Fate of WMOT Unclear

WMOT's future cloudy

The fate of Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) 24/7 mainstream jazz station WMOT-FM (89.5) remains unclear, but its prospects for survival now seem a bit brighter after MTSU president Dr. Sidney McPhee said March 19 he wanted the station to survive in some form.

McPhee’s public posture contradicts rumors he was at best indifferent and at worse hostile to WMOT, or wanted the current format scrapped in favor of a more commercial one. The news about WMOT’s possible closing or sale surfaced a couple of months ago, when it was announced MTSU was facing massive budget cuts for fiscal year 2010.

McPhee issued a 46-page report with recommendations that included the potential elimination of 23 concentrations and majors, plus cuts in many other areas from extracurricular programs to the demise of the June Anderson Women’s Center. These moves are being contemplated because McPhee says even federal stimulus money may not be enough to prevent reductions that might total $19.3 million.

But he voiced support for the station, which has been rumored for everything from complete extinction to sale or a merger with MTSU’s other student station WMTS. They would become part of a campus media center operation that would also include student publications and other outlets.

“We value (WMOT), McPhee said, but must take a hard look at operations and expenditures. We are looking at several options for WMOT that will result in retaining the station in some form with significant reductions in its university budget. Other alternatives such as establishing partnerships will also be explored. Plans must be developed to bring (WMOT) within budget within two years or other measures will need to be determined.”

Nashville Jazz Workshop (NJW) co-directors Lori Mechem and Roger Spencer are part of a committee that’s held regular meetings with McPhee. This group’s objective has been to ensure WMOT’s survival and retain its unique character as a locally based entity playing fulltime mainstream jazz.

“There are three things WMOT is considering,” Mechem told me in an e-mail. “One would change the operation to satellite, with jazz at night (the syndicated Jazz with Bob Parlocha that currently airs weeknights from 9 p.m. – 6 a.m.)) and talk radio during the day. A second would have 12 hours of jazz and Bob Parlocha overnight. Both of those would operate with only four employees, and the station would be moved to the Mass. Comm. building (on campus), giving WMOT no room to grow.”

“The other consideration would have Nashville Public Radio (WPLN-FM 90.3) come in and take the financial burden off them (MTSU). The format would stay the same and some of the local shows would stay. MTSU could gauge the help from whatever they would feel comfortable. It would still stay the same more or less, but WPLN-FM would come in and help.”

“All of this has not been decided,” Mechem added. “It is only under consideration and there is still the possibility of them (the school) eliminating it all together or selling the license. Proposals are being evaluated for an April 6 decision.” That date is when McPhee will make further announcements about not only the station’s fate, but also other things on campus.

WMOT began in 1969 as an eclectic station playing pop and rock. But it switched to its present format in 1982, and is famous for its balance of contemporary and classic jazz programming in a hard bop/mainstream/swing mode rather than a “smooth” format.

Besides the Bob Parlocha show, it carries specialty and locally produced and presented shows from The Nashville Jazz Workshop, the Sunday afternoon staple Jazz On The Side hosted by drummer/historian Austin Bealmear from 12 noon – 1 p.m., The Brazilian Hour and others. There are also hourly updates from the Associated Press radio service. In addition, many Nashville and area jazz performers’ releases air in regular rotation alongside the music of legendary figures.

The station’s 100,000 watt signal, coupled with its Internet presence (wmot.org) and recent emergence as an HD station (on HD radio receivers) has expanded its audience greatly beyond Middle Tennessee, though it certainly has a sizable statewide and regional following. Many announcers like program director Greg Lee, news announcer and author/journalist Randy O’Brien and others have been with the station at least a decade.

“I started as a student and have been with them ever since,” Lee, the host of the weekday Morning Beat (6-9 a.m.) show. “There’s been a real outpouring of support from the local community ever since word first leaked out that the station might be in trouble. 2009 marks Lee’s 20th year on WMOT, and he jokes that “I came for a degree and found a calling.” WMOT will hold its spring fundraiser and also celebrate its 40th anniversary in April.

“A disturbing fact is that Americans are increasingly ignorant of their own cultural heritage,” Bealmear said in assessing why WMOT’s plight hasn’t gotten much traction or attention beyond jazz and blues fans in Nashville.

“Unlike most “American” art forms, jazz and blues are considered new creations of the unique American experience, and have had a major influence on culture around the world. Without these new sounds that came out of our Mississippi River Delta at the end of the 19th century, there would be no country & western, no rhythm & blues, no funk, no gospel, no soul music, no rock ‘n’ roll, no hip hop and no rap. This means that most of the music listened to be the current generation is the product of 300 years of history that started in just one place in the world.”

“Sadly, technology is giving kids the ability to narrow their interests instead of broadening them,” Bealmear added. “Schools and public radio are the last places this art form can be broadly accessed and studied. Regardless of what musical style currently sells the most records or is considered “proper” for education, all Americans should appreciate and honor the jazz music that belongs to us.”

“For Americans to study European classical music and not American jazz is to deny our own history. .Jazz history should be taught in all schools, its theory included in all music programs, its artists respected and supported, and it should always be heard live and on the air. It is our music, our art form, and our gift to the world.”

Funds from various rallies held last month on behalf of the station are still being collected and assessed. The local jazz community’s mood has shifted in recent days from complete pessimism to slight optimism, though doubts remain about WMOT’s future. But Mechem says the crisis has let jazz fans know they must get directly involved in not only helping save the station, but keeping it viable.

“All of us, and I include myself, were lax and kind of took WMOT for granted,” Mechem said. “We can’t do that anymore, because we now see what could happen. It would be a disaster for jazz if we lose WMOT.”

Anyone who wants to make a pledge of support to WMOT can do so either by traditional mail (WMOT, MTSU box 3, Murfreesboro, TN 37132), or online at wmot.org by downloading a conditional pledge form.

Fans who want to make their feelings known to McPhee and others at MTSU before April 6 can contact them directly (Room 0110, BLDG Cab, MTSU, Murfreesboro, TN, 37132) or go on the Nashville Jazz Workshop website (nashvillejazz.org) and click on to an email to McPhee.

There’s also a letter on the site from NJW co-director Roger Spencer with recommendations for saving WMOT, and a conditional pledge form of support for the station.

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Ron Wynn