“Jazz is our mission," says Bobby Hill, program director of WPFW, Pacifica Radio’s station in Washington, DC. In an April 20 Washington Post interview, Hill announced changes to the station’s program schedule that will add two more hours of jazz, boosting the total to 15 hours each weekday.
The article notes that station staff “are at odds over whether to play more music or focus on news and public affairs." There has also been an ongoing dispute within WPFW’s Local Station Board and Pacifica’s National Board over the limited coverage of politics and news emanating from its station in the nation’s capital. On the other hand, Hill argues that the local jazz scene will wither without a consistent source of music on the radio. The area’s only full-time jazz outlet, WDCU, was sold off to C-SPAN in 1997, and WJZW switched to an oldies format in February, leaving WPFW as the only on-air source of jazz in the Washington area.
Hill has added seven programs and 15 new hosts while eliminating reggae and world music shows. WPFW's audience has slipped from 240,000 listeners in 2000 to 186,000 this year. The station missed its $500,000 goal for listener donations by about $50,000 in the most recent fund drive. But Hill believes the programming changes will help to capture a new generation of young listeners who are forsaking traditional radio for the Internet. At the same time, he is pushing the station’s public affairs shows toward a more local emphasis, both in the voices heard and the issues given airtime.
Hill’s decision to increase the emphasis on jazz runs counter to conventional industry wisdom. According to the Radio Research consortium, news and information has fueled public radio’s growth over the last decade. Listeners tend to value it most highly and support it more generously. The listener base for jazz has remained the same during this period.
Still, WPFW’s situation is unique. The station’s original mission promised that “jazz, a major American art form which grows from the African American experience, will be the major music programming,” and said that “WPFW will act as archivist, educator, and entertainer on behalf of this under served national culture resource.”