Roundtable: The Future of Jazz Radio
ED GORDON, host:
This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
It's getting hard to hear jazz music on the radio, and virtually all of the programming you can hear is on non-commercial radio. What does the shrinking supply of jazz on the radio mean for listeners and the music itself?
Today on a special Roundtable, reporter Tony Cox tackles that question with some help from experts. Suzan Jenkins, president of Jazz Alliance International, an industry group. Tom Thomas, president of the public radio research firm Station Research Group. And Don Heckman, jazz critic of the Los Angeles Times.
TONY COX reporting:
Let's start with this - and I'm going to ask you, Don, because you're sitting right here. Is jazz radio in a crisis?
Mr. DON HECKMAN (Jazz Critic, Los Angeles Times): Well, I think jazz in general is in a kind of crisis. And in that sense, radio is inevitably going to reflect that fact. There's a diminishing audience, there's an aging audience, and we do not have a major iconic figure right now. I mean, jazz has always had its Charlie Parkers, Duke Ellingtons, Count Basies. You know, you go down the list. You knew who they are.
We kind of don't have a figure like that now, aside from maybe Wynton Marsalis who is more of a business figure, I suppose, in a way, in that he's making a lot of things happen. But we don't have a figure who influences and makes us want to listen.
I was talking to George Wein at one point, who's the great producer of jazz festivals. And he said, you know, in the 1950s when I produced a festival, he said, I could have Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Stan Getz - go down the list. He said when I do one now, who do I have who is going to be a single major draw?
So I think the same thing applies to radio. You know, what does radio play that's going to get the numbers crunching to the point where you have an audience?
COX: Talking about numbers, Tom, that's your area. What about it? What does the demographic research say about jazz radio?
Mr. TOM THOMAS (President, Station Resource Group): Well, we have two things that are going on that are important to sort out. Stations that really commit themselves to jazz programming - do it day-in, day-out, across the week and throughout the year - actually are in pretty stable and, in fact, improving financial shape. But that's only about 20, 25 stations these days. It's not a huge number of public radio stations across the country.
Where we see things in play at the margin is the many public radio stations that, over the years, have done lots of different kinds of things in their programming - a little news, a little jazz, a little classical music. And many of them are in the process of sorting out what they want to present - what they're doing best, what they think their future might be.
And there, jazz is taking some hits as stations remove some of the evening hours, say, of a jazz program that maybe has been an institution for a number of years and replaced that with news or classical music or other program choices that they believe are stronger in their repertoire.
COX: So, Susan, what can be done about it? Or what is being done to sort of fight back, so to speak?
Ms. SUZAN JENKINS (President, Jazz Alliance International): Well, I think that first of all, we have to take a broad view of the music and understand that, well, while during the heyday of jazz at Newport - when we're talking about Ella and Miles and Coltrane - that was then, but this is now. We have to look at the fact that the times have changed -that there is a new group of very talented young jazz musicians out there who are playing the music, and are doing it by incorporating old and new repertoire.
And I think that in order to really expand the audience for jazz, we're going to have to expand our horizons as well. What I mean is no more narrow casting. We've got to look at the fact that popular music today -just as it did during the heyday of jazz, as people like to say -incorporated popular music.
While I think that there's a lot of purists out there who think that music may have ended when Dizzy Gillespie stopped playing or when Coltrane left the planet, I think that there's a lot of great music out there and we've got to be able to offer that. But we've got to stop putting it in places where only the jazziest of the jazzers can hear it. If we want people to go out and hear new music, we've got to offer it to them. We've got to put it in formats so that people can listen to it and have an opportunity to sample the music.
COX: Well, that's kind of interesting, Don, what's she saying. There are a number of points, but the first one I want you to respond to is this -because she talked about narrow casting and having to tweak formats in order to get the music - sort of to sneak it in so to speak - with something perhaps more contemporary.
What comes to my mind as a result of that - and some people like it, some don't - is smooth jazz. I mean, this is where it seems to have gone.
Mr. HECKMAN: Smooth jazz seems to have reached its peak and gone beyond it. The problem that I see with this approach is that you don't - the net result doesn't seem to be that it pleases anyone. It doesn't please the people who want to hear more contemporary, pop-oriented material, and I don't think it really pleases the people who want to hear more pure jazz.
