soul and those who run the business can’t stop looking at the bottom line and are quick to adopt popularity. We Do have to be a part of the solution.

    in the coming months, I will be joining the ranks of internet jazz radio broadcasters with my launch of “Sounds and Colors Radio”. I will capture the intimacy to the music by broadcasting live, remote and conducting potent interviews with what is happening now with the music and the beautiful musicians that create it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUpiuItITw8&feature=plcp

    Art, music, culture and jazz are global. And, when that day comes that we can all listen to the internet in our cars, Public Radio will no longer be our issue and the world will be our source for joyous vibrations!

    LeRoy Downs

  20. says

    Seattle-Tacoma’s KPLU-FM is often cited as a model of radio Jazz success, but I hear that even there the playlists are shrinking, and the jocks more and more restricted to management’s choices and programming directives.

    Yet for 30 years the Sunday afternoon slot, 3 to 6, has been left alone by meddling managers and befuddled beancounters alike, wisely or cautiously unwilling to mess with audible success and audience size. That one program–100 years of “The Art of Jazz,” selections from all eras made and expanded upon (historical setting, roster of players, session notes, random remarks) by the program’s one and only host for those three decades, Ken Wiley–now fills the slot heard ’round the world thanks to live streaming or some such; and Wiley privately (and proudly) quotes from his international fan mail.

    He’s an apparently healthy man in his Seventies–and may he live to be a hundred!–but longtime listeners may well wonder what lies ahead in this radio-aetherial climate for the totally individualistic program called “The Art of Jazz.”