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Stubborn Isolationist—Jazz on the Radio

Why do jazz stations avoid year-end countdown shows?

Why can’t jazz broadcasters program year-end specials that showcase new releases from the previous 12 months? Such a retrospective offers a useful overview and a public service. It reminds me of the music I liked, it alerts me to the music I missed, and it provides a number of releases I regularly place onto my “Must Buy” list.

As a devoted follower of radio charts, late December is my busy time. I record year-end specials on music forms that interest me. Between the FM dial and my XM Radio, I collect quite a number of countdowns and overviews. From alternative to pop to country to R&B to metal to folk-none of these genres miss an opportunity to present their previous year’s finest recordings and brightest moments.

So why not Jazz? As independent jazz radio stations are an increasing anomaly in U.S. broadcasting, I use SiriusXM as my primary object of dismay here. If SiriusXM’s Real Jazz station would offer such a year-end wrapup, it would help the current crop of talent that is struggling to be heard and to make a living in music.

Perhaps Real Jazz does not offer a year-end overview because they do not have a weekly program that showcases new releases. Scroll down the program descriptions on the Real Jazz site: “roots of jazz,” “jazz from the early 20th century,” “traditional New Orleans jazz.” OK, but couldn’t a current release show fit into the format? SiriusXM’s Watercolors channel is the only other satellite radio station that plays currently released jazz recordings, but these are all focused on the Smooth Jazz format, a topic discussed in these Jazz Times pages last year by several regular contributors.

John Coltrane’s importance to jazz is undisputed. But when there are three separate references to the man on the Real Jazz programming page, it’s clear that airtime for recordings by newer artists such as Brad Mehldau and Jenny Scheinman will be taking a back seat to music from the legends.

God Bless the Real Jazz station for recording and airing live concerts. However, these usually feature either the staid Jazz at Lincoln Center setting or are from San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which again focuses upon “traditional jazz from the early 20th century.” Nowhere is there a live program in the style of National Public Radio’s long abandoned Jazz Alive series, which programmed weekly live sets by veteran well-knowns and virtual unknowns side-by-side each week. And these were true field recordings, taped at normal, often low profile gigs across the country.

Jazz is certainly not the only radio format to eschew annual reviews. I once asked the program director of SiriusXM’s Bluesville why they did not have a year-end countdown. He told me that too many people would get angry at such an evaluative chart listing. And besides, the blues are above such trivial things as countdowns. When I pointed out that his station’s weekly Rack of Blues program was exactly the type of countdown he was disparaging, I received no reply. Similarly, I recently asked the program director of Real Jazz about my concerns regarding a year-end overview but have yet to hear back.

Let me suggest that SiriusXM’s Real Jazz station open its schedule to a focused, 2-hour program each week dedicated to artists who are making inroads on industry charts, whether it be Billboard Magazine or any other recognized industry standard. (I am available to host, by the way.) I also envision a weekly program focusing on unsigned jazz artists. But one step at a time.

Originally Published