Mixed Signals

In the late 20s blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson performed on the streets of Dallas for pocket change, but rarely did he sing about his financial woes. The one exception among his recorded works is the 1926 One Dime Blues, in which he moaned, “I’m broke and I ain’t got a dime / Everybody gets this hard luck sometime.” The Chicago DJ most likely to play that song on the radio has recently found that he’s no exception.

Steve Cushing’s Blues Before Sunrise has been a fixture of late-night Chicago radio for more than 16 years, but thanks to National Public Radio’s shrinking coffers, fundamental changes in NPR’s satellite network, and WBEZ’s changing goals, the DJ has decided that producing the show independently of the station is the only way to secure its future. This Sunday’s program will be the last to originate from WBEZ. Cushing figures on financing the show out-of-pocket for the next five months, but beyond that he’ll be at the mercy of potential underwriters.

Cushing studied radio broadcasting at Columbia College for three years and did a blues show at the Triton College station, WRRG, in the late 70s, until he was hired as an operating engineer by WBEZ in 1979. He conceived Blues Before Sunrise shortly thereafter, and by June 1980 WBEZ agreed to air it. He freely admits to modeling the show after Dick Buckley’s Jazz Forum. “Buckley’s my broadcast idol,” Cushing says. “He’s personable, he talks in a casual manner, he’s very knowledgeable about the music, and he shares that knowledge and plays the music.”

Cushing’s focus, like Buckley’s, is on the music’s heritage–you won’t hear the latest Buddy Guy cuts on his show. But he covers the prerock blues spectrum with unmatched depth and breadth. He delivers the expected doses of Delta blues and postwar Chicago blues, but vocal harmonizers like the Mills Brothers and Delta Rhythm Boys and the jump bands of Lucky Millinder and Tiny Bradshaw get equal time. In fact, Cushing is such a strict historian that he’s occasionally been criticized for playing songs now deemed politically incorrect. His knowledge and understanding of how the music progressed year to year, however, is unimpeachable.

The program was originally heard only on Saturdays, in the midnight-to-five slot it still occupies, but in 1985 it began running on Sundays as well. In September 1990, the show was offered to other NPR stations via satellite. “I’d been badgering [then program director] Ken Davis to put me on the satellite,” says Cushing. “I had been making an OK living at this, but I figured I could get a real career going if I was on the network.” Most programs on WBEZ, from Morning Edition to All Things Considered, are plucked off the satellite. All NPR member stations have downlink devices, which receive the programs, but until earlier this year WBEZ was one of a handful with an uplink, the device that sends programs to the satellite. Because most of the records Cushing plays were recorded in mono the show could be sent to the satellite on a single channel (stereo programs demand two), which halved the satellite costs. Also, while most of the news programs on NPR are made available as part of an expensive operating package, Blues Before Sunrise could be offered for free. “We did the show very cheaply,” Cushing says. “We didn’t spend a penny to promote it. We just sent it up there and let it sail.” Fifty-eight stations eventually picked the program up.

Cushing’s luck began to turn in 1993, with the arrival of controversial current program director and general manager Torey Malatia. “Ever since he showed up he has been telling me that the WBEZ alliance board has been wanting to pull the plug on my satellite program,” says Cushing. “He’s been battling for my cause, but earlier this year he told me [the show] needed to cover the satellite costs.” Cushing found salvation in Bob Koester, owner of Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records, who coughed up the necessary $7,500. Not much later, though, NPR upgraded to a digital satellite system. New receivers were distributed to all member stations, and money was allocated to buy a new uplink for the Chicago market. Unfortunately, because it had relocated to Navy Pier, WBEZ ran up against FCC regulations–the satellite signal would have interfered with others in the same range. The equipment was instead installed at WFMT, a commercial classical station on the northwest side. NPR couldn’t pick up the cost of connecting the uplink to Navy Pier via phone lines, and WFMT exercised its prerogative to mark up its uplink services. Going through WFMT would have tripled Cushing’s satellite expenses; he chose instead to pay to use the NPR uplink in Washington, D.C., which merely doubled them.

At the end of the station’s fiscal year in September, Malatia offered Cushing four options: stop the show, revert to local only, keep the show syndicated but charge stations $50 a month, or go independent. Malatia pushed for the third option, but a casual survey found that half the stations would drop the show if they had to pay for it. (After paying NPR’s membership dues and programming fees, most stations can’t afford shows that aren’t free.) Cushing chose the fourth option. He’ll buy the satellite time himself and produce the program somewhere other than the WBEZ studio. He and Koester have considered doing it from Jazz Record Mart, recalling a 50s tradition of broadcasting from record shops. WBEZ plans to pick up the show on Saturdays, but will replace it with a contemporary blues show on Sundays.

“I’m real optimistic,” says Cushing. “I know I just have to find money–I don’t have to deal with station politics anymore.” Cushing is planning a benefit for the show on October 20 at B.L.U.E.S.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Steve Cushing, by Mark PoKempner.