Local Jazz Radio Comes A Step Closer

Friday, 08 March 2013 10:10 AM Written by 

On June 30, 2011, KDKA's Paul Martino did a story on the final night of WDUQ-FM (90.5) as a news-jazz-NPR station before it switched to the news-NPR format of its new owners, Essential Public Media, a part of WYEP. The callsign subsequently changed to WESA-FM.   The video is embedded in this story.

Tuesday, Pittsburgh Public Media announced FCC approval of their purchase of the license for WVBC-FM, licensed to Bethany College in the West Virginia Panhandle, just over the line from Washington County. Bethany is putting their TV and radio operations totally on the Web and will retain the WVBC callsign.

PPM, founded in 2010 to purchase WDUQ, intended to retain the news-jazz-NPR mix. Duquesne University, DUQ's owner, chose to accept Essential's lower bid. PPM has apparently purchased the West Virginia station outright with community donations, a clear advantage from a standpoint of debt. 

Chuck Leavens, PPM President, is CEO of PubMusic, who runs the online Pittsburgh Jazz Channel and syndicates jazz programming to public stations around the country. In 1996, as WDUQ's head of Engineering and IT, he helped set up the very similar JazzWorks music syndication service now run by WESA.

PPM will need such tech savvy to expand the station's regional coverage. PPM has been transparent about the fact 88.1 barely reaches parts of the South Hills, and that is by design. The frequency is used by a Murrysville religious station. FCC is understandably strict about enforcing non-interference.

Other options exist to boost the signal in the region. One involves remote "translators" rebroadcasting on FCC-approved frequencies to extend the range. DUQ built, and WESA retains, four translators in the Laurel Highlands east of Pittsburgh for that purpose. In an article in the new issue of the pubic radio magazine Current about the WVBC sale, Leavens hints at other possibilities.

So what about programming? PPM's website FAQs indicate (at the bottom of the page) that Pittsburgh Jazz Channel programming heard online will initially be heard on the air as plans proceed to phase in live local shows. 

All this is good for the region's culture, and that's no slam at other regional college stations providing jazz. DUQ was itself a college station. WESA's 24/7 jazz on High Definition has limited appeal at best. They offer a mere four hours of Saturday night jazz on 90.5 following the beloved Big Band show "Rhythm Sweet and Hot," far less than old DUQ hands would prefer.

There's an even larger issue here, however. After nearly two years, bitterness remains over the DUQ-WESA format change. In 2010-2011, some who orchestrated and supported that change dismissed jazz fans anxious to retain the existing blend in condescending, arrogant public comments, letters and op-eds that reeked of elitism. That inflammatory rhetoric provoked pro-jazz factions to respond in kind, leveling vituperative insults at the other side.

Personally, I felt and still feel that WYEP officials and executives, despite owning a music station, were absolutely no help. Their high-handed cluelessness and patronizing responses to community concerns about the changes cost WESA enormous amounts of goodwill when they needed it the most. The result: jazz-minded listeners (and their donor dollars) walked away in utter disgust. 

To be fair, it isn't only Pittsburgh. The situation repeated itself last summer in Boston when WGBH-FM boosted news and NPR programming at the expense of a large chunk of their admired jazz programming. Reflecting an ivory-tower mentality and hubris quite similar to that of the YEP folks, WGBH disingenuously referred to the change as "a new focus on jazz." The result: a similar and justifiable public backlash. 

A new Pittsburgh jazz station could be a first step in ending this Cold War for good.  In a region that spawned generations of world-renowned jazz talent and boasts a strong, reslilient jazz community, an accessible in-depth jazz radio presence could amply satisfy that audience. That would allow WESA, deeply committed to delivering news and NPR, to focus more intensely on those areas and go far toward healing a very deep, acrimonious rift.






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