Hitting the High Notes

In the shrinking world of jazz radio, WBGO is not just a survivor but a national leader.

New York City may be the center of the jazz world, but the radio beacon that its president calls “the only full-time jazz station in the jazz center of the universe” is located on this side of the river, in Newark, thank you very much. And at a time when New Jersey newspapers are suffering and our public TV network is in jeopardy, WBGO-FM—New Jersey’s first public radio station—is standing tall. In fact, it’s about to stand even taller.

A $3 million fundraising drive is expected to culminate later this year with the relocation of the station’s transmitter from the top of a 428-foot-tall building in downtown Newark to a building of twice that height in Manhattan, 4 Times Square. WBGO president Cephas Bowles, who took over the station 18 years ago and has since seen its membership and budget more than double, expects the relocated equipment to make WBGO’s commercial-free, around-the-clock jazz programming available to an additional 1 million listeners in the tri-state area and shore up weak reception in Bergen County and parts of Hudson County. “The signal’s not going to go farther,” Bowles clarifies, “it’s just going to be more concentrated across the current footprint.”

While jazz as a radio format is disappearing elsewhere, WBGO is doubling its content. In April, the station will launch a second channel devoted exclusively to young and emerging artists. “In the space the FCC has allocated for our frequency, we can actually put two signals,” Bowles explains. The station had been broadcasting the same content on its analog and digital signals, but now listeners with HD radios will be able to choose between regular WBGO and the new digital stream; both will also be available online at wbgo.org.

According to Scott Hanley, general manager of Pittsburgh jazz station WDUQ and a member of the Jazz Radio Consortium, there are only about 30 full-time jazz stations left in the country, down from about 40 when the group began meeting 15 years ago. “There were probably 100 stations or more that did substantial amounts of jazz,” he adds, “and now it may be one hour a week or two hours a week on 20 or 30 of those stations.” Hanley’s station WDUQ is “under agreement” to be sold and plans are in place to reduce its jazz format.

So what has allowed WBGO to last for a remarkable 32 years, let alone be in the unlikely position to expand? “The station has captured both art and fun and soul and, dare I say, even dance as a part of what it’s about,” Hanley says. “It’s captured a very rich and much-needed-to-be-exposed part of culture. Simply playing a bunch of records isn’t going to do it.”

While WBGO has plenty of records to play—a vast library of more than 10,000 vinyl albums and 25,000 CDs—the station distinguishes itself by broadcasting live performances and extensive interviews with leading musicians. These in-studio sessions are frequently syndicated to National Public Radio stations throughout the country. That has made WBGO the primary supplier of jazz content to NPR.

Bowles oversaw a renovation of the studios in 2001 at a cost of $1.9 million, which dramatically expanded and improved WBGO’s recording capabilities—enabling it to generate revenue by renting the studios for outside audio production. And the improved facilities allow the staff to fully take advantage of WBGO’s location on New York’s doorstep.

“You have opportunities here that most people around the country don’t have,” explains Bowles, who came to the station from the University of Arizona’s public broadcasting network.

Location alone doesn’t guarantee success. New York-based commercial jazz station WRVR was sold in 1980 and converted to a country format, later becoming Lite FM 106.7 WLTW. Just three years ago jazz station WQCD was sold and rechristened as alternative rock station 101.9 WRXP.

What sets WBGO apart? First, the station has remained unwavering in its commitment to presenting what Bowles calls “classic jazz.” Second, the station has established itself as an important resource for arts and news in the Newark community.

Don’t let the phrase “classic jazz” fool you. For the staff, classic jazz is less about time period and more about quality. It encompasses a variety of sounds and eras, but it excludes the kind of easy-listening that has infiltrated many commercial stations and came to dominate WRVR before its demise.

“I was always taught that the word classic means permanent,” says on-air host Michael Bourne, who has been with the station for 26 years. “You listen to Louis Armstrong tracks from the ’20s, those are permanent, those are going to sound good always.”

Bourne and the other hosts operate within a format clock—the station’s programming guidelines. “Within that format clock you’re free to play a variety of music,” he explains. “We have to play something ‘classic,’ we have to play something ‘vintage,’ but vintage can mean…something from the ’30s or ’40s [or] it can mean a song in that style on a new record. And then there’s Latin jazz every hour and a vocal. The whole point is the variety.”

Jazz aficionados are a notoriously picky bunch, but the variety enables WBGO to appeal to a wide audience. “Jazz is defined rather broadly by the station, which I think is the correct way to do it,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark and co-host of WBGO’s “Jazz From the Archives.” “They have a pretty ecumenical attitude toward the music…You have programs like ‘Portraits in Blue’ [Bob Porter’s R&B and soul show] …and there’s blues in the afternoon, and you have the singers and all that stuff. There’s a lot of variety, and that is in the nature of the music itself.”
The broad-minded approach continues to pay off, as demonstrated by the nearly 1,000 new donors contributing to WBGO for the first time in its latest fund drive.

As important as the music is, the station’s local news programming may be an equally significant source of listener loyalty. Bowles, 58, grew up in Newark and attended public school there, and he takes WBGO’s role as a voice for the people of Newark just as seriously as he takes his jazz.

“WBGO Journal,” the station’s award-winning newsmagazine, airs weekly. “Newark Today” is a monthly, 60-minute broadcast with Newark mayor Cory Booker. Hosted by assistant news director Andrew Meyer, the call-in offers listeners a forum to interact with Booker and other guests (including state and local leaders from the worlds of education, law enforcement and government). “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” another monthly interview program, brings in the perspectives of newsmakers, journalists, researchers and activists.

“Since its inception, WBGO has been very engaged in the community,” says Shané Harris, vice president of the Newark-based Prudential Foundation, which donated $500,000 toward the station’s new transmitter. “Its news programming really highlights things that Newark residents care about, most notably Mayor Booker’s program.”

Morgenstern cites the station’s news coverage as well. “I think it brings in listeners who may not necessarily be jazz fans…and then they may stay on and maybe become converts,” he says.

The station also sponsors the Kids Jazz Concert Series, which features free weekly shows in the spring and fall performed by world-class artists and designed specifically for children. In addition, the station sponsors JazzPlay PlayJazz—an in-school program incorporating live theater, songwriting and jazz appreciation for elementary school students—and publishes an annual children’s-oriented jazz newsletter called Jazzamatazz.

WBGO’s embrace of technology has also helped it cultivate its devoted audience of 400,000 weekly listeners. Beginning in 1995, it became one of the first jazz stations to stream all its content online, making its programs freely available to a worldwide audience. As a result, the station’s latest fund drive received contributions from listeners in 42 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. Digital streams for HD radio and new applications recently developed by WBGO for the iPhone and Android make it even easier for listeners to access the station anywhere, anytime.

“Jazz is America’s cultural treasure; many people call it America’s classical music, the original music of America that’s celebrated worldwide,” says Bowles. “We believe that we have to take the music where the people are."

Princeton grad Anthony D’Amato is a singer/songwriter and frequent NJM contributer.

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