The time when popular music and jazz were in synch ended, I think, probably roughly around 1960 when we began to have free jazz - when Nat Coleman, John Coltrane moved into his later period and so forth. Up until that point, there was a kind of - the line of what people who wanted to hear pop music were receptive to was pretty much in synch with what was happening with jazz. Bebop, of course, did tend to skew it a little bit more away from the popular audience.
But since that point, there has been a marked difference between what popular audiences want to hear and what jazz musicians do. And I don't think that adding a turntable player or a hip-hop or a rap artist or anything like that is necessarily going to open it up to other listeners.
And narrow casting, broadcasting - I'm not sure whether either of those has the answer so much as just trying to find a wider audience and stay true to what jazz is, which is an improvisational art that swings.
COX: Well, Tom, the numbers show, don't they, that those stations around the country that - even though you've mentioned this partly in your previous answers - those stations that stick with the so-called pure jazz format have lost audience and can't compete with the smooth jazz or rap or contemporary or hip-hop or any other format, can they?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I don't think that's really an appropriate characterization of the numbers. What we see when we look across over the last six or seven years has been a very stable performance. In any given year, up a couple of percentage points, then down a couple percentage points - but very stable. Not unlike jazz's colleagues on the musical side of public radio - the classical music stations. Very similar.
Now, it's nowhere near what we've seen on the new side of public radio, where in the last few years there's been a spectacular explosion in the amount of listening to news information. But we're in an intensely news-driven time surrounded by all kinds of events that people are trying to figure out and turning to public radio to find some answers.
And so maybe in the shadow of that, those inside the field look at it and say, well, what's jazz doing compared to this huge growth that we see for news and information programming? But across the years, the levels of listening - as I say, up or down a percentage point or two from year-to-year - to those stations that really commit themselves to a consistent delivery of jazz programming has been a very stable, mature level of service.
COX: Well, let me follow up with this before I bring Suzan back in. How do you explain if that's the case - and I certainly don't question your numbers, because you're the numbers expert. And yet at the same time, a station like WBEZ in Chicago or even here in Los Angeles with KKJZ, which is now threatened as we understand it to be moving away from its all jazz/contemporary-type format - how is it that these stations, if it is a successful format, are going elsewhere?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, let's sort out two very different things that are going on in Chicago and in Los Angeles in this regard. The station you mentioned in Chicago, WBEZ, is principally a news station. Less that 10 percent of the listening to WBEZ is jazz, mostly as a program service they provide late in the evening and overnight. WBEZ is first and foremost a news and information station. And they're an example of someone who says 80-85 percent of what we're doing right now already is news and information, that's where we want to take our service forward. And I think they're doing some very bold things on the news and information side.
That's very different from KKJZ, which has historically been a jazz and blues station, morning to night, all through the night and across the week. And there what's going on is the licensee - the folks who actually own the license for the station - after years of this service, are taking a look around and saying, can we do something better? And it's as much a financial proposition for the university, saying can we come up with some funds to address other priorities we have here in a better way than what the radio station is delivering?
I don't know that they're going to come up with a better answer. KKJZ has been - you know, it's had its ups and downs, like a lot of stations and a couple of bad news stories of late. But the dust settled on that one yet, and I wouldn't give up on jazz in Los Angeles or on KKJZ.
COX: Let me ask you Suzan, because I have a teenage son who's in college who grew up in a household with John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Art Blakey, and the list goes on and on. And yet, he's just not into that at all. And so, for that generation of young 20-somethings - are you reaching them, do you think? And if not, how can you?
Ms. JENKINS: Well, one of the things that we've done is we've built this Web site called gotjazz.info. And the Web site is a tool to bridge the gap between what kids are listening to today - what people are listening to today - and more traditional jazz. It gives you an opportunity to listen to Robert Glasper and hear his influences, just as well as it gives you an opportunity to hear Roy Hargrove's RH Factor or even some other musicians like Soweto Kinch, others who are doing - making music, and are - have one foot in popular music, hip- hop, rap, R&B, and the other in a more improvised setting.
COX: Let me ask…
Ms. JENKINS: I wanted to just go back for a moment, though, and address Don's concern or comments - and just to say that I'm not advocating that we abandon straight jazz formats, straight ahead traditional jazz formats for a mixed format or vice versa. I think that we need both. I think that the only way that people can learn about new things is to have it interjected every now and then into formats that they're already listening to. And then for those jazzers who love jazz and want to hear about jazz, give them an opportunity to do that, too.
