Jazz Update From WBEZ

Whither the fate of jazz programming at WBEZ? Nervous jazz hounds have wondered ever since the controversial departure last September of program director Ken Davis, who’d proposed scrapping music for an all-news-and-talk format. Since then, WBEZ’s mail to members has been painfully soothing on the topic, though it never denied change was afoot. New program director Torey Malatia, a former WLS producer, arrived in July. With the strains of this year’s Jazz Fest barely extinguished, we checked with Malatia to see where jazz stands at WBEZ.

The gist of his comments was that a revamped music format could be on the air by early 1994, with or without jazz. Malatia says he won’t consider dumping music altogether until a new music format goes through an on-air trial period of six months to a year.

Malatia describes current ‘BEZ music programming as “attempting to please everybody at some time somewhere,” with a schedule that offers “everything short of chain-saw rock ‘n’ roll.” He wants to “unify and concentrate” the programming, choosing one or two styles of music for a format that’s not duplicated in Chicago and keeping it consistent over seven days instead of just five. “That’s part of our mission, to produce a service to the public-radio listener that’s unique,” he says.

Many, of course, would argue that jazz programming is a unique service. “There’s not a lot on the air,” says WBEZ jazz host Neil Tesser. He quickly dismisses WNUA–“WNUA thinks they do jazz all the time, but they don’t really do jazz any of the time.” That leaves Harvey station WBEE as the only full-time jazz station, with a signal audible only on the south side. As for the part-time jazz programming at College of DuPage station WDCB, Tesser says “they aren’t good at” mixing new releases with older recordings and giving a sense of the music’s evolution. Fellow WBEZ jazz host Dick Buckley agrees, and champions his classic-jazz listeners. Stations like WDCB, he says, “sometimes seem so interested to play the new releases, I wonder if they really listen to what they’re playing. ‘Course, I’m an old curmudgeon. If they want to hear mainstream jazz, what I play, then there’s really nowhere else.”

Jazz hounds can hang their hopes on this: Malatia says if any music category has a slight advantage, it’s jazz and blues. He agrees that the other area jazz programming doesn’t add up to a full-time service, and its long history at WBEZ also makes jazz “one of the major players in this discussion.”

Demographics will also play a role. Any new music format’s target audience would be the audience for National Public Radio, since over 50 percent of the station’s schedule is NPR news, says Malatia. That means an audience aged 25 to 49. Malatia is a little uncomfortable talking about exactly which programs draw the target audience already, but he allows that “Afropop Worldwide,” “Blues Before Sunrise,” and the 9-11 PM weeknight jazz show, which alternates between Tesser and Chris Heim and features more contemporary music, are all strong with these listeners.

So what about Dick Buckley? When pressed, Malatia admitted Buckley draws a “more mature” audience. For programs that aren’t hitting the desired demographics, Malatia says he asks this question: Is it because of the music or because of the approach? The success of “Blues Before Sunrise,” which features classic archival blues, shows that old records can appeal to young listeners, he says. If that show can do it, then “I think we can work with Dick so that he could, while still keeping the target he presently has, make it inclusive of a target that’s younger.”

Malatia hastens to add that nothing’s been decided. He’s in the midst of an “ongoing dialogue” with the staff and the audience. The audience gets its say through monthly on-air management call-in sessions (September’s was this past Tuesday) and the public comment period during quarterly meetings of the station’s community advisory board. The next advisory board meeting is Wednesday, September 22, at 4 PM at the American Library Association’s second-floor offices at 50 E. Huron, and Malatia hopes for a large public turnout.

Standing By at the Goodman

“don’t really understand what the problem is.” Goodman Theatre press director Cindy Bandle was confused when we called to ask about the Goodman’s policy on standby tickets for sold-out shows. The “problem” is simply an annoyance. We just don’t get why Goodman box-office employees guard information about standby tickets better than a shipment of plutonium.

The standby procedure involves several hours’ waiting on the hard bench (or floor) in the Goodman lobby before a performance, hoping a subscriber will cancel. The certainty of one’s butt falling asleep is enough to deter all but the most desperate theatergoers–like us before the final performance of Gray’s Anatomy last Sunday.

A phone conversation with the box office on Saturday was filled with long, unhappy silences on the box-office side as our questions about standby tickets were apparently put through a mental Freedom of Information Act review. When we arrived on Sunday to wait, the box-office attendant was clearly alarmed. During the morning, several Gray fans entered, learned the show was sold out, and were discouraged enough by box-office employees to leave. But by 11:30 eight fans were defiantly choosing to stay for the 2:30 show, all expressing rank bitterness toward the box office’s tight lips.

“I think the box office was erring on the side of concern for potential customers,” said Bandle. Gray, she said, was part of a small (three-show) series with minuscule subscriber cancellations. “They don’t want hordes and hordes of people to come down….They don’t want you to get mad by endorsing your coming down and trying to get a ticket [unsuccessfully].”

Our horde of eight, it turned out, all got into the show. This particular horde member lucked out by snatching up an early cancellation from the first row, and spent the performance happily calculating the trajectory of Spalding Gray’s voluminous spit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.