This year I’m celebrating my 40th year in broadcasting. The first 5 years were spent knocking around various college radio stations (WFNR, WMUC, WDCU). For the past 35 years I’ve hosted a jazz program on WPFW-FM.
Jazz journalist Aidan Levy recently interviewed me for a piece on jazz radio for the JazzTimes Education Guide (Nov. 2015 issue). For reasons of space, he had to edit my responses to a few quotes. With thanks to Aidan and JazzTimes, here for the first time is the complete interview.
1. How did you first get involved in jazz radio?
My first experience on-the-air was doing a late-night jazz show at a small college radio station. There was a brief audition, which I thought I’d blown, but they gave me the slot anyway and said I could play whatever I wanted as long as I kept it clean. Their record collection was tiny, but I was startled one day to find they had a copy of Carla Bley’s “Escalator Over The Hill,” though I later discovered that some miscreant has scratched into the vinyl the inscrutable question: “What the fuck kind of album is this?!”
2. Were there any early lessons you could impart to the aspiring jazz radio presenter?
First, let yourself be as creative as your imagination allows. Don’t be afraid to take your audience on a journey or tell non-verbal stories with your music. Second, get your technical chops together: watch your levels, keep your focus and pay attention to detail. And when it comes to your announcements, avoid cliches and repetition and be gracious to everyone who takes the time to call in, even if it’s a complaint.
3. What is your programming ethos? How do you square the tastes of your listener base with your own affinities?
My tastes have changed over the years, as has the taste and demographic of the audience and what they might like to hear. So I try to have a sense of balance. There’s a big, wide world of music to choose from. When I was younger I played a lot of avant-garde things because I thought it was hip to be an iconoclast, but I’m less enamored with that these days. I still like and will play creative improvised music, but I’m also drawn to all sorts of things, so I tend to play a lot of new releases, reissues and rare things. I still like doing extended artist specials, and I also to like to respond to what’s happening in the community and in the culture. So if someone is coming to town, or if someone passes or it’s a milestone birthday, it’s important to mark it. Ornette Coleman died just last week, so I scratched my plans and did a two hour retrospective of his work. And the week before that, I devoted an entire program to a preview of the DC Jazz Festival. I also like doing interviews and getting artists to reveal themselves and speak about meaningful things instead of just promoting a club appearance or a new release.
4. How has jazz radio changed since you first got involved?
Well, first there’s the shortened attention span. People rarely sit and listen to the radio anymore. They listen while doing other things. It really doesn’t work to do long sets because if people like what you’re playing they don’t want to wait for 30 minutes to find out what it is. So you’ve got to give your listeners a break and build a bridge to help them go as deep as they want. Social media helps, so you can now post your playlists or give your audience a chance to engage with you. And most of us are streaming or doing podcasts, so it expands your potential audience way beyond the limits of your broadcast air signal. I’m pleased to say that I have listeners all over the world now, but it’s still like friends coming over, hanging out and listening to music.
It’s also worth noting that consumers these days have many more choices for music sources besides radio. The reason people support my program and the idea of public radio in general is the opportunity for curated programming. The marketplace is flooded with product and from the feedback I receive, people are seeking an informed opinion about
what is worth checking out. If you can provide some context for understanding the music, curious people will keep coming back. Of course you have to watch the ratio of talk to music and know when to shut up and play more music. If you do talk about music, it helps if you have something to say. Remember, it’s about the music, not you.
5. How would you recommend the college crowd prepare themselves to host? Are there any courses, books, podcasts, live broadcasts or other materials you would recommend?
I’d say learn as much as you can about music and how to talk about it with insight and clarity. Find someone whose show you like and study it; learn what they do and how they do it. That doesn’t mean you imitate, but you need to develop your skills and you might as well learn from people you admire. I did that with Felix Grant, Yale Lewis and Rusty Hassan. Second, you don’t always have to be esoteric. One reason people are turned off by jazz is it seems like an insiders club. That doesn’t mean you have to pander or water things down to lowest common denominator. You should have the knowledge and good taste so that long-time jazz fans will recognize you know what you’re talking about, but keep the door open to new listeners, to young listeners, to the curious ones. Record your shows and be critical about what works and what doesn’t work. People usually talk too much when they start out. They become infatuated with the sound of their voice in their own headphones. So yes, it’s important to know how to talk about music, but avoid trying so hard to impress people. And ditch the hyperbole; If everything is great, fantastic, or awesome, it doesn’t mean anything after a while. Be professional but always remember; the best thing you can be is who you are.
My program, The Sound of Surprise, may be heard Sundays from 4-6 pm on WPFW 89.3 FM, or streaming live at http://www.wpfwfm.org/radio/. Music programs are archived on the website for 2 weeks.