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Tomorrow night, January 4, marks the final night of jazz programming on WBEZ, and the station made a strange announcement about it this morning on the locally produced news program Eight Forty-Eight. Jazz critic John McDonough—a longtime contributor to Down Beat and a notorious enemy of most artistic advancements in the music over the last four decades—filed a report investigating whether the loss of jazz on the radio was really worth lamenting.
He interviewed some heavy-hitters in the local jazz scene—Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Jason Koransky, editor of Down Beat—who admitted that they don’t actually listen to jazz on the radio, and then interviewed his 17-year-old son and a few of his friends, who said they prefer listening to music on the Internet and their iPods. This, McDonough essentially said, suggested that music programming was no longer useful. I'll admit that I don’t listen to the radio much either, but I'm not the average listener. Neither is Deutsch or Koransky. We get loads of CDs in the mail and earn a living listening to them. If I didn’t have such access, radio would be the ideal medium to hear new stuff.
JIC alum Penny Tyler told McDonough she stopped listening to jazz on WBEZ because the programming was terrible, and it’s true that former music director Chris Heim turned the station's once-diverse programming to shit during her too-long tenure. But not once did McDonough wonder if better music might get audiences to tune back in. He did interview Tribune critic Howard Reich, who posited that most of the criticism aimed at WBEZ’s jazz programming was generated by local insiders bitter about their lack of control over it. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but there are an awful lot of outsiders who aren't listening to the programs.
Finally, in the story's idiotic conclusion, McDonough said that jazz and blues (which is also getting the hook) weren't doing too bad in Chicago. As proof he pointed out that House of Blues has become a nationwide franchise, as if the club (which books jazz almost never and blues only sparingly) were some sort of homegrown operation done good, which it's not--it didn't start here and it's been a chain for more than a decade now. He also cites the presence of jazz at Ravinia and Symphony Center (each puts on maybe six or seven concerts a year) and the programming at the Jazz Institute as further evidence. But these are all venues that, much like WBEZ, focus on national and international artists, largely ignoring the individuals who are key to the local scene's survival.
The piece contained so many intersecting agendas that it’s hard to tabulate them all--a good chunk of the story took pains to explain that public radio's audience was best served by thoughtful news programming because it isn't available elsewhere (cough, cough). But ultimately it was WBEZ patting WBEZ on the back for its own controversial decision.
To listen for yourself, go to the Eight Forty-Eight audio library for January 3 (scroll down to “Music Programming Changes Hit Home”) and let the disbelief sink in. Then let’s hear what you have to say.