Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pacifica’s DC Station Adds More Jazz

“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.”

1 comment:

RipRobbins said...

The programming changes are counter to everything the rest of the radio industry is talking about: the move away from radio for music listening. According the the pubic broadcasting newspaper, Current, the only format to increase listeners in the past year for public radio stations is in the news/talk format. At the National Association of Broadcasters conferences in mid-April, radio station operators struggled with the reality that music delivery in 5 years will be not be in the typical manner of DJ and playlist, but will be responsive to the listener demand: type in a song name, and the song will play. It is called "on demand" music listening. People will have this ability on their cell phones and car audio systems. At least 3 major car companies will offer such WI-Fi systems on their 2010 models. A post from March (23rd?) on this Muckraker site offers many details about the slide from conventional broadcasting and decline of listeners and what the bigger entities are doing about it. Currently, dozens of internet sites offer Jazz (my favorite music), so the WPFW jazz offering is just one of many. Unless it develops a meaningful and deep supply of news and information, it will suffer from a continual loss of aging listeners with no new demographic to fill in. Since it takes years to develop new audience with new programming, WPFW is losing ground by not planning investments in talk and news today.
By the way, although the audience for WPFW may be primary African-American according to Arbitron (I am guessing), at the March 2007 live music/dinner fund-raiser (a few pictures from the event, featuring the diverse representation from the Pacifica Board meeting, are posted on the right side of this Muckraker site), the members in attendance, paying for tickets presumably, were mostly white and upper class looking folks. So who is really the foundation of the jazz music audience that is capable of financially supporting the station? And is that why the station doesn't want to program news and talk? The rich white audience doesn't want to hear the counter-culture perspective? Just my challenge for more examination of the status quo. For WPFW to abandon all programming except for a narrow interpretation of its founding documents, is a subversion of the intent of all Pacifica stations: to challenge the status quo with a result of providing more dialogue and discussion of those matters that affect the lives of residents in the signal area. A few PSAs thrown in between jazz tracks is not providing public service.