[Dixielandjazz] Responses to "Jazz Radio" gripe

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Tue Apr 13 12:41:12 PDT 2004

Last fall I posted on DJML an article I wrote for Jazz Notes about jazz
radio. The current issue includes a report on responses to the article.
Feel free to pass it on to others.--Charlie Suhor

>From JAZZ NOTES (March 2004), journal of the Jazz Journalists Association


The response to my JAZZ NOTES article "Jazz Radio--Blindfold Tests,
Hostage-Holding, and Station Breaks" was large and surprisingly
impassioned. My unradical premise was that jazz broadcasters do a
disservice to listeners and an injustice to musicians when they wait to the
end of a set of tracks before identifying the artists and songs.

I pointed out that listeners often must leave their cars or home radios or
are interrupted during the end-of-set announcements, so they don't find out
who the artists were. This knowledge is useful in itself and beneficial to
jazz musicians. Their careers are enhanced by name exposure and they
benefit financially from CD sales that result from listeners' knowledge of
tracks they particularly like.

I received 74 reactions, some from Jazz Journalists Association (JJA)
members and others from individuals who saw the article when it was
forwarded to various email lists. This was by no means a scientific survey,
but the comments were fascinating.

The response was overwhelmingly in favor of naming artists, songs and
labels after each track rather than after sets. Fifty-eight (78%) were for
Track ID, nine (12%) for Set ID, and seven (10%) were on the fence.
Interestingly, seven of the nine comments favoring Set ID were from DJs
defending their practice--only two were from listeners.


Among the 58 favoring Track ID, many were musicians and writers well known
to JJA members, but I won't identify them. It's clear that most musicians
were angry and many were concerned about retaliation. Nine were DJs who
already do Track ID or want to but are forced to delay identification.
("Station management was always on my back to be more like the commercial

Among the most moving comments was this one from a jazz artist. " My late
father, a church musician and choral director, used to tell me, 'Son, the
church is the people, not the building.'  I think there's a strong parallel
with jazz radio. The artists are jazz music. No radio station has played a
single note on its own. Jazz radio isn't jazz apart from the recording
artists whose music they air. If the program directors think they are, then
Selmer saxophones are jazz apart from the players who blow air into their
horns." He saw the homogenization of jazz radio and the insensitivity of
broadcasters as a major hindrance to the musician's ability "to reach an
audience, develop a fan base, [and] earn a living."

One DJ wrote, "I'm not in the business of promoting the sale of jazz
recordings," apparently oblivious to the fact that  his work, absent a
concern for the musicians on the records he plays, is parasitic. When I
forwarded the above quote to him (not naming the musician), his views
changed dramatically.

A sampler of the comments against Set ID.... "I wish I had a recording for
each time I've exited my car pissed off about the dearth of info
provided".... Jazz listeners don't want "a glorified juke box"....
"background din".... "the facelessness of clear channel and its negative
minions".... "You have identified a major gripe I have about jazz
radio".... "failure both to pre- and back-announce is plain
unprofessional".... "the local station is guilty of this practice...I
seldom listen to it".... After making a "connection between  a particular
song or artist, I got the album, sometimes followed by more albums by the
same artist".... "If you don't know the artist, how can you buy the
CD?".... "Bravo"..... "totally agree".... "100 per cent concur"....
"Yes!!!!!!" And so on.


Those defending Set ID had their reasons. The most sympathetic was from a
public radio broadcaster. The DJ is often alone, he wrote, acting also as
unpaid programmer, announcer, engineer, and telephone answerer. S/he is
hard put to come in after each track with information. While this is
certainly true, many volunteers get sufficient training and gather enough
experience to do all those tasks, and do them well.

A familiar false forced-choice argument came from those who don't want DJs
filling the airwaves with idle comments about their preferences or reading
liner notes between selections. Some highly specialized programs (like
Hazen Schumacher's "Jazz Revisited") do include good commentary and
educational information, but no one is calling for all programs to be this
way, let alone for inane banter. As one writer put it, "I don't need to
know how knowledgeable or cool the DJ is, just who's playing what." Time
it, folks. In about 30 seconds you can give the name of the tune, the
leader and sidemen on a combo record (soloists on a big band track), label,
and date of the session. Enough for a listener to say, "Yes, I dug that and
want to get the CD."

Then there was the lazy sumbitch argument: If you don't have the attention
span to wait to the end of a set, or if you have to leave the radio for
some reason, you can call the station. The DJ or other genial person will
gladly tell you all you want to know. With some stations, you can go to
their website for their playbill.

