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?