Jazz Radio Erodes Further

Posted: April 12, 2006 in Taste

The Chicago public radio station WBEZ announced recently that it will drop its jazz programming next year, which currently airs from 8 PM to 4 AM, and go to an “all public affairs and culture” format. Jazz aficionados are dismayed, and the format change has created a few ripples around the nation as those in other markets note the further disappearance of jazz programming, a process that has been underway for more than two decades. A similar erosion of classical music programming has taken place alongside the disappearance of jazz.

Free marketers view the disappearance of classical and jazz music on free radio outlets, which are often but not always replaced but subscription services, as evidence of a shift in public taste and a concomitant redefined emphasis on the part of radio station owners and operators. There is little to argue with in that assessment. However, cultural critics feel that this market shift represents a dumbing down of the radio audience and bemoan the diminished demand and therefore public support of anything but mainstream musics. Yet others recognize that as media outlets mature, sophisticated listeners find that free radio no longer serves their tastes and concentrate exclusively on direct media such as CDs to satisfy their interests.

I believe that all three are probably true and are not mutually exclusive. Commercial and publicly supported radio is littered with ads and fundraising, which quickly become tiresome to even the most dedicated listener. Further, the fidelity of radio, mp3s, and streaming media (such as Internet radio or podcasts) are noticeably inferior to vinyl, CDs, DVDs, and DVD-audio, which is a criticism mass audiences don’t have as they rush to embrace a variety of portable, computer-driven formats. And the inability to tailor one’s listening lists can be frustrating when standards receive repeated airplay to the nearly total exclusion of less well-known fare. Make no mistake, jazz and classical musics have made no particular inroads into gaining market share in the past two or three generations, unlike pop, rock, metal, country western, dance, techno, rave, rap, hip-hop, and other populist musics. All of these latter genres function within one demographic or another as a sort of vernacular, whereas jazz and classical could never make that claim.

Despite the inevitability of change, it is worth resisting the so-called “rush to the bottom,” a culture characterized by the extinction of sophisticated, traditional art forms and replacement by populist, wide-market forms. Consumers of easily digestible, quickly replaced music often find that their ability to relate in even the most rudimentary way to sophisticated music is extinguished by a pervasive diet populated by the equivalents of French fries and soda pop. While that diet may be enjoyable in and of itself, it frequently precludes the sensitivity needed to appreciate, say, a fine wine. A healthy range ought to include something more sophisticated from time to time, though that argument, too, mostly falls on deaf ears in a mass culture brought up to believe the individual is the final arbiter in matters of taste.

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