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Puget Sound Radio    ON THE AIR    Bill Virgin's Seattle Radio Beat  ›  Bill Virgin: Struggles of a Smooth Jazz Station

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On Radio: Smooth jazz has a home in Seattle
But for KWJZ-FM, it's still a struggle
By BILL VIRGIN
SEATTLE P-I REPORTER

March 6 2008

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 started 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 hectic world. But neither they nor the new logo uses "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 The saxophone in the old logo has been replaced by a highly stylized suggestion of a sax.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. 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 wasn't the original material, she adds, but versions that "sound too Muzaky" and were virtual note-for-note copies.

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 such as 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.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@seattlepi.com.
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