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NPR Swings Ax at Jazz?

Up against popular news and entertainment programs, jazz programs at National Public Radio just aren’t cutting the mustard. NPR attracts an audience of over 15 million each week via 620 public stations, the Internet, NPR Worldwide and the American Forces Network. In a recent survey for station managers, NPR jazz programs, like Billy Taylor’s Jazz at Kennedy Center and Jazz from Lincoln Center received “the lowest value.” Conversely, NPR’s news programs, such as All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and entertainment programs, such as Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, received the highest marks. Because of the poor reception jazz and classical shows have received, considerations are being made to overhaul or eliminate some of them.

NPR’s Senior Vice President of Programming Jay Kernis (pictured left) revealed the results of this survey in an internal paper circulated at NPR and published by the Washington Post. One of the problems, and a source of internal frustration at NPR, writes Kernis, is that “Many [public] stations, including major markets, use NPR [jazz] programming to fill holes in their program schedules, not as featured shows.”

News and talk shows also attract considerably larger donations during pledge drives. “NPR’s [jazz] programming has generally not been successful in terms of audience and financial performance,” writes Kernis. “[NPR] cannot sell out to popular culture, but we must recognize that something has [been] embraced by millions. NPR will develop radio services that concentrate on fewer, more valuable programs [that] warrant placement at prime times in the larger markets.”

The winds of change, though, don’t seem to be going over well in the trenches at NPR. “The talk here is that at the end of this we’ll end up abrogating NPR’s mandate to serve stations and listeners that aren’t being served by commercial radio,” said one unidentified employee to the Post.

Kernis’ strategy could fundamentally alter the way music is broadcast at the network. NPR is delving into a plan that would broadcast a perpetual “stream” of jazz programming, including live shows and interviews, that affiliate stations could tap into at will. For the time being, however, no changes have been made, but the clock is ticking. In six months’ time, things may be drastically different.

Originally Published