March 2003 By Nat Hentoff
Purging Jazz From Public Radio
The last rites for much of jazz on National Public Radio began in February of last year when Jay Kernis, the network's senior vice-president for programming-noting that Billy Taylor's Jazz at Kennedy Center and Jazz from Lincoln Center were getting lower ratings and fewer listener donations than the news programs-declared: "We are not the arts doctors, offering medicine that will heal society…. Some programs may disappear." Both the Billy Taylor and the Lincoln Center series have indeed vanished from NPR and are now distributed by other program sources. The illuminating Jazz Profiles (winner of a prestigious Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence) is now heard only in reruns, and its producer, Tim Owens-program manager for NPR's jazz division-has been let go.
A survivor is Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, not so much because of its continuous high quality, but rather because its ratings are sufficient to remain on a public radio network that justifies its existence, when pitching to private foundations and corporate underwriters, by proudly maintaining that it offers programming unavailable on commercial radio stations.
Meanwhile, more local NPR stations around the country-which get the bulk of their financing directly from listeners who are insistently assured during pledge drives that they are supporting alternative programming, are also making jazz disappear.
In the Dayton, Ohio, listening area, WYSO-FM in Yellow Springs, the oldest public station in that part of the state, has taken all of its jazz programs off the air, including some that had been on for almost 30 years. The Dayton Daily News reported "a flood of criticism," dramatized by a "jazz funeral" in the streets.
In the Sept. 25 Wall Street Journal ("All That Jazz-Where Did It Go?"), I quoted a letter in the Yellow Springs News from Steve Schwermer, volunteer co-host of the banished jazz program Alternate Takes for 24 years: "WYSO has been the only source of serious jazz music in the Miami Valley. Public radio keeps the art form alive."
And the alternative Impact Weekly newspaper ran this threnody from Ken Katowik, who had a jazz show on WYSO for more than 27 years: "I have been featuring local jazz musicians…on my Wednesday night show. These local jazz groups will probably never have a chance to be heard by you again unless you're lucky enough to find where they are playing live…Now these great artists will remain obscure and unknown, at least in the newly created void of no jazz on WYSO."
Not all public radio station managers have adopted the exclusionary practices of NPR's Jay Kernis. At WCNY-FM in Syracuse, N.Y., Leo Rayhill has been hosting The Sounds of Jazz at 6 p.m. every weekday for more than 30 years. The program had been on other stations for 10 years before moving to WCNY, which is primarily a classical music station. Station manager Paul Dunn told the Syracuse Herald-Journal: "Leo is a true treasure. He has introduced jazz to countless listeners, and his love of the music is demonstrated by the fact that he's a volunteer host of the program." (Rayhill owns a roofing and siding firm.) During the station's pledge drives, says the Herald-Tribune, "Sounds of Jazz typically draws more listener donations than any of its other programs."
The purging of jazz at other public radio stations, and at NPR, had much of its genesis-according to Dayton's Impact Weekly and other sources-in a study conducted in 1998 by American Research Analysis, a Washington, D.C., public radio consultant firm. Its founder, David Giovannoni, maintained that his research showed that jazz, blues, classical music and opera programs attracted markedly less donations than news and commentary.
Accordingly, as Impact Weekly points out, such stations as New York's WNYC-AM, after greatly reducing its music programs, "tripled its donations from underwriters and members." There is music on its FM outlet, but this premier public radio station has no all-jazz program, putting it in the ratings-driven company of all the commercial radio stations in the city.
Could it be that station managers, abandoning jazz, don't know how to promote it? Newark, N.J.'s WBGO-FM is a national model of a noncommercial, successful jazz station. The Gavin Report named it Jazz Station of the Year in 2001, and it has also received the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Noncommercial Radio. WBGO is affiliated with NPR, but the great majority of its programming is original, focusing on a wide spectrum of jazz. It sends its own
JazzSet With Dee Dee Bridgewater to NPR, and chooses among the very few remaining jazz offerings of that network.
Jay Kernis, the purger of jazz at NPR, should look at how WBGO promotes its reason for being, and how inviting its monthly program guide is. There is a significant radio audience for jazz, if people like Kernis don't downgrade it with self-fulfilling prophecies. NPR would be livelier if it took more WBGO creations.
Originally published in March 2003