Jazz Radio -- Blindfold Tests, Hostage-Holding, and Station Breaks: An Open Letter to Jazz Broadcasters

Jazz Radio -- Blindfold Tests, Hostage-Holding, and Station Breaks
An Open Letter to Jazz Broadcasters

by Charles Suhor

copyright © 2003 Charles Suhor

Several decades ago, innumerable pop and easy listening stations decided it was fashionable to play several tracks in a row without announcing the names of the songs and artists until the end of the set. The boast was "We play more uninterrupted music." That's okay for Top 40 tunes or music to chew gum by in an elevator or a supermarket. But unfortunately, it has become standard practice on many jazz radio programs.

The effect is not a trivial matter. Jazz fans are deprived of basic information. The name recognition of jazz musicians is diminished. The viability of record companies is threatened. This is especially true in the case of lesser known artists and small labels.

It's safe to say that many listeners, possibly most, hear jazz radio while driving or involved in activities at home that will often cause them to miss short announcements between long sets--and the jazz sets I've timed run from 12 to 25 minutes, sometimes longer. Surely, listeners often like a track that's played at the beginning or middle of a set and are ripe to buy the CD. But if they need to answer the phone, take a leak, keep an appointment, leave their house or car, etc., they miss the title of the selection, the name of the leader or group and sidemen/women, the label, and other follow-through information.

It's a big world of music and artists out there, so only the most ardent fans, critics, and musicians can regularly identify who they're hearing without the benefit of timely announcements. Jazz radio should not be a Blindfold Test. How much time and effort does it take, really, to make announcements after--or even before and after--each track?

With multi-track sets, listeners go away dumber and musicians wind up poorer. Let's face it, most jazz musicians need all the exposure they can get. It's not excessive to honor them by announcing who is on a track rather than stringing tracks together. With advance info, listeners could mull appropriately, e.g., "I've never heard that vocalist. I wonder how she'll handle 'Lush Life.'" The post-track announcements would catch those who tuned in after the start of the track and would let everyone hear what they need to know to buy the CD. "I didn't know that Columbia re-released that great session. I wore out my old LP of it in the '70s."

I'm not suggesting that audiences always want protracted analysis or biographical and historical information, although that certainly has a place in jazz radio. What listeners and musicians alike need and deserve, though, is the common courtesy of simple identification. Holding the most basic information hostage for another 15 or so minutes isn't hip, and it certainly isn't helpful if Joe Listener needs to go about other business before then.

So here are the questions for jazz broadcasters: Are there any good reasons for failing to tell us what we're hearing before and after each selection? Is the multi-track set mainly a convenience for deejays and engineers? Whatever the reasons for tardy identification, do they outweigh the informational benefits to the listener and the potential economic benefits to musicians that would result from simple disclosure?

Picture a common-sense world of jazz radio. In that world, the accumulated effect of better information delivered by hundreds of jazz broadcasters would certainly increase the pool of jazz fans' knowledge of the names of individual musicians, groups, and record labels. You love the music. As a broadcaster, what do you have to do that's better than ensuring that we know what we're listening to?

I can't conclude without saluting the jazz broadcasters who do give concise information, track-by-track. Yes, kudos and bouquets and oodles of free promotional CDs to you. But I believe that you're in the minority. As one who has traveled widely and heard jazz radio throughout the country, I'm frustrated by the prevailing practice, apparently unexamined, of treating songs and artists like station breaks.

Charles Suhor (e-mail him), author of Jazz In New Orleans - The Postwar Years (Scarecrow Press, 2001), is a former writer for Down Beat and others. He has taught jazz history at Auburn University, Montgomery, where he is a freelance percussionist and writer. This article was originally published in the June 2003 issue of Jazz Notes, quarterly journal the of Jazz Journalists Association.

C o m m e n t s

Track by Track Announcements? 1 of 33
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January 06, 04

As a musician and educator, part-time "jazz journalist,"** and former radio broadcaster, I think that we need to strike a balance here-- in a nutshell, the idea of announcing _each track_, both before and after each tune, with all of the attendant info (personnell, label, recording and release date, etc.) is absolutely preposterous and completely outrageous. Overkill to the Nth degree, extremely impractical, and probably annoying to almost all listeners beyond the pale of academia.

I always tried to program sets by musical mood, tempo, key, and style, the same way you would present them to listeners from the bandstand in a well-programmed set. This effect would be ruined by endless chatter before and after each tune.

That being said, I think that the underlying problem-- jazz radio starting to sound like pop radio, or worse, like satellite radio, is a real issue. Listeners want to be educated, and educated listeners want to know more about music they may not be familiar with. The answer lies in well-programmed sets that leave room for announcements before or after the set, or in some rare cases, both. One local NPR affiliate solves the problem of listeners asking about tune titles they missed by posting program set-lists on their web-site...


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