Bill Virgin's Radio Beat March 6, 2008

Includes archive of Bill Virgin's columns fromJ une 2006 - March 2009

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat March 6, 2008

Postby radiofan » Wed Mar 05, 2008 7:33 pm

On Radio: KWJZ-FM keeps smooth jazz alive in Seattle -- but it's not as easy as it sounds

New York and Washington, D.C., have both lost their smooth-jazz stations in recent weeks, leading a radio-industry Web site to wonder if it's "time to sound a death knell for the format."

Not that it's in trouble everywhere, Tom Webster writes on The Infinite Dial. In two markets in particular, smooth jazz is not only far from dead, "it is dominant."

One of those markets is Seattle -- in the form of KWJZ-FM/98.9.

KWJZ-FM has been a consistent top 10 ratings and rankings performer, according to Arbitron data. Among listeners 12 and older, KWJZ ranked sixth in fall, fourth in summer, among commercial stations in the market

But, says KWJZ program director Carol Handley, "we're having all the same conversations and struggles as other stations" in the format.

One advantage KWJZ has is that it's part of a privately held company, Sandusky, making it less susceptible to the pressures to cut spending to satisfy Wall Street, a trend now sweeping many publicly traded radio companies. In fact, KWJZ just launched a new television advertising campaign.

Interestingly, those ads still use the word smooth -- as in "smooth out," the implication being that the station is an antidote to a noisy, hectic world. But neither they nor the new logo use the word jazz. The saxophone in the old logo has been replaced by a highly stylized suggestion of a sax.

That reflects the tricky problem of positioning and definition that smooth jazz has had. It wasn't traditional jazz, as might be heard on KPLU-FM/88.5. It wasn't soft rock or adult contemporary, although KWJZ has long played vocal pieces performed by artists better known in those genres than in the jazz world.

Still, there was a core of artists, especially instrumentalists, who were readily identifiable as smooth jazz -- Kenny G, David Sanborn, Jeff Lorber, among others. Five years ago, "there was so much good music we were tripping over ourselves," Handley says.

The problem with the music now, she adds, is that "there's less of it." Major record labels, facing cost-cutting pressures of their own, are bailing out of smooth jazz.

What music is coming out isn't always ideal for keeping a smooth-jazz station viable. One such trend was a rash of cover versions of 1970s music, from Motown and soul to singer-songwriter tunes.

"Everyone got into this cover thing," Handley says. "We tried to sidestep it unless it was too good to ignore." The problem was not the original material, she adds, it was versions that "sound too Muzaky" and were virtual note-for-note copies of the originals.

In addition, "artists don't want to be labeled" by a specific genre, she says. "If they don't think of themselves as smooth jazz," they don't send their material to stations like KWJZ.

That means a lot more digging for material that will keep the station's playlist fresh. That includes going back to that wealth of music a few years ago to see what might have been overlooked at the time. It also means looking for newer artists, from Corinne Bailey Rae to John Legend, Queen Latifah, Moby and Massive Attack, to add to the library and attract younger listeners "so it's not their parents' station."

KWJZ has been doing some variation of smooth jazz for 15 years and Handley believes it will continue to do so.

"There's a lot of viable music to do what we do," she says. But she also makes this prediction about the genre: "It won't be called smooth jazz, of that you can be sure."

In other radio notes:

Jim Wilke's "Jazz Northwest" at 1 p.m. Sunday on KPLU-FM features a recent performance by pianist Hank Jones and singer Roberta Gambarini.

The Presidents of the United States of America perform live on KEXP-FM/90.3 at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels takes listener calls on "Weekday" at 10 a.m. Monday on KUOW-FM/94.9.

Political columnist and author E.J. Dionne Jr. is the guest on "Weekday" at 9 a.m. Tuesday on KUOW-FM.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat every Thursday in the Seattle P-I
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
User avatar
Advanced Member
Posts: 11449
Joined: Sun Apr 16, 2006 1:24 pm
Location: Keremeos, BC

Postby jon » Wed Mar 05, 2008 9:03 pm

I wish the folks at Magic 99 Edmonton would not just read this article. But also send their brightest programming folks to Seattle to spend some quality time with KWJZ-FM's best. And come home with a workable strategy.
User avatar
Advanced Member
Posts: 9224
Joined: Mon May 08, 2006 9:15 am
Location: Edmonton

Postby skyvalleyradio » Thu Mar 06, 2008 9:56 am

KWJZ PD Carol Handley said:

"The problem with the music now, she adds, is that "there's less of it." Major record labels, facing cost-cutting pressures of their own, are bailing out of smooth jazz. "

I agree with all that she stated except the first sentence. While the major labels may be turning their backs on 'smooth jazz' there is a glut of it on the "parelell music universe". Instead of turning to the major lables for new material, Ms Handley would do well to check out MySpace and a number of other alternatives for new material. Sky Valley Radio receives anywhere from 5 - 10 CDs every week in the mail and much of it could be classified as 'smooth jazz' . Many of the artists have connected with us via our MySpace page plus numerous other Internet-based broadcaster search engines. Most of what arrives is decent material and almost every CD has at least one or two tracks added to our library. I sure wish Vancouver had a decent version of KWJZ! Clear-FM's attempt at playing a few smooth jazz tracks was pretty lame with not much thought put into it. KWJZ has had a pres-et on my vehicle since it was new in 1990! BY the way, Carol Handley's involvement with jazz on the radio goes way back before her tenure at KWJZ. She was a KPLU air personality for awhile and back before that was responsible for hosting the EXCELLENT "Sunday Morning Jazz Show" on good ol' 92KZAM every week
User avatar
Advanced Member
Posts: 1109
Joined: Fri Jul 14, 2006 12:16 pm
Location: The Goofy Islands

Return to Seattle / Washington State Radio News

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests