Harmony Lost

KUAZ radio changes to a news format, causing a stir among some jazz fans.

KUAZ is trying to raise $89,000 this week, even as some of its listeners are raising hell.

The University of Arizona radio station (1550 AM and 89.1 FM) has just launched its spring fund-raising campaign, its first since replacing its daytime jazz programming with a news and information format on April 7. A lot of jazz fans have registered their distress over the change--but many others are reacting with equanimity, and some even welcome the news format. This widespread indifference to having jazz on the air between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. is precisely the reason NPR's Neal Conan has replaced John Coltrane.

Not that jazz doesn't have its supporters. Bonnie Henry, in her April 9 column in the Arizona Daily Star, sang a requiem for the daytime jazz slot. "All of this leaves me quite out of sorts and muttering the usual slurs about Tucson provincialism. As in: You'd think a town of close to a million souls could support at least one daytime jazz station," she wrote.

After the column ran, Henry reported, "I got about 30 e-mails and phone calls on this and only two people said they liked the new format. Many said they were cutting off their donations."

Other jazz fans have taken the news more philosophically.

"From a personal position, I mourn the passing of daytime jazz on KUAZ," said Lynn Ratener, a social-services professional. "Although I work full-time and was unable to tune in during the days, I regret any reduction of jazz in the universe. However, from a position of many years in nonprofit management, I know how hard it is to keep the dollars coming in. ... Everyone knows we have to pay for a product before we waltz it out of the store, but asking for payment for a service that's 'free' over the airwaves seems to be too much of a stretch for most people."

Jazz bassist Ed Friedland seems more ticked off that he never got a promotional CD he was promised when he became a KUAZ member a few years ago than he is that daytime jazz is gone. He prefers to listen to music over the Internet, without announcements. Even so, he said, "Regardless of how much I listened to KUAZ in the day, I still see it as a loss. The jazz community benefited from the exposure it received in concert announcements and such. But ... so it goes. Jazz has never been profitable."

At least one ardent jazz fan, software consultant Robert Bulechek, is glad for the format change.

"I'm very much in favor of it," he said. "In the car I carry an MP3 player with me, so if I want music, I have 300 hours of personal, customized music I can play. When I don't want music or an audio book in the car, I want news. So when KUAZ was playing music, I never, ever listened to it, and I would switch to K-Jazz in Phoenix (KJZZ, which beams its signal to Tucson), which had news in the daytime. So I was switching to another station to get away from KUAZ music. Now I'm listening to KUAZ."

Meanwhile, at KUAZ, "The comments have ranged from 'You guys suck' to 'It's too bad we couldn't support the station more,'" said KUAZ music director Steve Hahn.

KUAZ station manager John Kelley had heard from about 250 people by late last week, and he acknowledged that he had a lot of upset listeners--and potential former listeners--on his hands. Yet he also said that about half the calls and e-mails had been positive.

"That's pretty impressive," he said, "because usually you hear more from people who are unhappy."

The jazz would have remained had station personnel heard from more people who wanted it--heard them making pledges during fund-raising campaigns, that is. But that wasn't happening. According to Kelley, KUAZ membership had declined below the national standard of 10 percent of its listeners. And listenership itself was distressingly low, according to Kelley--ratings showed that fewer than 1,000 people were tuning in to daytime jazz at any given quarter hour. The NPR news shows KUAZ airs during drive time, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, attracted seven times that audience, Kelley said.

"In the music market overall, jazz is a relatively small subset," he said. "Jazz is an important art form; people say it's the American art form, and we certainly respect that, but we also have a responsibility to ourselves and our community to be able economically to continue. Are you fulfilling your public-service mission if much of the day your listenership is very low?

"We still have a strong commitment to jazz and we will continue to play the real thing on weekends and evenings, and we have no intention of abandoning that commitment," Hahn stressed. "But public radio is a meeting between mission and reality. You want to support the marginal communities--it's not like we're playing Tuvan throat singing; jazz is a broad part of our musical heritage--but we had to consider whether we were providing any meaningful service considering how few people listen."

More listeners would mean more contributions, and that's critical now that everyone is playing an economic tune full of blue notes. KUAZ is licensed to the Arizona Board of Regents, and gets its money from the State of Arizona, the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting and local contributions. But KUAZ and its sister stations, KUAT-FM and KUAT-TV (as well as KUAZ-AM, which merely carries KUAZ programming dawn to dusk on the AM band), had to give back a bit more than $223,000 this year because of state budget recisions. Things are grim at the federal level, too; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently had to return $2.4 million to the federal government, and it's questionable how much longer Congress will allocate it any money at all.

"Next year's projected state deficit is $1.5 billion, so we're looking at less money from the state, and less from CPB, and we don't even know what will happen to CPB after 2006," says Kelley. "So we have to grow the membership if we're going to survive. And the logical way to do that seemed to be to alter the programming to increase the listenership.

"There is an incremental increase in our program costs," Kelley said of the new daytime format, "but we feel the audience and the membership will grow enough that we will more than recover that."

KUAZ is not alone in bulking up its news programming; it's a nationwide trend. Jazz just isn't drawing many listeners, and it's listeners who pledge donations.

News and talk programming, on the other hand, is hot, particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks and this year's American-led invasion of Iraq. And even though commercial radio throbs with the anger of conservative talk-show hosts, the programming KUAZ is picking up from NPR, the BBC and other sources offers something different--"Much more in-depth news coverage than is typical on the commercial end of the dial," said Kelley.

But while NPR and other providers have dramatically increased their news and information programming in the past few years, local reporting on KUAZ/KUAT-FM is just a faint echo of what it used to be. The stations have a history of producing local, half-hour public affairs programs, and dropping four-minute single-topic items into Morning Edition. But because of tight budgets, the stations have gone without a news director for the past couple of years, and the remaining staff now does little more than rewrite articles from the Star and Citizen for its brief news summaries scattered through the day. KUAZ did recently launch a new half-hour public-affairs show, Arizona Spotlight, but it airs only once every three months. "We just don't have the staff and resources to do long-form pieces on a more regular basis," said Kelley.

"The important thing people should understand is we love jazz," Hahn stressed. "All of us do here. We did everything we could to make it successful, but the market size is too small. The only successful jazz stations in the country are in the top 10 markets; we're No. 62."

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