Jazz Gets A Boost
The audience is declining, funding is a struggle, and the station's own staffers are at odds over whether to play more music or focus on news and public affairs. So when Bobby Hill set out to create a new schedule for WPFW (89.3 FM), he knew his every move would be scrutinized.
The demise of smooth jazz WJZW (105.9 FM), which last month switched to an oldies format in February, left WPFW as the only on-air source of jazz in the Washington area, and the 31-year-old listener-supported station has had a decade-long internal dispute about just how much of its airtime should be devoted to that music.
The other four stations in the Pacifica Radio group of non-commercial stations -- located in New York, Berkeley, Calif., Houston and Los Angeles -- focus much more heavily on public affairs and news from a left-wing perspective, but WPFW was created with the intention of being primarily a jazz station, and Hill is now nudging the station back in that direction.
By cutting a reggae show and a world music show -- while adding two more hours of jazz a day to boost the total to 15 hours on weekdays -- Hill has put down his marker. "Jazz is our mission," he says. Even as WPFW's audience has slipped from 240,000 listeners in 2000 to 186,000 this year, and even as listener donations missed the $500,000 goal by about $50,000 in the most recent fund drive, he believes the station is moving to capture a new generation of listeners, taking aim at the young people who are forsaking traditional radio to explore music through Internet radio and music-sharing sites.
Hill had moonlighted as a volunteer, late-night jazz deejay DJ at the station since 1983 before taking on program director duties last year, when he retired from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.oration after 28 years there. Now he's put into place WPFW's first new schedule since 1994, adding two hours a night of avant-garde jazz (11 p.m. to 1 a.m.), slipping in a short comedy bit every afternoon at 2:30, and shifting the station's Latin and world music shows from weeknights to Saturday and Sunday nights.
But how much of an impact can a schedule of sounds not heard elsewhere on the FM band have in a media environment in which every possible manner of music is available somewhere online?
"People feel less a part of the programming than they once did," Hill says. "There are just a lot more choices now. The bulk of our listeners are in the 35-55 [age] range, but we live in a hip-hop world now and we want to reach out to the next generation."
A nightly hour of hip-hop will now lead into a two-hour set of cutting-edge jazz, and Hill is asking deejays DJs on those shows -- the station's staff is almost entirely composed of volunteers -- to lead listeners from one form of music to the other by highlighting pieces that demonstrate the connections between hip-hop and jazz, or, on Sundays, between jazz and Latin music.
Hill wants to engage Washington area listeners in a way that connects the station to the local music and political scenes. Radio's advantage over the Web is geographic -- nowhere else can a local audience turn both to find out where to hear live performances and to then hear knowledgeable deejays DJs guide listeners through that artist's music. Similarly, Hill is pushing WPFW's public affairs show toward a more local emphasis, both in the voices heard on the station and the issues given airtime.
By shifting some weekly programs to an every-other-week schedule, Hill is adding a slew of new DJs and talk hosts. He's adding a local arts talk show, programs for and about ex-offenders, parents, poets, and gays, and a weekly hour focusing on local news. He also intends to boost the number of live music performances and poetry readings on the station.
"Change is tough," Hill says. "But most of our programming is not changing." And some is reverting to sounds Washington jazz fans lost when the area's only full-time jazz outlet, WDCU (90.1 FM), was sold off to C-SPAN in 1997. Four of that jazz station's deejays DJs migrated to WPFW, and now, another of Jazz 90's most popular voices, Tim Masters, is returning, taking on a Friday morning air shift.
Hill isn't certain that his efforts will guarantee that a new generation of jazz fans rises in Washington, but he does know this: Without a consistent presence of the music on the radio, the local jazz scene in clubs and concert halls will begin to wither away.
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