AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
What would Pittsburgh sound like without jazz on the radio?
"It shoots a hole in the soul of Pittsburgh," said local jazz musician Nelson Harrison. "You knock WDUQ off and we have nothing."
Pittsburgh has given the world more than its fair share of jazz talent over the years -- Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal and too many others to name. For a city of its size, it has maintained a solid local jazz scene over the years, along with a jazz station -- something many places don't have.
Now the pending sale of Duquesne University station WDUQ-FM raises the question of how much jazz will be part of the new format, or whether it will be part of it at all.
Two Facebook pages have launched in the past weeks -- Save Our WDUQ and Keep Jazz on Pittsburgh Radio -- as lobbying efforts to keep jazz intensify across the region.
While myriad options exist today to hear jazz over the airwaves -- on Sirius-XM Satellite radio or streamed over the Internet -- only local jazz programming can support and promote musicians, live jazz and nonprofit jazz organizations across the city, supporters say.
"Jazz is a part of Pittsburgh's heritage," said Shirley Tucker of Oakland, a WDUQ sustaining member who said she won't continue her support if the current mix of news and jazz doesn't continue.
"Along with New Orleans and Chicago, it's the birthplace of jazz," she said, adding that she values having local hosts "who know what they're talking about and have insight into what they're playing."
Duquesne University board of directors in January announced that they had agreed to sell the license to Essential Public Media, a joint venture of WYEP-FM (91.3) and Colorado-based Public Radio Co., a nonprofit formed by Public Radio Capital.
The prospective buyers are poised to preserve the 90.5 frequency as a public radio station and have expressed a strong commitment to sustaining news and information in the tradition of WDUQ's current National Public Radio and local news coverage. But they have yet to give specifics on jazz programming.
"We plan to continue jazz" on the new station, WYEP board president Marco Cardamone said last week. The buyers are raising funds to put together the $6 million sale price, along with other required processes related to the sale. This phase of the deal is expected to be completed by mid-April.
Once the prospective owners send to the Federal Communications Commission their application to purchase the license, the FCC will set a 30-day period to accept comments from the public before ruling on the license transfer.
Keeping jazz on the new station could mean many things. It could be a weekend jazz show instead of the current daily schedule. It could mean turning to alternatives to mainstream broadcasting -- like online streams or HD radio.
But many local jazz fans fear the current amount of local jazz programming won't be preserved.
Audiences for news and jazz on WDUQ are evenly divided, leaning a little heavier toward the news programming, according to station ratings.
During the latest pledge drive last month, about 40 percent of the pledges came in during weekday news programming, while weekday jazz programming netted 20 percent, said Duquesne University assistant vice president for public affairs Bridget Fare. That pattern is consistent with past pledge drives.
The money pledged for jazz programming helps to fund expensive syndicated public radio news and information programming like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." The station spends about 70 percent of its programming budget on news and around 20 percent on jazz.
WDUQ also produces the syndicated JazzWorks programming, which features WDUQ jazz hosts and is carried on around 60 stations.
Nationally, jazz on public radio is losing ground to news formats, according to a December 2010 NPR survey of 500 public stations.
In 2006, public stations that carried jazz programming devoted an average of 13 percent of their weekly hours to it. In 2010, that had shrunk to 11 percent of weekly hours. Classical music on public stations across the country also saw a decline: 27 percent of weekly hours in 2006, down to 24 percent in 2010. News and information programming showed a 2 percent increase in the same four-year period.
Supporters say a local radio jazz presence has a direct impact on the viability of the city's live jazz scene, which has steadily eroded over the past decades.
Mr. Harrison, who also is a composer, teacher and clinical psychologist, remembers when there were scores of crowded clubs to play in, and radio hosts, including late jazz pianist Walt Harper on the former WHOD. Mr. Harper gave listeners rich background on what they were playing -- band personnel, history and context.
"It was on the airwaves. It was in the air. It was coming out of every door," Mr. Harrison said. "Now we've boiled it down to one radio station. If you take that away, you have nothing."
Except for a handful of clubs such as C.J.'s in the Strip and Ava Lounge in East Liberty, and presenting organizations such as the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, there's little live jazz left, he said.
The local jazz scene experienced a major blow in February 2003 when Mellon Financial Corp. withdrew its support for the Mellon Jazz Festival, an annual event in June that began as the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964.
WDUQ evening jazz host Tony Mowod has been hosting jazz shows on the local airwaves for more than two decades -- most of them at WDUQ. He founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Society in 1987, which is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of jazz through education, performance and community outreach.
"There has to be some place here in Pittsburgh where jazz can be heard," Mr. Mowod said. "Once jazz [on the radio] is removed from a city, it will never come back."
Many listeners are frustrated by the lack of information about the future plans for the station and question why Duquesne University went with a lower bid than the one offered by a group of station employees and supporters who wanted to keep the current format intact.
"Listeners are always told during the pledge drive that it's our station," said Mary Barr of Highland Park. "Then all of a sudden it's not ours at all."
She and S.J. Antonucci of the South Side started the Save Our WDUQ Facebook page, which has more than 340 followers.
"My hope is that the new owners hear what we are saying and consider what stands to be lost. WDUQ has won the loyalty of its listeners because of the jazz and the employees -- they're the heart of the station."