The August Wilson Center, Foundations & Local Jazz Radio

Thursday, 14 August 2014 02:11 PM Written by 

This past Monday, Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant offered a strongly worded op-ed regarding the future of the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture. With lofty, pie-in-the sky rhetoric, he articulated the views of the three foundations, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and local politicians supporting them.  The need to celebrate the region's African-American culture is certainly a given.  But let's set that aside for just a moment.

Take a trip down Memory Lane to January 2010, when Duquesne University announced their intent to sell WDUQ-FM (now WESA), their much-admired public radio station with its long-running, popular blend of news, jazz and NPR. Bent on preserving that format, DUQ employees quickly formed the nonprofit entity Pittsburgh Public Media to purchase the station.

By spring of 2010, a clique consisting of—guess who--the Pittsburgh Foundation Oliphant then headed, the Heinz Endowments he now oversees and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, aided by a few local culture vultures, expressed interest in supporting a purchase, having already decided among themselves the station had greater community value with a news-NPR format.

That May, Oliphant, who offered most of the public comment on behalf of that effort, told, an online public radio newsletter, that while DUQ's news-jazz-NPR format outperformed other local public stations, "that should not be our standard." PPM soon had competition: Essential Public Media (EPM), a foundation-backed entity spearheaded by Pittsburgh's WYEP-FM.

As the local jazz community voiced concern at losing the region's only high-profile jazz radio outlet, Oliphant dutifully solicited public input on the Pittsburgh Foundation's website, where commenters expressed overwhelming support for a jazz presence. Nonetheless, a 2011 Pittsburgh City Paper story noted that Oliphant previously expressed uncertainty whether jazz "was the best use of philanthropic dollars."

Duquesne chose EPM's low bid of $ 6 million over PPM's $ 6.5 million offer in January, 2011.  Amid a flurry of smug self-congratulation, DUQ's new owners (whose flagship station's motto is "Where The Music Matters") paid jazz perfunctory lip service, then spurned pleas from jazz aficionados to offer a continuing, if reduced, daily jazz schedule on 90.5.

Instead, a six-hour Saturday night "jazz block" on 90.5 and DUQ's syndicated, 24/7 JazzWorks programming was made available online and on a digital channel requiring a special HD receiver, a radio format that has yet to catch on. EPM and backers tried to spin it as a win-win; local jazz fans were not impressed, then or today.  Certain parties actively advocating the format change ratcheted up the rancor by voicing mocking contempt for concerned jazz aficionados.

Now, brimming with righteous indignation, these same three foundations, accustomed to getting their way no matter what, prepare for court battles to defend any real or perceived attempt to undercut the August Wilson Center's stated purpose: celebrating the region's African-American culture, past mismanagement, business realities, taxpayers, banks and good old-fashioned common sense be damned. Why? Because they say so.

Three years ago, a nearly identical alliance arbitrarily decided—actually, decreed--that jazz, one of the ultimate manifestations of the African-American culture they claim to care about, no longer merited a prominent, easily accessible outlet on Pittsburgh radio, despite the generations of world-class African-American jazz innovators born and raised in this region. Why? Because they said so.

Reflecting on that earlier controversy, I was reminded of a scene in Elia Kazan's 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd," starring Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, an unsavory Southern drifter turned populist network TV sensation. The wealthy and powerful courted him, certain Lonesome's vast grassroots appeal could advance their ultra-conservative agendas. Elderly, reactionary General Haynesworth, whose company sponsored Lonesome's TV shows, told him, "In every strong and healthy society, from the Egyptians on, the mass(es) have to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite."

Certain factions of Pittsburgh's "responsible elite," namely these three Foundations and their allies, opt to define local culture worth saving as whatever they decide it is at a given moment. To paraphrase a line in Oliphant's op-ed, such self righteous moralism—and hypocrisy--is staggering.


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