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Lack of jazz on the radio is a disgrace

Call it what you want. I now call it disgraceful.

What WBFO-FM's four-month-old wholesale abandonment of jazz programming until after 10 p.m. (and a couple specialty shows on weekends) has meant is not only a withdrawal of radio support from a genre that needs it most to flourish in the community -- jazz -- but also continued ridiculous duplication by WBFO of NPR programming that is already served very well on WNED-AM.

In other words, tune into WBFO-FM at 7:20 a.m. and you will hear the exact same Nina Totenberg report on the Supreme Court that is simultaneously being run on WNED-AM (actually on 970 on the AM dial, NPR programming runs a second earlier). Or you'll hear the same ancient, quavering female voice from Buffalo on an NPR call-in segment that you hear on WNED-AM.

So here's where we are in 2010: Buffalo, alone among its surrounding cities, has no regular jazz radio station, after it had two great, entirely different ones on AM and FM. Syracuse now has one, Rochester has one and so does Toronto (the latter of which, CJRT, has long been the saving grace of jazz on the Buffalo radio dial). All have major touring all-star jazz festivals, as we used to have at Artpark and no longer do, despite the local jazz series and spotty appearances during the summer.

I can't possibly overstate how much regard I have for NPR. I believe it's one of the few institutions in America that works in an utterly optimal way. But NPR in Buffalo -- and its listeners -- were already brilliantly served by WNED-AM.

I discussed all of this recently with interim general manager Mark Vogelzang and program director David Benders. Benders, who has never in his 33-year tenure seemed a fraction as much of a conspicuous jazz fan as his music directors, passed the duplication off by saying "AM radio tends to be an older demographic -- certainly older than our demographics." ("Do they even know what radio is?" he joked about 20-year-olds.)

Which sent me, almost everywhere I went over the last few days, into an undoubtedly annoying tizzy of thoroughly unscientific surveying of every twentysomething I laid eyes on about their attitudes toward and knowledge of AM radio. I was -- especially at this newspaper -- a tiny bit startled by exactly how much knowledge computer-savvy twentysomethings actually have of the AM dial locally.

"Tastes in the market have changed in regard to jazz," said Vogelzang, who said he was charged by the UB hierarchy with reassessing everything when he took the job. A brief look at the WBFO-FM advisory board finds only one professor of the UB music school on its board, only one UB humanities professor (history,) five UB professors of medicine, two unaffiliated doctors, one dentist, one law professor, two lawyers, a venture capitalist and one "community representative" who works with children.

The trouble in WBFO's own history is that it was put into the wholesale jazz business by John Hunt, a powerhouse in Buffalo radio who died obscenely young of a brain tumor but who, in just a few short years, set up programming and precedents that continued for decades (and still continue in the case of Dick Judelsohn's "Bebop and Beyond" on Sundays at 8 p.m.) and couldn't help but be targets of envy and resentment elsewhere.

There was no way to go from Hunt's legacy but steadily downward, given those in WBFO's hierarchy whose indifference to jazz was criminally apparent.

Among the killing demographic ironies of all this is that jazz on disc has seen, over the past few years, a wave of wildly exciting younger musicians.

Now they have almost no place on the Buffalo radio dial, even if they come to town -- except occasionally sometimes from Toronto. What we have instead, now, so often is NPR programming that is handled better on WNED-AM.eos

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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