But many Track-ID advocates reported that in the real world, they've been
given no information or wrong information when calling in. And besides, why
should a listener have  to make a call or go on-line? For everyone who
looks up the number and plays the odds that the station will be responsive,
there must be dozens who remain frustrated. (I'm among those who've been
put on eternal hold, brushed off, or given bad info.) And even when an
individual calls in successfully, the artists still get less name exposure
and poorer communication about their work to the larger audience.

The obvious solution--announcing after each track--apparently goes against
a prevailing dogma about "uninterrupted music" among some programmers and
broadcasters. In this market-based argument, it's assumed that listeners
will change the station if an announcer "interrupts" between each song to
give a few seconds of relevant information. This might have been true of
general audiences at some time, but I know of no research that answers key
questions about how jazz audiences react to Track ID.

Jazz audiences, like classical music lovers, tend to be serious listeners.
"They thirst for short but full information," one respondent said. As for
casual jazz listeners, another wrote, "they need to be CULTIVATED as a jazz
audience" to ensure a continuing fandom. Another typical comment: "When I
was growing up, I learned about the music and musicians by listening to the
intros and outros." It's incredibly short-sighted to think that  listeners
will stay with the music or the station if their interest in jazz stays at
the level of hip mood music.


Ironically, the market-based argument for Set ID is parallel to a genuinely
high-minded concern for quality programming stated by several DJs. A
truisim about radio--i.e., radio is programming-- is elevated to a mystique
of the DJ as artiste.  Let me acknowledge up front that developing a fluent
and coherent set of tracks for an evening of programming can be a marvelous
skill. Insight and sensitivity are involved in putting together sequences
of recordings that evoke moods, provide contrasts, and cover an interesting
range of artists. But there's no contradiction between great programming
and low-keyed announcements between the tracks in a set. It's magical
thinking to hold that brief Track ID blows the mood to all hell and throws
the listener into the audio equivalent of coitus interruptus.

It's sad when devotion to Set ID freezes into ideology, and it's appalling
when the genuine craft of developing sets is equated to the art of jazz
performance. One DJ claimed that "radio is just like jazz, just like film,
just like literature, an art form....I know to a certainty that's what it
is when I do the programming." Another combined presumption with arrogance,
writing of "the artistic integrity of the jazz set...high art....It's like
the jazz DJ is improvising jazz." Those who criticize Set ID are victims of
"complete and utter lunacy...laboring under some sort of delusion." We need
to "get hip to what jazz is," then we'll "understand why jazz sets are the
ONLY way to correctly broadcast jazz." Jazz listeners "absolutely, totally,
and without question" prefer Set ID. To think otherwise is "anti-jazz,
anti-art, and flat out badheaded."

Am I missing something here? Admittedly, I've never been a jazz
broadcaster, but I've selected and sequenced live performance sets and jazz
and poetry concerts, both as a producer and performer. That's lovely work,
but I've never equated the fascinating mechanics of programming with the
art of performance. I've put together literary anthologies, too, but I've
never confused myself with William Faulkner.

Honestly, I believe that the DJs who ego-trip about the art of set-making
need to go back to the original DJ metaphor. It stands for "disk jockey."
You are riding the horse of the disk, you aren't the disk itself, much less
the artists whose talents you depend upon. There are great jockeys and poor
jockeys, but without horses there would be no jockeys at all, just skinny
guys with riding crops. Show the proper regard for the art and the
livelihood of the musicians who make your work possible.


It's apparent that musicians and highly devoted jazz fans favor Track ID. A
simple experiment might get an initial  take on how other jazz listeners
feel. Set ID broadcasters might move without comment to low-keyed Track ID
for three weeks or more, and see if complaints, congrats, or no comments at
all come in.

But for a larger picture, some well-designed research is needed. Research
that doesn't lean towards preferred conclusions, as would be the case if
DJs posed the question explicitly to their own predisposed listeners.
Research that distinguishes between the preferences of jazz audiences and
other listeners--pop/easy listening/nostalgia, etc.--for whom
"uninterrupted music" was created decades ago. Research that discovers the
kinds of announcements actually seen as intrusive (basic ID, DJ commentary,
commercials, public service announcements, etc.). I hope that JJA or
university communications departments will put this on future agendas. A
lot depends on challenging the "time-tested" (read: unexamined) idea that
Set ID, a ripple from the past, is the wave of the future.

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