COX: Five years hence, five years from now, will we be able to turn on the radio and hear the kind of jazz music that we like?
Mr. HECKMAN: I think we will, as long as somebody starts producing some - I hate to use the word - hits. Historically, jazz has reached out to audiences - I hate to say it - when they've had some hits.
If you look back, Ellis Marsalis said this to me one time. He said, if you look back at all the major jazz figures, they have all had some kind of a breakthrough song hit of some sort that crosses over to the pop audience that brings them some visibility and recognition.
This hasn't happened with the Roy Hargroves and the younger players. As good as they are, as articulate, as virtuosic as they are with their technique, they have not reached out to the audience. And I think that's a problem.
COX: Suzan, five years from now, am I going to be able to turn on my radio and hear the music I like?
Ms. JENKINS: Yes, for certain. But I don't think that it's about the music as much as it is about getting creative with the business structure that will support jazz on radio. I would hate to blame the creators for the fact that we're not getting the music that we like right now. I would like to say we have to get a lot more creative about the way we offer music to the public.
COX: Five years…
Ms. JENKINS: There's no dearth of great music.
COX: Tom, five years later, will stations play this music?
Mr. THOMAS: Absolutely. You're going to have jazz on your radio coming from broadcast stations. You're going to have jazz on your radio coming from satellite channels. You're going to have jazz on your radio that got there from ways that we don't even know how it's going to get there today.
As long as the people that are presenting jazz remember to keep attention on the joy, the pleasure, the emotion that's at the heart of why people enjoy the music in the first place, and knit that together with the attention to the history and the integrity and the knowledge that all of us also feel is so important to share.
COX: Now, you said earlier that some stations that are playing jazz had stabilized themselves in the view of the fact that other stations were tinkering with their formats. But, as a format, is jazz actually shrinking over a longer haul?
Mr. THOMAS: I think all jazz stations have a secure place on the public radio spectrum. And with the advent of digital radio broadcasting -which gives stations additional channels - I think we will see actually more stations offering a jazz service side-by-side with whatever they're doing today.
COX: So, to sort of boil this down, from the days when jazz was 24 hours a day like the old KABC, KBCA here in Los Angeles - which is now a classical station - those who want to hear jazz from a contemporary standpoint will have to find it as a program, perhaps, during part of a multi-formatted day. Is that right?
Mr. THOMAS: I actually don't think so. I think it's going to go the other way. I think the isolated programs that I grew up with in St. Louis - the guy on Saturday night doing the jazz show on a station that most of the time was something else - those I think are where it's in endangered. What I think the future is going to be is a couple of dozen radio stations - mostly in major markets - a couple of satellite channels and a variety of Internet streaming services that'll deliver jazz 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365.
COX: I'm going to give you the last word, Suzan. As we look at sort of the health of jazz music as it relates to being played over the radio -over terrestrial radio - do you think that there's a place where it can maintain itself in terrestrial radio, or will it have to go to satellite pay radio in order to survive?
Ms. JENKINS: I think that there is a place for it in terrestrial radio, but I think that programming offerings are going to have to be creative and are going to have to be in synch with today's lifestyles.
I think that people are getting the new media in many, many different ways, and I think that terrestrial radio is going to have to pay attention to that in order to be competitive. I think it's important to note that there is jazz music being offered in all kinds of places. I mean, we hear it on television with a Martha Stewart offering in the fourth quarter during the holiday season. We hear John Coltrane playing Favorite Things. We hear jazz music everywhere. I think that it is part of American culture, and in order for people to be able to grab hold to it, it has to be offered to them. And I think that all we need is some real creative business behind the way it's offered, and think it'll be there for all listeners.
COX: Martha Stewart and John Coltrane. Now that's a creative combination if I ever…
Ms. JENKINS: Imagine that.
COX: …if I ever heard one. Thank all of you for being with us.
Ms. JENKINS: Thank you.
Mr. THOMAS: Thanks a lot.
Mr. HECKMAN: Good to be here.
GORDON: That was reporter Tony Cox speaking with Suzan Jenkins, president of Jazz Alliance International, an industry group - Tom Thomas, president of Station Resource Group, a public radio research firm based in Tacoma Park, Maryland - and Don Heckman, jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times.
(Soundbite of music)
GORDON: Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams and his panel of Washington experts dissect the poll results from two important primaries. And a new author gets to the historical roots of black women in prison in the City of Brotherly Love.
(Soundbite of music)
GORDON: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.