Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A Paean To The Wave

Thoughts on the Demise of Smooth Jazz Radio

I listened to a CD last night. One I sent off for because it contained a track I really liked, one that I had heard on radio. While I was listening to the track again last night, it crossed my mind that, when it comes to finding music on the radio, things aren’t as easy as they used to be.

When I say ‘radio’ I mean radio over the internet, because the radio stations around here don’t play my kind of music. I’ve always enjoyed what is labelled as ‘Smooth Jazz’ and had become pleased at discovering online a small number of radio stations specialising in this field.  Perhaps unsurprisingly most of these stations were in the United States.  I found that in many instances the Smooth Jazz output was offered as supplementary programming to established stations in the big cities, and is broadcast digitally on a sideband of the parent FM signal.  This is known as HD radio - an appropriate name because although it implies High Definition and sounds pretty good, it actually means Hybrid Digital.

Over the past couple of decades CBS Radio ran a string of Smooth Jazz stations, most of which branded themselves as ‘The Wave’, usually contorting their call-letters befittingly.  Yet it’s been over twenty years since Kenny Gee jammed with Bill Clinton and styles go in and out of fashion and defined formats lose their commercial impact.  Recently many Smooth Jazz stations have disappeared.  For example, KTWV in Los Angeles has moved away from Smooth Jazz into the adjacent Urban Adult Contemporary format, although it does retain a ‘classic’ Smooth Jazz output on one of its HD carriers.

Or so I believe, because I’m no longer allowed to listen to it.

In February 2010 US music stations suddenly began to disappear from the internet.  The day I discovered that my favourites weren’t there any more I contacted the station manager of V98.7, the Smooth Jazz station in Detroit to ask why.  He apologetically pointed out that “The Men In Suits” had discovered that CBS and other networks weren’t paying international royalties for internet promulgation of any music they played and that they would therefore be exposing themselves to litigation. It was a case of “So long, loyal listeners, but tough. We have copyright problems”.

Let me explain.  Here in the UK, if we see or hear American programmes it’s because a UK broadcaster has paid for the rights to show them to an audience to which the American broadcaster had no access.  This is well and good: if I enjoy JR in Dallas (again) I should pay Larry Hagman for his efforts. My payment to Larry will be an infinitessimal fraction of the tangle of income the station gets from ad breaks, my cable or satellite subscription or the licence fee we have to pay in this country.  All artists whose work is broadcast should be remunerated in a similar way.

On the internet, when I listened to Euge Groove on The Wave in Los Angeles, Euge was unlikely to receive any income from me because I’m not part of the audience The Wave presumes to receive income from. Elsewhere in LA - and, to a diminishing extent, across the US - listeners would be expected to have access to, and be familiar with, and occasionally utilise, the products and services of the station’s advertisers. People buy what the advertisers offer, the station gets paid and Euge, down the line, gets his cut. Because I’m off their map, “The Men in Suits” do not see me as part of this equation.

But Euge does receive income from me - and probably the kind he likes the most.  When I heard his track on the radio I went out and bought the album.

In February 2010, things changed.  CBS radio websites - using the "Men In Suits" - analogy apologised that CBS radio would be henceforth unavailable in my location and directed me and any other would-be listeners to Last.fm - which is okay but totally impersonal. Sites such as smoothjazz.com hint at being regular radio stations, suggesting a regional provenance and giving a call-sign on the hour, but they lack the presenters that give a radio station its roots.  A great selection of music, undoubtedly, but little else than just another iTunes stream.  Radio needs to come from somewhere.

These internet-only stations haven’t got a guy telling me about local weather or the gig he went to last night or what I might be missing out on at the weekend. They lack ownership, they lack a location.  They lack the companionship that real radio brings. 

Forget relentless chatter, which can be found everywhere. I want someone to play me my kind of music and frame it in terms of the real world.

So what are my alternatives? Somewhere in the UK we have a station called Chill, which is becoming increasingly difficult to find elsewhere than online.  Even when it was available as ‘radio’ I never went for Chill because its music majored on ‘relaxation techniques and the relief of stress’.  Sounds like a pretty negative listener base to me, and one I don’t particularly want to be part of. I suppose, if you think about it, 60% of ‘Chill’ is ‘ill’.  But 'stress'?  Me?  I always thought I felt pretty upbeat - and I like Smooth Jazz because it makes me feel even better.

