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Tyranny of majority imperils blues

He was the greatest critic and analyst electronic media ever had.

And he was dead at least 60 years before radio -- much less television -- became a fact of life.

That's because no one ever understood the inherent flaw in American democracy better than Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 "Democracy in America" tells you most of what you need to know about why excellence always has been a media battleground and always will be.

What de Tocqueville summarized in one phrase characterizes the current perils of WBFO-FM in an age of WNED ownership: "The Tyranny of the Majority."

It's the drift of all things American. Every superior number can be assumed by the mediocre to be a mandate -- a God-given right, ratified by The People, to tyrannize any minority.

Here's where we are with WBFO-FM:

1) Its many hours of jazz programming were almost completely wiped out so long ago that news employees of the station now sometimes club all those who remember the 1970s and '80s vibrance in radio and clubs as "old" (and, therefore, ready to be sent floating out on the nearest ice floe with a ham sandwich and a six pack).

Tragically, Dick Judelsohn -- the last survivor of WBFO's jazz glory days and one of the best it ever had -- died last week at 69, leaving his Sunday evening show another thing to float out to oblivion. There was an on-air tribute to him on Sunday, which was repeated at 7 p.m. Monday, but the rules of Internet life in America sadly prohibit it from being a permanent fixture on the WBFO website.

The big trouble with WBFO's jazz programming was that it was caught in its own hopeless and historic mediocrity by the surge of Toronto's CJRT on Buffalo radios, a far more cunning and palatable calculation of the ways to keep jazz radio alive. Buffalo jazz listeners fled to CJRT in droves, leaving a community tragedy of major proportions, i.e., you cannot have a virulently active major name jazz life in any community that no longer has at least one large-scale jazz radio station (as Buffalo did with two, WBFO-FM and WEBR-AM, in the '70s).

WBFO opted for the demands of radio -- numerical success and dollars -- over an ever-shrinking musical listenership tuned into jazz from another country (not to mention, the Web).

2) In the worst of all possible Buffalos, the blues programming on weekends could now be subject to the same malevolent neglect (and impatience) that went such a long way toward erasing its former jazz glories.

My colleague Jeff Miers wrote a bang-up Gusto cover piece on Jan. 13 about all the reasons that that should never be, but against all of that is a drift of public radio all over America that de Tocqueville would recognize all too well.

Washington, D.C., classical critic and composer Greg Sandow wrote about the dire straits of classical music -- another ever-imperiled minority taste -- in his recent blog about a public radio brouhaha in Sacramento, Calif. "Adding insult to injury," wrote Sandow, the station "is moving its jazz broadcasts to a classical station it runs, displacing classical music even more."

With brute realism, Sandow points out the reason: "The Sacramento station offers these numbers based on hour-by-hour surveys of what people listen to. 400,000 people listen to its news broadcasts each week and 130,000 listen to classical music."

Hence news in place of classical music.

And there you have it -- de Tocqueville's ineradicable American flaw writ large.

And that is analogous to our situation with a WBFO owned by WNED.

Please understand: I love NPR. I couldn't respect it more. I'm nothing if not pleased when my dedicated and hard-working colleagues at this newspaper are interviewed by WBFO people for their matchless expertise.

But, incredibly in the 21st century, news programming at NPR stations is becoming a national majority tyranny of choice. I can't tell you how painful it is to me that my own profession can now be seen all over public radio as a clear and present danger to all minority music programming, whether jazz or classical or blues. The idea that in a new millennium, journalists could wholly displace all the apparatuses necessary for an active minority musical life is a horror to me.

A bully is a bully is a bully, even armed with a reporter's notebook, a ballpoint and the noblest possible intentions.

It seems to me that the only antidote for America's Tyranny of the Majority is a majority that understands it has no business existing at all without the passionate devotion to minorities that made the Bill of Rights the miracle of civilization that it is.

So while we await a WBFO that -- perhaps -- tries to extend NPR news hegemony into Canada, let's hope that there are those who remember how very much damage was done to Buffalo jazz life by letting so much great programming decline, wither and die.

And how much further damage could be done to blues and even the classical music life of Buffalo if the news-seeking majority in an election year is allowed to tyrannize the public radio airwaves.

At some point, the majority has to realize that excellence isn't merely a minority right, it is -- if you love and care about your community -- an imperative.