Thursday, June 30, 2011

The day the music died

For me, personally, that would be today, the final day of jazz programming on Pittsburgh public radio station WDUQ.

Earlier this year, Dusquene University sold the station to Essential Public Media out of Boulder, Colorado.

Presumably (or so listeners were told during several pledge drives), this was because the university could no longer foot the bill.  Members, myself included, pledged diligently to keep the station going, and specifically to keep jazz on the air.

WDUQ's official slogan (as per the mug) was "News, Jazz, NPR."  So, between "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," it was wall-to-wall jazz, with local hosts and guests and frequently, local performers (and national ones making a stop in the city).  The station aired over 100 hours of jazz a week.

When Essential Public Media took over, they vowed to honor the station's legacy...and I suppose they have, in their own cynical, paltry way.  Jazz will still be on WDUQ.  For six hours a week, on Saturday nights.

The other 94+ hours that used to be devoted to jazz?  Wall-to-wall news and talk radio.

"NPR ate my local public radio station" is the name of a Facebook group formed by and for "members of public radio stations that have been taken over by the NPR borg."

I'm now one of 'em.

Don't get me wrong:  I love NPR and have always been a pledge-paying member of whatever station I listen to most often, wherever I've lived.

But I love local culture more.

Essential Public Media's rationale for the change is that Pittsburgh is the only city of its size in the U. S. without an all-news public radio station.*   So by EPM's bizarre logic, that means they're required to junk their new acquisition's successful format so that we can have one.  EPM insists on defining what the public wants by what they think we lack, rather than by what we've already got, and what loyal listener-members want to keep.

Pittsburgh is of the very few public radio stations in the country with a jazz format (my old member station, KUVO in Denver, is another).  DUQ members shelled out to keep jazz on the air, largely because jazz is such an integral part of the city's history, and Pittsburgh has been a mecca for the genre pretty much since its inception.  Just look at this list of jazz musicians who've come from, or been based in Pittsburgh compiled by the Carnegie Libraries.  Even if you know nothing about jazz, you'll undoubtedly recognize a few names on there.

The format isn't a lack.  It's a celebration of what's important locally, which the folks a thousand miles away in Boulder don't seem to be able or willing to comprehend.  Pittsburgh has three NPR stations, and WDUQ has always had the largest membership.  So what, exactly, is "missing"?

To say I'm upset is putting it mildly.  But more than I'm angry, I'm heartbroken.

I listened earlier this week as Tony Mowod, who's hosted "Jazz on the Nightside" in the evenings for 23 years, talked with one of the many local jazz musicians he's had on his show this week.  Tony talked about growing up feeling like a weirdo for being into Stan Kenton when other kids didn't even know who that was.  His guest joked, "Try telling your friends you were listening to a Sonny Stitt record last night!"  And they talked about how much harder it will be for young musicians to learn about the genre when there's so little of it on the airwaves.

The guest played several tracks from his own CDs, including the last number at the end of the show:  "Goodbye," which was Benny Goodman's traditional closing number.  If ever there were a tearjerker of a torch song, that's it.  I first came to know it through Linda Ronstadt's version, on the big-band album she recorded with the Nelson Riddle orchestra, What's New.

Sure, it's sentimental, mawkish, and over the top.

But it wrenched my heart again to hear it at the end of one of Tony's last broadcasts, and to hear him get choked up when the guest said afterward that he played it "to say goodbye to you, Tony, even though I don't want to."

Such a loss.

Thanks ever so much for listening to the "public" in public radio, Essential Public Media.  You've taken away the part of WDUQ that truly was "essential" to me.  My NPR pledge will go elsewhere from now on.

*Correction:  one of two, according to former DUQ host Katherine Fink, whose post better explains the business end of this change.


Rosemary said...

Having lived in Colorado for over a decade, I remember well the mantra to "Keep Boulder weird." Apparently, EPM either doesn't share or doesn't understand that ethic. Other places have local culture they'd like to preserve and protect.

Highlander Rob said...

Rosemary, thank you for your blog post. I, too, had lived in Colorado. Lived in the Rocky Mountain State for 20 years from 1978 to 1998 and was a member of KUVO and KUNC. I was delighted to think moving to southwestern PA, was so great to have a great NPR Jazz station in Pittsburgh. I always marveled while listening to the station while visiting family there and now was able to enjoy the likes of Bob Studebaker and Tony Mowod, Monday thru Friday. So saddened to think EPM low-balled to obtain the station from Duquesne University. I cried too this week. I recorded over 80 hours of jazz programming using my iPod and a USB microphone. So at least I can listen when "jonesing" for hearing Tony, Bob, Helen, Bob, Frank & Jeff. So so sad. Our hope is that Ted Stickland and the Manchester Craftmans Guild have a rabbit to pull out of the hat for Tony and all of the dedicated staff and listeners that made DUQ such a great station. As my new bumper sticker states, Essential Public Media is neither Essential nor Public. Period. i am already a member of KCSM, San Mateo; WRTI, Philly; and plan to have memberships wtih WBGO & KUVO too.

Rosemary said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Bob. I felt the same way about moving back east--I was really sad to be leaving KUVO country, until I discovered I was living in equally jazz-friendly WDUQ country! It was like being reunited with an old friend.

I lived in Greeley and taught at the U of Northern Colorado, BTW, so was also a KUNC listener. And I've had *that* sale of a college NPR station in mind a lot recently, since KUNC's ownership change didn't involve a dramatic format change--it continued to be truly a *local* public radio station.