by Paul Baker
Programming Jazz Radio
from Jazz Notes 7/2 1995Copyright © 1995, Paul Baker
While in college in the mid-1970s, I was a jazz music radio programmer. I took inspiration not only from the music but also from Harry Abraham's show "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Broadcast over the clear channel WHAM 1180 AM from Rochester, NY, Abraham's show signed on at midnight and ran till 5 a.m. He featured new releases and spanned all conceivable styles. I'd listen to Harry driving home from doing my show during the wee hours.
Impressed by Abraham's catholic taste and imaginative programming, I wrote a fan letter, and he responded thoughtfully.
Not long after, WHAM went to a country music format and Harry's show was ditched. I don't know what happened to Harry, but his letter to me included some good ideas. Even though it was written in 1976 or `77, his letter is still current:
There are three things that are most important to a jazz broadcaster (all statements should be assumed to be preceded by the qualifier: "In my opinion"). In order, they are the audience, the artists, yourself.
1. The audience: Forget, for the moment, all the people who are jazz buffs, for they will listen as long as you don't offend them. Who else might be listening? What can you play to keep them tuned, get them back next time, and recommend you to their friends? In other words, Harry Abraham, doing a five-hour show on your station, would do a program structured entirely differently with some different music, because the audience would be different. WHAM is commercial radio and even though I'm outside of the norm of their broadcasting, I wouldn't be here if I offended their regular listeners. Without playing commercial music, I manage to garner 50 per cent shares with 6 to 8 stations in the market on all night. (That does not take into account people like yourself, out of the area.) Find another jazz program in the last 25 years of broadcasting with that kind of support.
The closest that you will come to hearing commercial music is at the very beginning and very end of the program. These are transition periods, when that "other" audience is at its peak. The closest to avant-garde will come between 2:30 and 4:00 a.m. because "they" are minimal at those times. (I assume that you were kidding to include Miles Davis as "avant-garde" - Miles has more in common with Donny Osmond than he does with Anthony Braxton. Miles, at his best [which means prior to his current rock- n-roll stage] was in front of the mainstream, but never avant-garde.)
2. The artists. These cats don't get a lot of exposure so I feel that one of the burdens of being a jazz broadcaster is to try to give as much exposure as possible to the cats that need it the most. I can put together five hours of good music without Herbie Mann, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea (recent guitar-rock stuff), Mahavishnu, Weather Report, George Duke, Ponty, etc. Also without repeating an artist (as leader) and still get enough variety in.
I lean toward the current releases because those are the ones that most benefit the artist and are most representative of where he is at this moment. If I know Miles is coming to town and I play Kind of Blue ,someone who is unfamiliar with his present garbage is going to be pissed. Kind of Blue , is great music but it bears as much relevance to 1975 as the tooth fairy. I play it because it is good music, but aren't I better off playing Woody Shaw? Who needs the exposure more?
3. Yourself. Play something you dislike intensely and you'll lose your entire audience. If they don't believe that you like it, they can't justify listening to it, either. So it's up to you to broaden your tastes as widely as possible. There is no artist whose records I've received that haven't had some exposure on my program. But some artists require a lot more digging to come up with something decent. And sometimes, quite unexpectedly, you find your own tastes turning around.