My best online option in Europe at the moment appears to be Deluxe Lounge from Germany.  But it’s still a sterile, human-free feed, and I’m more likely to find myself listening to Ketil Bjornstad from Liepzig than Bobby ‘Hurricane’ Spencer from Almeda. The Almeda in LA, not Spain.

The only North American Smooth Jazz output 'with people' that I’ve found since “The Men In Suits” moved in two years ago comes from a Canadian website, a vestige of a potential Toronto radio station which failed to obtain its broadcast licence back in September.  Its playlist is very much ‘The Wave’ but, for me, it is still lacking.  I know it and I should have commonality by sharing an allegiance to H.M. The Queen but, despite this, the magic isn’t in Southern Ontario.  It’s in LA.

I really enjoyed working at my desk listening to The Wave.   A time difference of between five and eight hours would mean that every morning here in the UK I could listen to overnight and early hours programming from across the US.  Once the traffic started clogging the freeways of western Florida on WSJT in Tampa, and the breakfast presenters shuffled in with their orange juice, I’d travel north west to the cool darkness of V98.7 in Detroit. Then to the dusty heat of KHJZ  Houston.  And then finally to KTWV in Los Angeles, passing the time savouring cool and comfortable music emanating from cities across the continent as they slept.  And, all alone in most of these stations would be a single presenter, a sentinel in the night, linking the tracks and providing companionship for the sleepless, sharing a vigil through the early hours and, importantly, imbuing the music with a sense of place.

Thin support for Smooth Jazz format stations often meant that output had to be pre-programmed and, as is always the case, if things are to go wrong, they go wrong when there’s no-one around to fix them.  On more than one occasion I’ve heard the same 15 minutes go out twice, unchecked.  I preferred KTWV in Los Angeles because it has an overnight presenter who knew what he was doing.

Bill Dudley seemed a regular guy.  In his occasional interventions between the music he would gently enthuse about the artist featured and the tracks played.  Knowledgeable, yet understated, and unlike the laid-back, assured yet vacuous voices of many radio presenters, Bill’s was honest and genuine. He worked mammoth shifts to a fiendish schedule so it perplexes me that he maintained such gentle enthusiasm. I admired the courtesy with which he painted pictures of the events peppering the station’s calendar. While the music played I imagined him writing his articles for the station blog.  Perhaps he maintained his composure because the daytime clutter of phone-ins, competitions, traffic and weather was still some hours away, the remit of day-time colleagues concurrently basking in the arms of Morpheus.  It was him and the music.  Bill didn’t need to know that as he headed for home with dawn breaking over Wilshire Boulevard, I was on my way back from lunch in the Station Tap.

But it’s been over two years since I last heard Bill.  His programme, like those of all his confederates, has been deemed by “The Men In Suits” as being unremunerative.  As it sells nothing to me, no-one benefits as a result of me listening to it.

Except that I don’t think this is entirely the case, because KTWV was one big - and successful - advertisement in itself. The fact that I’m talking about it now means that I am aware of what it does.  It sells itself, it sells its music and it sells the lifestyle of the city it comes from.  Listen to it and you feel the nocturnal heat of a slumbering giant, you see the streetlights glistening towards the Pacific. High above its miles of building, you’re hearing the calm and confident soundtrack of Los Angeles as it shimmers through the night. It’s ‘Collateral’ without the menace. LA is never asleep but with Bill, for this moment, it is at rest.  More than anything, you want to be there. 

I want to gaze at glass, steel and concrete high-rises towering over empty streets, to feel warm zephyrs dancing across traffic-less boulevards, to watch stoplights change at deserted intersections. But I also want to stay in a great hotel, drive to that restaurant, enjoy drinks and the music at the bar by the ocean, experience the thrill of the concert downtown. I want to experience the world that Bill talks about - and goes home to every morning. I want to spend my time and money in LA.  Nothing could be a better advertisement.

Tell that to “The Men In Suits”.  Despite what they think, Bill and his friends did a flawless marketing job.  Because its programming was different it sounded distinctive and the place it came from sounded fabulous.  Radio deserves to be a success when the community it seeks to serve benefits from the services it provides. And those benefits are often indirect.

But that was then, and this is now.

Time to play the CD again.

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